I think the roadblock I’ve been having is that I’ve been trying to select one topic at a time and try to isolate and write about each one, and I get stuck in decision paralysis because there are simply too many, and here’s the thing: the things I want to talk about are all interrelated. They feel personal, too personal to talk about. At the same time, from what I’m seeing, everyone is experiencing them in some way. Everyone is impacted by food, shelter, and health care. All of these things are being scrutinized for their readiness to handle a global pandemic.
Some countries are right in the middle of it, with thousands dead. Many don’t remember the last major pandemic. But how would I know? I learned about the Spanish Flu in the middle of all this. I was homeschooled by Trump supporters, who taught their children that medicine is unnecessary and let us get whooping cough and chicken pox out of medical ignorance, treating it with herbal remedies instead of getting us proper treatment. They didn’t teach me anything about pandemic history, because you cannot teach what you refuse to know.
Health care was never viewed as a genuine human right in my family growing up. It was something we took care of, genuinely, with prayer. These are the people in power in my country. White people with the advantage of wealth and good genes are naturally healthier than those whose populations we have impoverished and robbed of life with our violence. The majority of white people are conservatives who think we have class solidarity with the ultra-rich, when they will happily watch us die brutally, struggling to breathe without anyone available to help or be with us.
As many other people are pointing out in various places around the internet, COVID-19 is only serving to lay bare for the average citizen how little the people in power have our interests in mind. And by “our,” I mean the 99.9% of us who are being exploited by the 0.01%. I always add a decimal because the ultra-rich are so far outpacing the rich, most 1% members make less than half a million dollars, and they work for it.
I have so many friends who can’t work at all, still waiting and wondering if their food stamps and disability benefits will be cut by our deadly administration, if they can even get through the line to get approved for disability benefits in the first place. Then there are the majority of my friends, who are working service jobs, wondering if they’ve already been exposed as they serve thousands of customers who should be staying the fuck home instead of eating out and still getting Starbucks.
Countless stories have poured out on social media, people afraid to lose hours at work because they won’t be able to make rent. The threat of homelessness is very real – it’s but a month away for most of the poor, living off minimum-wage jobs. There is simply not enough to prepare for an emergency, and we are in crisis. By the Federal Reserve’s estimate, about 12% of Americans wouldn’t be able to pay their monthly bills if faced with a $400 emergency. Another 27% would need to borrow money or sell something to make it work. I’m included in that, but I’m also part of a third group: I am supported by sponsors who are willing to help me make ends meet, as I practice the art of asking and the process of creating. That third group also includes anyone who’s doing what capitalists call a “side hustle”: over 900,000 Uber drivers (who don’t have protections as employees because they are being exploited as “contractors”), millions of freelancers, millions with second or third part-time jobs.
Those of us at the bottom, we make up what they call the “working class” and “underclass.” While we live under the assumption that hard work leads to wealth, the history of this country is a testament to the opposite: it was built with the unpaid labor of enslaved people, and they have never gotten their due reparations. It remains in place because the 0.01% hoard a vast majority of the wealth that the rest of us produce for them. The rich have convinced us that we will someday accumulate what they have, through honest hard work.
Rightfully, many of the people I know are angry. Why now, when we’ve been saying that we’re sick and cannot support ourselves for many years, is public health suddenly a concern? The only answer is that the rich are losing their money. A global pandemic means their illusion of stability can fall.
The reason economists are so confused right now is that they are trying to look at the economy as a whole, rather than dividing it up between the 99.9% and the 0.01%. When the rich are factored out, everything looks different. Money becomes what it has always been for the rest of us: a matter of food and shelter and health care, or, staying alive. That’s not what it means for the rich. Yet it was deemed necessary, last week, to pour $1.5 trillion into the upper economy – not to make our livelihoods accessible to us, but to make sure the rich didn’t lose too much money. We live under the assumption that it is the rich who hold our economy together, when it is exactly the opposite. As Barbara Ehrenreich said in her 2001 bestseller Nickel and Dimed,
“When someone works for less pay than she can live on – when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently – then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some of her abilities, her health, and her life. The ‘working poor,’ as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.”
When the rich declare that the economy has recovered since 2008, they are referring to themselves – their profits have increased more than ever before. They aren’t talking about those who are working for too little to live on, much less thrive on, while they shamelessly pollute with their extravagantly expensive lifestyles. I feel like I’m using this crisis to talk about what’s been important long before the crisis, but now it is more important than ever to call the system out for the bullshit it is. It’s designed to rob us of our own productivity, our own value as human beings, that which belongs to us.
To me, it is terribly odd that people seem to agree that price gouging in a crisis is a bad thing. Amazon cracked down on it, the New York Times tells us in the opening line of an article about a man who now infamously tried to mark up the price of over 17,000 bottles of hand sanitizer. But where are those who will point out that Amazon has been price gouging the entire market for two decades, so now it has a near monopoly on shipped online purchases, making its creator the richest man in history?
Now we are facing an economic decline that is unprecedented. The rich have never had so far to fall, and fall they shall. Don’t lose sight of the divided economy – the lower one will recover under a new set of rules, ones that respect our dignity and right to lives not threatened by the prospect of homelessness, and the upper one may never “recover” to the glories defined by capitalism.
COVID-19 feels personal because it is, for all of us. It threatens all of us, globally, and here in the United States, people are not adequately prepared because our human rights are in an abysmal state. Those who can afford to are distancing themselves. Those who cannot afford to do so risk exposure. Soon we will find out who has been infected. My slim hope, and it is very slim, is this: our response will teach us a better way to care for each other.