Photo from the public domain.
Lily Nevo; Bryn Mawr, PA—
Optimism during a time of relentless crisis is a mere band-aid over a gash. It would be useless and, quite frankly, dishonest of me to spend my time spewing inspirational one-liners about how we will emerge from this pandemic stronger than ever.
Ironically, what does bring me hope is that for the first time in decades, not one, but two plagues have swept the country. Hand in hand with COVID-19 and its destruction is one of the most pronounced displays of the pitfalls of our country that is finally chipping away at the fortification of American exceptionalism.
Now, I am not here to advocate for a constant feeling of existential dread nor do I suddenly want to void you of patriotism. But, I would like to speak honestly and realistically about the state of our country. As I hope most of us have come to realize, the U.S. was blindsided by the demands of fighting a pandemic. We have nearly twice as many cases as the next most infected country, we are testing only a fraction of the number of people who need to be tested daily and governors continue to fight for medical and financial resources from the federal government. It is important to remember that the U.S. entered the crisis with advantages: examples from other countries, the best scientific researchers in the world and money, yet somehow we have become the epicenter of the pandemic. You simply cannot assert that a country with this sort of privilege and this sort of failure is still the leader of the free world.
Yet even when hospitals can provide care, medical bills do not disappear because of mass unemployment and the instability of an employer-based healthcare system is exposed. With almost half of the country reliant on employer-provided insurance, many Americans have lost coverage when they need it most. Furthermore, according to the Pew Research Center, half of low-income Americans have lost their job or part of their income, proving that those most vulnerable are once again the ones who suffer the most.
Don’t be fooled—those who have been deemed “essential” workers are not the lucky ones either. Among them are farmworkers, of whom the majority are undocumented immigrants. Ironically, an administration that has taken every opportunity to dehumanize immigrants has now been forced to acknowledge their enormous contribution to the economy. Particularly in this time when bare supermarket shelves are common, farmworkers should be appreciated more than ever. Yet be weary of taking this acknowledgment as a step towards expanded immigrants’ rights. Hand in hand with the government’s dependence on immigrant labor is the suggestion that the health and safety of the workers themselves is not worth protecting.
It is often forgotten that social distancing is a privilege. Jobs in the service industry can obviously not be done from home, so hourly-wage earners do not receive any income. According to the Economic Policy Institute, less than 20 percent of Black workers are able to work from home. Thus they are forced to choose between potentially not providing for their family or potentially getting infected. It is therefore no surprise that Black Americans have seen disproportionate rates of infection. In Illinois, 27% of those who have died and 16%of those who have tested positive for the virus are Black, yet Black Americans make up merely 15% of the state’s population. In Louisiana, 49% of people who have died from coronavirus are Black.
Pre-existing conditions worsen the effects of the coronavirus, but this doesn’t just include asthma. It includes diabetes, unaffordable healthcare, poverty and racial disparity. Though according to the Center for Disease Control, Black Americans are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, the disproportionately high death rates are not caused by biological differences. They are due to decades of structural inequality. The virus does not discriminate. People do.
While the effects of the virus will pass and the economy will bounce back, the precedents set during this time will last forever. Therefore, almost scarier than the virus itself is the way the government has used it to bypass fundamental checks of democracy. On April 6th, the Supreme Court blocked Wisconsin Democrats’ attempt to postpone their primary election because the coronavirus prevented many people from receiving their absentee ballots and thus prevented them from voting. Even those who could vote, were forced to do so at the risk of getting sick. Such blatant disenfranchisement follows a conservative trend during this pandemic of disrupting the constitutional balance of power. For instance, on April 13th, Trump boasted his “total authority” over governors, which is arguably what the Constitution foremost prevents. Or, along similar lines of absolute power, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, in total contradiction to Roe v. Wade, banned all abortions in his state as they are deemed “unessential.” The most sacred pillar of American Exceptionalism is democracy, and these events show nothing but that it is crumbling.
So the question remains. What do we need now? Love? I guess. Masks? Sure. Fundamental Social Change? Absolutely. Though the coronavirus has undeniably brought more heartbreak than most of us have witnessed in our lifetimes, it has also brought to light some of the most egregious examples of inequality in modern times. This country is only as strong as its most vulnerable, and if this pandemic has proven anything, it is that we are incredibly weak. This event exposes our vulnerabilities in such a way that even those who heavily subscribe to notions of American superiority are left skeptical, and we cannot let this go to waste. We must scream, we must march and we must vote, because centuries of injustice do not equalize themselves.