How COVID-19 Magnifies Economic and Racial Disparities
Yesterday, April 25th, my 72 year old mother informed me that she would be returning to work as a home health aide for two elderly sisters in a nearby New Jersey suburb. Three weeks prior, another aide had tested positive for the coronavirus, and since then my mother had been home isolating. My response to her announcement was swift and pained, and I angrily sent her a litany of reasons why the risk was not worth the reward. But then, reward is not the right word. Reward implies something extra achieved, icing, the cherry; but for my mother, the risk was actually not worth the much needed income.
A couple days prior, the wealthy family in TriBeCa for which I babysit on weekends tried to offer my services to a family in quarantine upstate, mentioning how they are “going crazy with the kids,” and offering private transportation on their behalf. However, when she found out I had roommates, suddenly the need for me dried up. I was poor enough to posit risking my health in the name of another wealthy pal’s sanity, but like most of us poor folk, shared spaces are the only way I can afford to live in such an expensive metropolis. I was relieved to be relinquished from that request, but the experience left a bitter taste in my mouth.
I have often wondered what would have happened if, when I was displaced from my apartment this past October, I had no friends or family to take me in. Two weeks into lockdown, as I was walking from the grocery store around the corner, I observed a homeless man rustling through garbage, seemingly unaware of the biological threat that could be lingering anywhere. The moment begged the question: where do you shelter-in-place if you have no shelter? For many New Yorkers, the subway system has become a mobile home of sorts. Pictures and reports of unsanitary cars are rife with the homeless, feces, and urine. Since the MTA has rolled back its regularly scheduled train services, less available cars has only caused more crowded trains, leaving essential workers at risk. Governor Cuomo criticized the MTA’s initiative to sanitize every 72 hours, calling it inadequate, and the MTA is moving to criminalize homeless people living in train cars. While Mayor DeBlasio has promised to provide shelter, it is unclear how or where, and advocates for the homeless have suggested measures taken are not enough, asking that hotels open their doors to allow for safe social distancing. The blame seems to shift based on who you talk to, but no one has implemented solutions to a problem exacerbated by COVID-19.
Meanwhile, black Americans make up the largest percent of COVID-19 deaths. America has a long legacy of exploiting people of color and racial bias in medicine, often their ailments minimized and are refused adequate care. New York City, which takes pride in being a “sanctuary city”, hides beneath its title systems of inequality that fails communities of color massively. And healthcare, on the practitioners part, seems to be optional for black patients. ABC News recently reported multiple cases of racial bias, citing one case where an asthmatic teacher in Brooklyn was denied care twice before being admitted for severe breathing issues. Despite being admitted on her third attempt, she died after having to be intubated for 30 days. Patients who die from COVID-19 are without friends or family in order to contain the contagion, a devastation for any family who loses a member. This is just one story of many, and recent statistics compiled from 36 states show that black Americans account for 28.4 percent of COVID-19-related deaths, compared to 10.7 percent attributed to whites. Blacks also make up 22 percent of the population living in poverty, compared to whites comprising 9 percent. Income and healthcare are inextricably linked, as are race and income, and while I hesitate to say these correlations are also causation, it is my experience they are.
While some Americans take social distancing seriously, reports of protestors are popping up across the US, as pictures of people holding American flags and assault rifles protesting the lockdown fill my newsfeed. The most memorable image was that of a nurse, arms folded, blocking an SUV as a woman hangs out of the passenger side, presumably yelling for her personal freedoms protected by The First Amendment. The issue of protesting government mandates is complex, and highlights a multitude of socioeconomic disparity, white privilege, and the advent of fake news. Science is an optional consideration, embodied by our President and Vice President. Images of a maskless Pence at the Mayo Clinic both reinforce this notion, and infuriate those who are clear about the present dangers, while others gather in groups of defiance.
Who deserves life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? In the era of the One Percent, it seems that race and income are the great qualifiers. I spoke to a friend in Texas who considers himself an individualist, debating whether or not lockdowns are federal overreach and a violation of the First Amendment. It was slightly heated, but as I laid out my concerns he seemed to agree, both sociologically and psychologically. He then admitted he too was scared, and that he, like everyone, is in the dark and doesn't know what the right thing to do actually is. I then asked if, as an individualist, he was happy and felt his life had meaning. His answer was an unequivocal “no.” Perhaps, I said, doing what is best for the least of us is actually better for the individual in the long run. No amount of money, no amount of cars or houses or clothing, can account for a meaningful life. And life, without meaning, can feel hopeless. It is the Conundrum of American Capitalism: as the unhappiness mounts, we look for validation outside ourselves by way of consumerism and displaying affluence, only to find they cannot fill the void of meaninglessness.
I called my mother on April 27th to plead again with her not to return to work. It took seconds for me to devolve into rageful tears, yelling into the phone that if we weren’t poor, we wouldn’t be expected to risk our health for the sake of rich people, that she was my closest family and what would I do if she got sick? How would I get to her from Queens? What would I do if she died? She hung up, saying she needed a minute, and when she called back I was relieved to hear she wasn’t going in after all. Her boss, a volunteer paramedic, had reassured her all measures of safety were being taken, but neglected to mention that two other aides have been taking public transportation to get to work.
After Governor Cuomo announced the need to social distance and isolate, I received a text from the mother of the two boys I help with five days a week. She wrote, “In terms of financial considerations, please do not worry. Our intention is that so long as we (her and her husband) are both employed, we will continue to pay you your regular compensation on a weekly basis… These are truly extraordinary times, but we will get through them together.” Two weeks later I received a Venmo payment from the family I work for on weekends, with the note “paying it forward.” It is not lost on me how unbelievably fortunate I am to have the security I have. And it is not lost on me that my life, all our lives, should be imbued with those two sentiments: together we are stronger, and kindness, in its profundity, is the currency of indivisibility, liberty, and justice for all.