The ongoing coronavirus pandemic poses a serious challenge not only to our health and economic well-being, but also to our society's basic structures of social cohesion and even our democracy. But the pandemic alone is not what is bringing our society to its knees. A longstanding anti-human, anti-science, anti-democratic, individualistic, racist and xenophobic narrative is clashing with the reality of a pandemic that can only be overcome by humanity, science, equity, collective effort, and trust in the democratic institutions that are coordinating and delivering health services and economic relief.
Despite the fear and anxiety, a counternarrative of human compassion, social solidarity, and government responsibility for all of us is playing out in the everyday stories of neighbors helping neighbors, of state and local governments taking decisive action, and of brave first responders and medical staff risking their lives to save those people who have been stricken by the virus. What everyday people, social movements, and political actors do now to further an inclusive narrative and address the pandemic and the underlying structural defects and inequalities will determine who we will be on the other side of the multiplex crisis.
We are now sheltering in place, bracing ourselves for a pandemic that, in the best case scenario, will cause the death of at least tens of thousands of people in the US and millions of people worldwide. We are facing the likelihood of a worldwide economic depression that will impact the majority of people on the planet. The US government’s “failing” response to the coronavirus pandemic (as Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, characterized it) has starkly exposed the inadequacies of our healthcare system and government structures that were supposed to support our health and well-being. Moreover, it has exposed the raw brutality of a survival-of-the-fittest economic system that is pushing families and communities to the edge of day-to-day survival.
The leadership vacuum and the lack of a coherent strategy at the national level, as well as the sheer mendacity of the Trump Administration, have greatly exacerbated the crisis. In the face of the spiraling spread of COVID-19, the Trump Administration has downplayed the virus’ impact for perceived political gain, contradicted scientists warning of the virus’ potency, stoked xenophobia and racism, pandered to big corporations, and left all of us, especially vulnerable populations, at the mercy of a virulent virus and a crumbling economy.
The conditions for the spread of this health and economic crisis were created long before the virus appeared.
Low wage workers, undocumented immigrants, elderly people, and poor people, especially in communities of color in cities, suburbs and rural areas have always been vulnerable to diseases and economic dislocation. The jobs that expose low-wage workers to the virus are disproportionately held by people of color, jobs in fulfillment warehouses, grocery stores, and restaurants. Historically and today, Black and brown people have been overrepresented among low-income people and have disproportionately high rates of disease and illness.
COVID-19 is no exception to the rule. Black and brown people are contracting and dying from the virus at alarming rates: in Milwaukee County, where the Black population comprises 26 percent of the total, 50 percent of cases and 81 percent of deaths were from the Black community. In Michigan, where the Black population comprises 14 percent of the total, 35 percent of cases and 40 percent of deaths were from the Black community. Similar disparities have been documented in New Orleans, Chicago, and elsewhere.
Dr. Camara Jones, a family physician, epidemiologist and visiting fellow at Harvard University in an interview with ProPublica stated: “COVID is just unmasking the deep disinvestment in our communities, the historical injustices and the impact of residential segregation.”
Jones, who spent 13 years at the CDC, focused on identifying, measuring and addressing racial bias within the medical system. “This is the time to name racism as the cause of all of those things. The overrepresentation of people of color in poverty and white people in wealth is not just a happenstance…It’s because we’re not valued.”
Overall, about 44 million US residents of all races have no health insurance and 38 million are underinsured, according to Columbia University health economist Sherry Glied. Many millions of working poor, unemployed, and homeless people are left to their own devices with no access to testing for the virus, no access to healthcare, and no relief for the economic fallout that is mounting daily. Our fragmented for-profit healthcare system is failing as understaffed and under-equipped hospitals struggle to keep up with the influx of infected patients and healthcare workers are put at extreme risk for lack of personal protective equipment. While states like California and Washington have made substantial progress in stemming the virus, national preparedness for the pandemic has fallen desperately short of actual needs.
The economic fallout is measured in stunning unemployment rates and record closures of small businesses. The latest stimulus package falls far short of the spiraling needs of millions of laid off workers and small business owners of all races, but especially Black, brown, Native American, Asian, and Pacific Islanders who are disproportionately represented in the ranks of low-wage jobs and undercapitalized small businesses. Those hit hardest are the communities that never recovered from the last recession and the growing marginalized class of houseless people across the country.
When a reporter asked the president whether he took responsibility for the botched response to the pandemic, Trump responded, “No, I don’t take responsibility at all.” But the cuts in the budgets of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and public health labs, the dismantling of the social safety net, and the massive tax cuts enacted for corporations and the wealthy has severely compromised the federal government’s ability to respond effectively to the health and economic crises.
In addition, Trump’s and Republican lawmakers’ tweets and comments about the “China Virus”, the “Chinese coronavirus”, and the “Wuhan coronavirus” build upon decades of virulent tropes spouted by demagogues who have demonized and scapegoated Chinese and other Asian immigrants. Trump has routinely trumpeted a narrative of fear of the racial “other” to distract from his agenda of amassing power and wealth for himself and a small clique of corporate elites. This has led to a spike in the number of violent attacks against Asians that is being confronted by Asian activists and their allies across the country.
Activist networks across the country have responded to the crises by organizing advocacy campaigns calling for compassionate release of people in jails, prisons, and immigrant detention centers; housing for homeless people; a moratorium on evictions and mortgage payments; and other measures. People in every corner of our country have stepped up and organized volunteers for services like food delivery for the elderly and sewing personal preventive equipment for popular use and for medical staff.
Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, writes in Politico: “The coronavirus pandemic marks the end of our romance with market society and hyper-individualism. We could turn toward authoritarianism. Imagine President Donald Trump trying to suspend the November election. Consider the prospect of a military crackdown. The dystopian scenario is real. But I believe we will go in the other direction. We’re now seeing the market-based models for social organization fail, catastrophically, as self-seeking behavior (from Trump down) makes this crisis so much more dangerous than it needed to be. … When this ends, we will reorient our politics and make substantial new investments in public goods—for health, especially—and public services. I don’t think we will become less communal. Instead, we will be better able to see how our fates are linked.”
Klinenberg’s belief can only become reality if social movements and political actors seize this opportunity in the midst of the crisis to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The narrative of rugged individualism, American exceptionalism, the sanctity of the “free market”, and racial othering must be challenged forthrightly and supplanted by a narrative that speaks to our common humanity, our common destiny, and the responsibility of our government to promote the common good. A narrative that articulates a vision of inclusion and belonging must be at the center of our policy prescriptions and our strategies for communications, advocacy and organizing.
Our nation and our world have come face to face with the reality that we are all interconnected and interdependent. The physical distancing that we are required to practice because of the menacing virus has the power to bring us closer together, as a nation and a global community. If we consciously use it towards that intent, we can change the course of the pandemic and the trajectory of US and world politics. But we must do so intentionally and creatively, by bridging people across generational and racial lines behind a just, inclusive and loving vision for our world. Let’s do right by the tens of thousands that will lose their lives and demand a new social contract where all belong.
Gerald Lenoir is the Identity and Political Strategy Analyst at the Othering and Belonging Institute.
Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Othering and Belonging Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the author.