With the pressures of the pandemic mounting, people are stuck with an impossible choice
On Friday, May 1, around 100 people gathered in front of the Humboldt County Courthouse to demand the reopening of businesses deemed non-essential by the government. With signs like “Every Business Is Essential,” it is clear that the protesters are not being properly supported during this time of crisis.
The government’s attempts to mitigate the spread of the virus have been controversial with over a million reported cases so far. Social distancing is the most effective measure we can take to prevent unnecessary deaths since the swab test is inaccurate and limited at the moment. Unfortunately, mandatory lockdowns and halts to employment in order to support social distancing efforts have left many without jobs and a way to earn a steady, livable wage.
Everyone has a wide range of debts, rents and other expenses to pay for during this time. If we want to prevent the spread of the virus we need to support disenfranchised workers, not force them back into unsafe working conditions. With 59% of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, for those keeping track at home, the percentage cuts for units is not reasonable to expect them to be able to handle all of their expenses with a one-time stimulus check of $1,200. The writer of the book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” and economist Thomas Piketty believes that a pandemic like this holds the potential to change dominant narratives about how we should organize our society and build our economy.
“This crisis is really illustrating both the violence of inequality and also the need for another economic system,” said Piketty.
The Americans most impacted by the pandemic are going to be the poorest, most vulnerable members of our society. For as long as our country has existed, so has the divide in quality of life, poverty, and access to government assistance in times of crisis.
Due to our country’s reliance on employer-based healthcare, every company that is forced to lay off its workers in this necessary time of crisis is creating large swaths of vulnerable, uninsured people. The natural response is to want to go back to work and blame the government for taking away your insurance and employment so you can continue to provide for yourself and your loved ones. The only problem is that we have a virus on our hands, so one is forced to either ignore the dangers of returning to work or slowly drain themselves financially as the dues of existing in our society add up. This is not a fair choice nor a choice we should have to make.
This is our societal structure functioning as it was designed to. When healthcare is tied to employment and to wealth, we are nudged into believing our right to exist is tied to employment and to wealth. When certain marginalized groups are underemployed or possess less wealth, our system is tacitly stating that those groups are worthless.
We need a societal structure that values every life. That means universal healthcare, education, job guarantees, housing and access to technology. Without universal healthcare, there isn’t a solid system for distributing care during a pandemic, and the right to one’s own life is decided by socioeconomic status. Without job guarantees, people are set adrift during emergencies, not knowing if they will be able to get back to work after it’s all over. Without universal housing, a pandemic can leave many unsure if they will have a roof over their head in a month’s time. Without access to technology, some will lose education, jobs, communication with the outside world and entertainment to occupy the time.
But more than all these things, we need a structure that prioritizes us. If everything starts falling apart because of one pandemic, maybe it wasn’t the most stable structure to begin with. An economy that does better when its workers die is like a car that goes up in value when it kills the passenger. The structure should exist to support you. This pandemic is exposing our economic structure for what it has always been. A burden that crushes the marginalized and the vulnerable. A $1,200 check, a rent freeze and a free face mask are only small band-aids on a gushing head wound. Normal, everyday life is why everything is falling apart in the first place.
All we can do is build a system that protects every person within it and values life from the ground up. A system that lets numbers of people die will die along with them. It is a system bound to fail.