The Things We Carried: Three Lessons of the Coronavirus Crisis
In October of 2019, we as Americans were living our lives. Rich and poor, young and old: we were talking about the weather, making plans with our friends, absorbed in our own personal struggles and dreams. We were not preparing for a global pandemic altering lives in a way never before seen in the social media age. We were not stocking up on nonperishable food and retrofitting our homes with solar panels. We were not planning our garden plots and ordering water filters. As such, we emerged into a new world order with the socioeconomic toolbox of the average American: basically, with our pants down.
As the coronavirus crisis lengthens, even industries and individuals thought to be virtually untouchable have been butterfly-effected into a common sphere of experience. For the younger generations, this is the first event to divvy out an equal share of disruption among diverse regions and across great distances. Thanks to the role of technology, COVID-19 may be the subject of the greatest concentration of our collective consciousness in history. The permeation of fear and recalibration of entire social and financial systems have served to expose the flaws in the infrastructure of capitalism and how it measures human worth.
While the economic ramifications of shelter-in-place orders decrease the likelihood of a return to business as usual anytime soon, our nation remains petulantly engaged in a counterproductive longing for ‘the way things were’. Apart from being an unrealistic goal, this line of thinking holds us hostage to the hierarchies and imbalances that put us here in the first place. For the majority of voters, the disenfranchisement of the American people is self-evident, leading to a loss of civic engagement and overwhelming atmosphere of futility. Citizens in all parties largely consider our political process to be broken, with broadening undercurrents calling for actual revolution.
Historically, major change has never come in times of mild discomfort. It is often heralded with a precipitating event; and true revolution only occurs in response to an imminent threat. Prior to the current state of emergency, 38.1 million people in the U.S. were living below the poverty line, making less than $12,000/year1. In the wake of state and federal shutdown orders, an additional 16 million people have filed for unemployment in the past three weeks2. Nearly 60% of households in the U.S. make less than $75,000/year (according to 2020 data from Statista); the income limit to qualify for the Trump Administration’s full $1,200 in personal relief funds. By this sole determining factor, upwards of 73 million households are now not only uncomfortable, but fiscally unsafe.
It’s undebatable that all of America is worse off than it was before. But for the 99%, it is critical to remember that the way things were left a lot to be desired. COVID-19 has shown us that a societal foundation built on such a skewed distribution of power is precarious at best. In the aftermath, there are a few things we need to remember, that we will not make the same mistakes again.
1. Money is Useless.
Toilet paper crisis notwithstanding, inherent in the drive behind panic-buying is America’s sudden realization of how far removed we have become from the manufacturing process of nearly everything we consider to be ‘essential’. Industrialization has exported and stratified the production of consumer goods previously made in the home, in direct correlation with a family’s labor and/or close-knit social and economic relationships within a community. To increase efficiency, 21st- century manufacturers tend to restrict variation in what they produce, instead constantly refining a few ideologically similar products in order to maintain traction in their chosen field. As such, even the small percentage of the workforce actively employed in manufacturing or agriculture3 most likely possesses an in-depth understanding of their particular trade, but lacks the broader knowledge base required to be completely self-sufficient. Amid headlines touting supply chain disruptions and store closures, this matters to the average American now in a way that it hasn’t since World War II.
In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, we have put aside skills we used to need to keep ourselves and our families safe. With grocery stores importing produce from exotic climates year-round, we have no need to know what will grow seasonally by region, or how to preserve food from times of plenty in order to preempt scarcity. With the omnipresence of the internet, knowledge resources for nearly anything are available at the touch of a button. As libraries and bookstores are ordered to cease operation, we are forced to consider whether Silicon Valley’s children could function without the worldwide web.
In a fast-paced, interconnected, 24/7 society, one of the fastest growing trends has been a backlash against the holistic price of modern conveniences. Living off-grid, homesteading, minimalism, hygge: all are part of the push to return to what we affectionately refer to as “simpler times”. The time we no longer spend churning butter makes freedoms available to everyone that in earlier history would’ve been accessible to only a select few: the miracle of leisure time, as well as the freedom to develop a craft that in no way directly contributes to one’s physical survival (like, say, writing). But in our race for self-actualization, we have outrun a foundation we need.
Since the 1930s, abundance has been the first-world standard. The US dollar’s rise to power safeguarded America from the mutability of agricultural yields and the disastrous consequences of blight, infestation, and acts of God. In our youthful arrogance, we have failed to respect a lesson established by every empire before us — what goes up must come down. Times of plenty must provide for times of lack. When the chips are down, this is still a knowledge economy; and suddenly your off-grid neighbors raising chickens and keeping bees don’t look so crazy anymore.
2. Social Problems are Real Problems.
In early March of 2020, COVID-19 began to make its way off the cruise ships and into the forefront of American consciousness. As immunocompromised people began to voluntarily self-isolate and the first “flatten the curve” social media memes hit the scene, speculation began about a coordinated national response. Even in these preliminary stages of planning, it became immediately clear that a few key features of American ideology were finally playing their part in our undoing.
Our founding fathers were largely poor, mostly second sons who had little to return home to in England, with nothing to lose and everything to gain by braving adventure to seek their fortunes in the New World. In starting with a completely clean slate, they were the definition of self-made men; and accordingly also founded the notion that here, anyone could do anything, with enough determination and drive. The problem with slates is, they eventually become sullied, and the conditions of our America are no longer favorable to indiscriminate economic growth. As our nation has aged, the same entrenched social orders that barred access to its first citizens back home in Britain have taken root here. What has not changed is our formula for success: the victim-blaming, outdated ‘bootstraps’ model; an almost comically willful oversimplification so out of touch with reality that it would be laughed out of any respectable discussion of personal finance, were it not already an unimpeachable part of the dominant paradigm.
A casual glance at the monetary statements of U.S. lawmakers reveals an unsurprising correlation between income level and position of government, with the median net worth of Congresspersons at $456,522 in the year 20144: $359,222 above the median of all Americans in 20175. It logically follows that the American Myth would be perpetuated by the people it most benefits, shaping policies that favor those already in power, and subtly defusing dissent by keeping the middle and lower classes running in place, blaming themselves.
With over 550,000 people experiencing homelessness in America6 (the highest concentration of whom live in densely populated cities7), the homeless demographic is both glaringly obvious and easy to ignore. In any major city, their population is in the thousands; every town of a certain size has at least one or two residents without adequate shelter living on the streets. As accepted as their ubiquity, is their invisibility. Like any other aspect of a familiar path, the people sleeping in doorways on our drive home from work begin to blend into the scenery, and vanish as soon as we cross the threshold of our own comfortable houses.
That is, until now. The lockdown of all non-essential businesses and personnel in most states has placed America’s most literally exposed population in the spotlight like never before. As Peter Dybing, the Deputy Incident Commander for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, posed on social media March 9th: “A question for the Denver Community, where do 5000 homeless people go to isolate in the event they contract COVID-19?”. Amid headlines touting the cessation of dispersion orders, with hotel rooms and socially-distanced shelters springing up in their place, it’s important to note these policies’ origin. FEMA does allot funds to make provisions for the homeless in times of emergency, but private organizations have been almost solely responsible for prompting action by state and local governments. Dybing further commented that diminishing this extremely high-risk population’s access to the same measures mandated for everyone else endangers the safety of not only the homeless, but the general public.
Socialized medicine and universal healthcare have recently risen in prominence among progressive factions in the Democratic party, and have subsequently become one of the most significant barriers to cooperation in bipartisan government. However, in advance of this pandemic’s spread across the U.S., it became abundantly clear to both parties that our current healthcare model was ill-equipped to handle any kind of large-scale public health crisis. It’s no secret that as the only developed nation without universal healthcare, the U.S. is consistently ranked last among medical structures in the first world. Unsurprisingly, privatized, for-profit healthcare is powered by additional motives aside from keeping people well. According to Vox8, “We die more often of preventable causes”, because America’s healthcare system is focused on generating income — not preventative wellness. Additionally, the astronomical price of medical services in the United States inflates the cost of a medical degree. The higher salary of medical practitioners in specialty fields in the U.S. then diverts many in that direction in order to pay off their student loans. This has led to a shortage of primary care providers, intended to be the public’s first line of defense in diagnosing coronavirus-like symptoms9.
The for-profit model further spirals towards disaster in the shortage of available hospital beds at the inception of the coronavirus outbreak. The U.S. largely operates on the principles of lean economics, maximizing resources to optimize efficiency and increase productivity. Lean economics defines reserving resources in non-utilization to be inefficient, and economically wasteful. Prohibitive out-of-pocket costs coupled with a shortage of primary care and lack of emphasis on preventative wellness results in “higher rates of hospitalizations for chronic conditions that, with proper management, shouldn’t require the patient to go to the hospital” (Vox.com, “Coronavirus is Exposing All of the Weaknesses in the US Health System”). Accordingly, our beds are already full — and they were designed to be.
Given our cultural proponence of lean economics, it’s a bit ironic that financial experts recommend that Americans have 3–6 months’ worth of living expenses set aside in savings in case of an emergency10. While the cost of living in the United States varies widely between different regions, making it difficult to ascertain a country-wide average, one estimation by Expatistan places one month’s expenses for a single person at $2,65211. Thus, fiscal advisers in the U.S. say that the average American should have between $7,956 and $15,912 built into their daily operating costs. A January study by Bankrate said that only 41% of Americans would be able to cover a $1,000 emergency with savings, and the cost of the average American emergency is around $3,50012.
It all comes back to a living wage. Brookings’ 2019 study placed 44% of of the American workforce in low-wage jobs, with a median annual income of $18,00013 — barely $5,000 above the poverty level, and $31,000 below average. The oft-quoted line that most of America is one paycheck away from homelessness probably comes from the NORC study out of the University of Chicago, reporting that approximately two-thirds of households whose annual income was less than $30,000 “would be unable to cover basic living expenses after missing more than one paycheck”. In 2014, that’s 19.1% of Americans, excluding other race-based data14.
These individualistic, every-man-for-himself ideologies driven by the pursuit of personal financial gain and short-sighted compartmentalization originate in the obsolete delusion of America as a meritocracy. The belief that financially prosperous people are in some way morally or mentally superior establishes an alarming lack of empathy for those experiencing financial difficulty, which in fact is most of us. Our conviction that people in bad situations somehow deserve to be there keeps us suspended in purgatory, idolizing the upper class and failing to recognize that in our society, the miracle of the self-made man is very much the exception, not the rule. As medical emergencies account for the highest percentage of personal bankruptcy in the U.S.15, considerably more Americans may soon be in the position of depending upon the empathy of others for their own survival.
How does this relate to coronavirus? From a self-preservation perspective, the homeless are a walking contagion. Our healthcare system is unequipped to handle a crisis such as this because it was designed to make money, not keep people well. And the discrepancy between minimum wage and living wage in America is so great that very few of its citizens have been able to put away in savings anything near the recommended amount needed to withstand the kind of unemployment rates an extended economic shutdown is projected to produce. So-called ‘social problems’, while easy to overlook when not experiencing any of them personally, do not exist in a vacuum. Even the wealthiest portion of the population is not immune to economic collapse, and in order to support a healthy economy, people must have money to spend. The health of the individual is dependent upon the health of the collective.
3. What You Do Matters.
Apart from the literal separation we’re experiencing right now, there is a certain kind of separation inherent in American culture. Due in part to the rise of technology, it’s never been easier to self-isolate: we do it all the time. In addition to the aforementioned separation from our manufacturing processes, online anonymity makes it easier to view other people as separate from ourselves, contributing to a decrease in compassion in our physical lives. Heightened population, industrialization, globalization and the technologically-induced accelerated pace of life has dissolved local communities. A lack of community (here defined as familiarity with or knowledge of many individuals living, working, or regularly interacting in close geographical proximity) lends itself to a two-dimensional view of others, without allowance for the private circumstances or problems which inform all of our behavior in a public context.
Our economic system encourages separation between our values and the activities that occupy the majority of our waking lives; requiring us to work sometimes obscene hours in order to produce a paycheck that more often than not will perpetuate our survival, but leave little room for much else. The 2018 Gallup poll of 30,628 full- and part-time workers revealed a whopping 34% of Americans who described themselves as engaged in their jobs — with ‘engagement’ defined as “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace”16. The remaining 66% of us may be spending 40 hours a week feeling separate from ourselves — caught up in low-wage, rat race serfdom disconnected from our passions, skills, and ideas. In this day and age, it’s even possible to separate from reality completely; existing in a virtual sphere, populated by robots and humans alike.
Disease has often been called a great equalizer. While there’s some debate to that, if nothing else, this coronavirus pandemic has prompted a great unmasking. Levels of preparedness and types of response amongst nations, regions, levels of government, and communities have revealed how we spend our time when not faced with an immediate threat and where loyalties lie in times of war and times of peace. People in positions of power, usually nominal, are suddenly being called upon to actually lead.
At the same time, many members of the lowest-paid demographic of the American workforce, primarily filling jobs categorized as “unskilled” labor, have been bestowed the new honorary title of “essential workers”. With the exception of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare personnel, many of the positions classified as ‘essential’ are often looked down on, such as grocery clerks, delivery and truck drivers, janitors, maintenance workers, and transit employees. America’s conscious or subconscious derision for people in these professions is revealed, as with all of its true priorities, in the form of compensation.
In the wake of a world-wide “pause” on non-essential businesses, these previously scorned industries have experienced a perfunctory upswing in appreciation, often in the form of verbal or written thanks from those of higher social status whom their service enables to work from home. While this does not account for all the gratitude, and it is appreciated; decades of inferior social, financial, and political treatment cannot be overwritten as soon as a fellow human being becomes of use.
That being said, according to many predictions, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shutdown are still young. No one knows the full extent of the economic and societal restructuring that may yet be necessary to compensate for our lack of preparation and inadequate or misdirected responses. With so much uncertainty about the future, and the shape of the world we may reemerge in, worst-case scenarios run rampant in everyone’s minds. Let me just say that a kind word or gesture can cover just as much ground as a mean one, and a supportive action, especially towards someone you don’t know, even more. To those for whom kindness is not the first resort, and self-interest is the primary operative; we know who you are. And don’t think we’re not making lists of who to eat first. How you treat people matters.
It’s one thing to say that we’re all in this together, and quite another to actually make sacrifices that benefit others in more immediate ways than benefit yourself. As far as we’ve heard, COVID-19 is not a plague sent down from gods in the heavens to punish us for our selfish ways. The motives of disease are usually not as poetic as that. But the dearth of compassion and empathy embedded in the American operating system correlates directly with our nation’s strength in times of crisis. The key, for those of us in a position to do so, is to not slip back into comfortable complacency once this crisis has passed. For years, we have acknowledged the inequalities permeating America and proclaimed them unacceptable, but weren’t experiencing enough discomfort to make a serious bid for social change. An opportunity like this one does not tread lightly.
Isolationism is no longer viable, and at the heart of the blueprint for a sustainable future must be the belief that other people matter beyond their utility. In the interest of self-preservation, though, this event has brought into much clearer perspective that the well-being of the individual is inextricably tied to the well-being of the collective. If concern for others is contingent upon their capacity to pose a threat, then even the meekest among us wields power.
The meaning of ‘in this together’ goes beyond an expression and runs deeper than a hashtag. Your apocalypse team is not a group of digital profiles hovering in cyberspace. They are your long-forgotten community. When the world once again extends beyond our front doors, remember that “this” is not pinned to a single dark moment in history. We are in this world together, and those people with whom we share space are as essential to it as we are.
Our survival depends on it.
2Moneymaker, Anna. “Jobless Claims Surpass 16 Million; Aid Package Stalls in Senate.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 9 Apr. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/04/09/us/coronavirus-us-news.html.
3“Employment by Major Industry Sector.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4 Sept. 2019, www.bls.gov/emp/tables/employment-by-major-industry-sector.htm.
5Wang, Jim. “How Does Your Net Worth Compare with the Average American?” Best Wallet Hacks, Best Wallet Hacks, 12 Feb. 2020, wallethacks.com/average-net-worth-by-age-americans/.
6“State of Homelessness.” National Alliance to End Homelessness, National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2020, endhomelessness.org/homelessness-in-america/homelessness-statistics/state-of-homelessness-report/.
7United States, Congress, “The State of Homelessness in America.” The State of Homelessness in America, 2019, pp. 1–41. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/The-State-of-Homelessness-in-America.pdf.
8Scott, Dylan. “Coronavirus Is Exposing All of the Weaknesses in the US Health System.” Vox, Vox, 16 Mar. 2020, www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/3/16/21173766/coronavirus-covid-19-us-cases-health-care-system.
9Luhby, Tami. “Here’s How the US Health Care System Makes It Harder to Stop Coronavirus.” CNN, Cable News Network, 11 Mar. 2020, www.cnn.com/2020/03/11/us/us-health-care-system-coronavirus/index.html.
10Leonhardt, Megan. “Worried about a Recession? Here Are 4 Ways to Protect Your Finances.” CNBC, CNBC, 14 Oct. 2019, www.cnbc.com/2019/10/02/4-ways-to-protect-your-finances-if-youre-worried-about-a-recession.html.
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