There have been protests across the United States demanding that states “re-open” their non-essential businesses as part of a concerted, conservative push to re-open the American economy. While it’s true that millions are suffering economically and emotionally as we shelter in place, this push brings forth a terrifying, eugenics-laden question of “when is it safe enough to risk death for my benefit?”
Meanwhile, just yesterday, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health and the top infectious disease expert in the country, warned that “there is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control… some suffering and death could be avoided but could set you back on the road to trying to get economic recovery,” according to the New York Times.
Those protesting stay-at-home orders are overwhelmingly white, often heavily armed, and complain that social distancing measures have gone too far. The cost of not being able to get their hair done or eat a reheated hamburger at Denny’s is just not worth any further lowering of the rate of infection to them.
This brings up two moral philosophical questions: First, whose lives and which deaths are valued, and second, what limits do we self-impose on our fight against human suffering?
The scary eugenics of premature opening
The core element of these protests and the politicians who agree with them is that they’re willing to risk some death to get back to their daily routines and to allow business owners to demand their employees show up to work. These are both opinions based on exploitation.
As anyone who worked in the service industry would tell you, most of these middle-class, white, middle-aged protesters are the exact same people for whom servers don’t register as a human. It then follows that these people would feel safe getting their hair cut or their nails done because they personally don’t fear for their safety — and have absolutely no concern about the safety of the people in those workplaces.
Even if they try to claim that they wish no harm on those workers; that they simply disbelieve all medical experts and believe they are in no danger, the protesters have already decided that their feeling of “getting back to normal” ought to take precedence over workers’ fear for their safety.
Then there’s the economic question about “getting back to work.” Yes, those out of work need money to feed their families. But that can be done through government aid, unemployment, rent cancellation, and myriad other solutions that are unpopular with corporations, business owners, and free-market politicians.
By re-opening the economy, we’re also putting already suffering American workers into yet another precarious position – with bosses able to open shop again, they will have to choose between going into work and risk infection or continue to practice social distancing and lose those jobs.
One of the most insidious parts of this consideration is its callous disregard with the frontline workers who will be put most at risk who are already on the margins of society.
Service industry workers will be forced to serve food, touch hair, grasp hands, work alongside, and generally be within six feet of hundreds of different people in a day. The U.S. is already struggling with providing enough PPE, or personal protective equipment, for health care workers. The lives and jobs of food service workers, for instance, are not as valued in society as doctors; there will be no mask-making drives to ensure nail technicians have the PPE they deserve. Because, according to dominant neoliberal ideology, if they wanted better treatment, they would get a better job.
Most of these frontline service industry workers, as I’ve already outlined in another coronavirus article, are BIPOC. All of them are making less than a livable wage. As states “re-open” and they go back to work, we’re sending the signal that while we find their jobs essential, their lives are not.
But, isn’t it safe to go back to normal?
Again, as the discourse of disabled activists taught me, there is no “normal.” There’s only the old normal, the new normal, and the future normal. Culture will never be exactly the same after coronavirus.
It’s tragically American that now that we’ve become bored with the news of the coronavirus and are tired of staying inside, it feels like the country just collectively decided that we’re over it. People are heading to beaches, to get haircuts and to parks en masse.
My apartment building has the misfortune to have been where the first person to die from COVID-19 in D.C. lived. And just last week, I noticed that about half the days I went to check my mail, there were emergency vehicles outside. I have no way of knowing how many people have been infected in the building, but in speaking with other tenants, many have fallen ill and some employees of the building have been hospitalized.
But it’s easy to ignore if your transportation is a personal car. Or if you live in a building where most of the residents have the privilege to telecommute or simply not work. Or if you own your own home, something that’s simply unattainable for many millennials saddled with student debt and others trapped in the monstrous machine we call poverty.
There will most certainly be a second wave of this virus if history is any indication. The flu pandemic of 1918, or the Spanish Flu, experienced a deadly second wave, partially because American and European leaders were unwilling to impose quarantine during a wartime effort.
We need to be prepared for the virus to come back in the fall, and it will be worse if we relax distancing measures as it begins spreading again.
The solutions we refuse to enact
These protests claim that people not being able to be paid is worse than the virus. In truth, both are bad; both are potentially deadly for those affected. Not being able to afford necessary medicine, food and shelter are just as dire as falling seriously ill. However, working and having an income is not necessarily the same thing.
Congress could decide to send direct payments to all Americans to supplement wages lost from work. We could enact a universal basic income in response to the virus. But there’s no political urgency to this solution because it threatens the ecosystem of desperate people agreeing to work underpaid jobs in order to survive.
Another dark facet of the rush to “re-open” America is the push to get workers off unemployment who are making MORE through that aid than they did at their jobs.
That’s not to say that all unemployed people are thriving. Not every unemployed person can get benefits; in some states, very few unemployed people get them. America’s uninsurance system is broken, often by design, after years of mismanagement, underfunding and needlessly complicated and limited requirements.
While some states like California will have some protections in place for workers who refuse to go back to work if they feel unsafe, states with conservative governors do not.
Neoliberal, capitalist thinking along with the ever-so American wealth gospel and work obsession are killing us. We are unwilling to simply provide workers with the resources they need to survive for fear that they won’t have the incentive – that is, total economic ruin and starvation – to go back to their low-paying, low-status jobs. This fear of the other, of the worker, can be traced back throughout American history from the myth of the welfare queen to the Puritan’s belief that wealth equated to moral goodness and that leisure is the work of satanic forces.
The American economic system that grew from these ideologies only works when people are kept running on a hamster wheel for the privilege of existing; that’s why so many are panicked to get others “back to work”.
They’re panicked because others’ safety is an inconvenience for their daily lives; they’re panicked because they’re forced to face mortality; they’re panicked because some workers are able to enjoy the privilege of leisure so often hoarded by the upper classes; and they’re panicked because instead of a country to invade or a group to scapegoat, the enemy here is capitalism.
I’ve lost count of how many days we’ve lost as many or more people to COVID-19 than we did on 9/11, but instead of uniting as a country and allowing our collective rage plunge us into a needless war that saw countless others killed, we’re in a state of paralysis. It’s much easier to say “go attack those bad people” than to realize “Our economy and broken health care system are predicated upon human suffering”.
There will never be a back to normal for any of us. There will only be an “old normal” and a “new normal.” Let’s fight not for the way things were, but for a future in which no worker is paid less than they need to live, no corporation or billionaire can run away with gross amounts of wealth and power, and no company is allowed to destroy the planet in the single-minded pursuit of capital.
- Reimagining a Sustainable Post-COVID-19 World
- #TogetherAtHome: How Humanity is Coming Together in the Face of COVID-19 Pandemic
- Quarantine and Pandemic Lockdowns Lead to Reduced Pollution Around the World
- #StayTheFuckHome: Help Flatten the Curve and Stop the COVID-19 Pandemic
- 20 Eco-Friendly Things To Do During Self-Quarantine and Pandemic Lockdown
- Racism in the Time of a Pandemic
- 4 Ways You Can Strengthen Your Mental Resilience Today
Cover image by Edmond Dantès.