The inequality that haunts the USA

Posted on April 15, 2020


by Palesa Morudu

Washington: The cursed pathogen. Nearly a third of the global population is under stay-at-home orders. The public spaces of our great cities are eerily silent. Major airports resemble mausoleums. Road traffic has plummeted. Restaurants are shut. It seems as if the world has been turned on its head and the economic crisis has only just begun. What will be the post-corona normal?

The novelist George Saunders wrote in an e-mail to his students at Syracuse University: “So much suffering and anxiety everywhere … This has never happened before here (at least not since 1918). We are (and especially you are) the generation that is going to have to help us make sense of this and recover afterward … But I guess what I’m trying to say is that the world is like a sleeping tiger and we tend to live our lives there on its back … And now and then that tiger wakes up. And that is terrifying. Sometimes it wakes up and someone we love dies. Or someone breaks our heart. Or there’s a pandemic.”

US surgeon-general Jerome Adams warned Americans at the weekend to prepare for the worst as Covid-19 transformed the country into an epicentre of the pandemic. “This is going to be the hardest and the saddest week of most Americans’ lives” he told Fox News. “This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment, only it’s not going to be localised. It’s going to be happening all over the country.”

The debacle over the lack of protective masks for health-care workers, and the federal government’s refusal to respond rapidly and decisively to the need for ventilators, is symptomatic

Is this overstated? We don’t yet know. What we do know is that confirmed global cases of the novel coronavirus stood at 1.4-million as of this writing, with the highest number (378,289) concentrated in the US.

New York State — mostly New York City — accounts for close to 50% of the 12,000 US dead. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says 100,000 US deaths is a best-case scenario.

But the country will have to come to terms with more than the body count. The coronavirus crisis has exposed, in a visceral way, the underlying inequality and dysfunction of American society.

Millions have been thrown out of work at an unprecedented rate, and the promised government support is unlikely to come anywhere near what is needed. That is, if people are able to negotiate through the overwhelmed, mind-numbing bureaucracy to access unemployment benefits. Small businesses have shuttered, and most of the promised loans have yet to eventuate.

The chaotic, profit-driven US health-care system is stretched to breaking point. The debacle over the lack of protective masks for health-care workers, and the federal government’s refusal to respond rapidly and decisively to the need for ventilators, is symptomatic. Workers on the front lines are striking to demand adequate protection from the virus. Millions of schoolchildren can’t learn “virtually” because they lack Wi-Fi connections at home. Domestic abuse has surged.

Data emerging from cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee, New Orleans and New York show that African-Americans are dying in disproportionate numbers. This should not be a surprise given higher poverty and the lack of medical insurance among black and brown people in the US.

Singapore’s foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, told CNBC that the coronavirus will be “the acid test of every country’s quality of health care, standard of governance and social capital. If any of this tripod is weak, it will be exposed, and exposed quite unmercifully by this epidemic”.

Despite the chaos, US public health measures have been ramped up in recent weeks, and it is reasonable to expect that the rate of infection and death will soon plateau and decline. But as US society moves beyond lockdown it will have to confront the reality of a shaky tripod. There will be a reckoning.
Posted in: Uncategorized