As the coronavirus pandemic continues to cut a wide swath through American communities, many have started to ignore it or, worse, rationalize the country’s mounting losses as a “sad but unavoidable” fact of life. The “sadness” appears to be of a very limited type. A recent poll found nearly 60 percent of Republicans view the deaths we’ve experienced as “acceptable.”
There may be a relatively simple explanation for this complacency: the pandemic has disproportionately affected populations that are mostly out of sight and mind for the majority of Americans: elderly in care homes, minorities, farm and food workers, and prisoners. COVID-19, for much of America, is something that happens to other people and many of the others are very old, very poor, people of color, or some combination of all these characteristics. Low-income and minority populations are especially vulnerable to diseases, including COVID, and tend to suffer disproportionately from them. They also tend toward social invisibility and political weakness, unable to command our interest or public health resources.
As has been widely noted, elderly in care facilities have been hit especially hard during this pandemic: more than 68,000 residents and workers have already died, representing more than 40 percent of all deaths as well as nearly a tenth of all U.S. cases. Early on especially, governors like Andrew Cuomo and Phil Murphy made critical mistakes that exacerbated the tragedy. More alarming is the sentiment that these deaths are a price worth paying to get the economy reopened since the elderly in nursing homes already face low life expectancies. Our real concern, the logic goes, should be for younger people who have their whole lives ahead of them and are sacrificing their economic futures to lockdowns. This collapse of the inter-generational compact has been far more effective at killing them off than any death panel dreamed up in Sarah Palin’s fevered imagination.
Similarly, ethnic and racial minorities including African Americans, Latinos/Hispanics, and Native Americans have all been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Blacks and Hispanics are nearly five times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than whites are, and death rates among African Americans are more than double those of whites. Survey research shows that one in three African Americans know someone who has died of COVID while fewer than one in 10 whites answered the same. In the past few months, the four-county, heavily Latino Rio Grande Valley region of Texas has had more than 10 percent of the statewide deaths. Co-morbidities like obesity and high blood pressure play a role but so does the fact that these populations are disproportionately exposed to disease due to the types of work they do as well as cramped housing conditions. Their children have been hit harder, too, which helps explain why minority parents are about twice as supportive of distance learning than their white counterparts.
Farm and food processing workers—dominated by Latino and other immigrant workers—are another population that has disproportionately been affected by COVID-19. This first became apparent when outbreaks at meat processing plants in the Midwest forced closures that slowed the nation’s meat supplies and eventually resulted in the plants being declared “essential” and reopened under the Defense Production Act. Governors in Iowa and Nebraska began threatening these mainly minority workers with having their unemployment cut off if they didn’t return to their jobs on the theory, evidently, that they were avoiding work rather than illness by not showing up. Since March, there have been over 40,000 infections among meat packing employees and 200 deaths. Heavily agricultural regions like California’s Central Valleyand Washington State’s Yakima Valley have seen huge COVID spikes. In response, the U.S. Department of Labor has so far levied just $29,000 in fines against two companies, Smithfield and JBS, who have combined sales of $65 billion per year.
Last are the millions of Americans behind bars. Per statistics from the Marshall Project, there have been more than 121,000 COVID-19 cases reported among prisoners and more than a thousand deaths. To most Americans, deaths among prisoners evoke little sympathy based on the heartless logic that those who have been convicted of crimes deserve everything they get, including the brutality, disease, and possibly death that comes along with their sentences.
The actual value of human beings, regardless of their criminal records, is more evident when homes start burning down in wildfires. The State of California makes heavy use of prisoners for discount fire-fighting and the COVID-driven early releases of these prisoners has deprived the state of manpower during a particularly brutal fire season. These incarcerated firefighters make next to nothing in wages while running into blaze after blaze only to find they can’t join the ranks of paid firefighters after release. It took until mid-September for Governor Newsom to sign a bill allowing prison firefighters to become professional firefighters and make a meaningful career out of the work they were doing essentially for free.
Adding to the misery of COVID-vulnerable populations is an unfortunate, and very human, tendency to find reasons to blame disadvantaged groups for their illness. Earlier this year, Republican governors Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Ron DeSantis of Florida made ill-considered statements about how Latino food and agricultural workers were responsible for the explosive growth in caseloads in their states. This isn’t new. In her book American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic, Nancy Bristow recounts how public health and aid workers, “routinely charged minority populations with being particularly problematic populations, misdirecting culpability for desperate conditions from widespread and systematic racism to its victims.” White doctors attempting to aid Native Americans blamed high rates of Native death not on the appalling poverty and deprivation they faced but on “intransigence,” “dirtiness,” and a reliance on traditional healing methods rather than modern medicine. The “reds” were doing it to themselves.
Reviewing the data and history pandemic discrimination, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the majority of America has concluded that these groups—the poor, the minority, the imprisoned, and the elderly—are the “acceptable” losses. Were the situation reversed and the white, middle aged, and middle/upper classes the primary victims of the pandemic—one of the features of the 1918 influenza—COVID-19 would be a true national emergency and there would be far less complaining about disrupted schools, work, and social life brought about by social distancing requirements and economic shutdowns. That social reciprocity has broken down to this degree ought to be an embarrassment and shame to us all.
The message seems to be that Americans have abandoned e pluribus unum (out of many, one) for “everyone—or at least every group—for themselves.” Pro-lifers have for decades protested American indifference to the deaths of millions of unborn children (another invisible and voiceless minority), and they have been right to do so. Where are these champions of human life when other weak and vulnerable populations are dying at the rate of a thousand a week or more? Make no mistake: when the pandemic finally recedes, people will remember whether it was their lives and dignity that were “essential” or just their labor on behalf of those who had the privilege of working from home.
Coronavirus is not something that can be hand-waved away as “someone else’s problem.” Whether outbreaks are in major agricultural centers, nursing homes, minority-heavy border regions, prisons, or anywhere else they should concern us all. Think about that the next time you decide not to socially distance, attend a rally or protest, or outright refuse to wear a mask that might spare another person illness or death. The health and well-being you’re endangering might turn out to be your own.