Economic, social, and political inequality affect everything — including how we handle the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19: who gets it, how they are treated, the chances for recovery, job security, etc. Our Sojourners team looked at that question this week: How is our deep and shameful inequality in America at play as the threat of the new coronavirus rises? Here is what we found.
As always, those who are in poverty, those suffering from illness, immigrants, and/or refugees are the most likely to be severely impacted. These are, obviously, all groups of people Jesus calls on us to protect in Matthew 25 — always a core Gospel text for us that clearly relates to this growing health threat.
First, the fact that enormous inequities persist in our health care system works to the detriment of efforts to contain and treat the coronavirus in the United States. Can anyone seriously doubt there will be people who contract the coronavirus and pass it on to others because they are afraid of medical bills they cannot afford to pay?
Second, “self-quarantining” — staying home from work if you are not feeling well — is much less feasible if you could lose your job for it. How many minimum wage workers and those in the service sector will go to work despite being sick because they don’t get any paid sick leave?
Third, since our nation’s appalling economic inequity means much of the burden of any outbreak falls disproportionately on the working poor, what will working class families with children do if schools close and they are without affordable child care? What happens to their jobs?
We must also reckon with the fact that this administration’s overtly racist and xenophobic rhetoric and policy agenda is actively harming efforts to contain spread of the virus. For example, if the administration wasn’t deliberately processing asylum requests extremely slowly, dramatically cutting the number of refugees it admits annually, and seeking to deny asylum to as many refugees as possible, we would not have a humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, with thousands of asylum seekers living in squalid conditions mere feet south of the border as they await the opportunity to enter the United States. The conditions in which asylum seekers are being forced to live could make it much more difficult to protect them from a potential spread of the coronavirus.
We must also remain vigilant and prepared for Trump and his allies to attempt to use migrants as scapegoats in this crisis, as Trump has done so many times before. Indeed, he is already touting his “tough on borders” policies as the key to claims (against significant and growing evidence) that the U.S. is handling the situation so well. In his telling, we would have larger spread already if we adopted his opponents’ preferred immigration policies. We can all see where this is going: Not only is xenophobic sentiment already being stoked to channel fear of disease into fear and hate of (non-white) people from other countries. We should also absolutely expect the Trump administration to try to leverage the crisis to secure additional funding for its anti-immigrant agenda — perhaps to argue that we need more wall on the southern border to keep us safe from the coronavirus.
In this moment, we badly need — and should passionately advocate for — a more thoughtful and compassionate strategy for fighting the spread of the coronavirus. It is both unjust and completely counterproductive to charge anyone for a test, vaccine (once one is available), treatment, or quarantine expenses while we are actively working to prevent spreading. This kind of public safety mission to avert catastrophe is one of the most critical functions of government and the tax dollars we all pay. Vulnerable populations, like undocumented immigrants, should also be able to get tested and treated for the coronavirus without fear that it will put them in greater jeopardy of identification and deportation. That’s both the Christian and moral thing to do; as it happens, it’s also the smart thing to do if we truly want to minimize the spread of the virus.
It seems that each day brings new reports of U.S. states that have identified cases of the coronavirus, along with new deaths attributed to the virus. Many other nations are experiencing the same thing to varying degrees. Between those reports and the coronavirus-induced stock market tumble in recent days, it’s natural to feel a heightened level of anxiety and fear.
Further, the U.S. government’s response has been a direct cause for this considerable concern. Donald Trump has been downplaying the legitimate fears about what an outbreak could mean — mostly thinking in terms of what it means for him politically in an election year. He has even gone so far as to accuse his political opponents and the mainstream media of colluding to spread needless alarm about the virus merely to hurt his re-election chances. The New York Times very diplomatically refers to the administration’s inconsistent response as a “struggle by the Trump administration to project confidence and progress without misleading the public about the virus’s spread.” We’ve heard Trump question what he claims are the “false numbers” (from the World Health Organization) and say he has “a hunch” people can just sit around and get better — and even go back to work — when doctors and health officials are saying the opposite and telling people not to go to work if they are sick.
When a health crisis threatens Americans, it is no time for the president to riff off the top of his head on cable news shows. But that is Trump’s way of governing: putting his own personal agenda before public service, and that is now adding to the threat of an escalating worldwide disease. All of Trump’s political energy and that of his administration could be spent giving the American public transparent, truthful, and measured facts, updates, and advice about the virus and its spread. That is what public service and presidential leadership should look like.
Each of us has a personal responsibility to each other: to be prepared and to do what we can to minimize transmission of this virus. Please, if you have a fever, cough, or shortness of breath, seek the advice of a doctor and avoid going to work or school if you can. While it’s true that you might be at low risk for hospitalization or death if you get the virus, especially if you are young and healthy, I can guarantee you that there are people in your life, on the street, at your office, at your church, and so on who are not so fortunate. A healthy co-worker may care for an ailing parent. An apparently healthy fellow parishioner may in fact be immunocompromised. Loving your neighbor as yourself in this moment also means doing what you personally can to protect not just yourself but your neighbors. It is time for all of us, including the president, to look after each other and not just ourselves.