In recent months, in the run-up to an urgent vaccine rollout, communities across the U.S. have seen our COVID-19 infection rates soar. A predictable spike emerged right after Christmas, as families across the country were urged to stay home. Amidst the frustration and devastation as the country closes in on 400,000 deaths, much of the focus from political leaders has centered on individual failings in refusing to wear a mask and social distance, and just, stay home.
For example, recently Governor Cuomo wondered what could explain upstate infection rates, “If you live in those areas, then it’s you and your community and the behavior in your community that is affecting the numbers… Why is Manhattan 2% and the Finger Lakes four times the infection rate in Manhattan? How do you explain that? Except the behavior of those people in that place.”
My feeds are aflame with similar finger pointing at the selfish disregard of those individuals who are fueling this pandemic. Last week’s images of the white supremacist riot at the Capitol Building depict a racist and violent mob, almost all of them maskless, the obvious makings of a superspreader event. Here too, rural upstate New York is teeming with – mostly conservatives — who believe COVID is a hoax. Confederate flags (indisputable symbols of white supremacy) are plentiful in our state, and anti-maskers (bafflingly) abound.
So, yes, we indeed hold some responsibility as a community for the devastation the pandemic is imparting – hitting poor, black, brown, and native communities especially hard. Migrant farmworkers also stand to lose both housing and income if they fall ill, and our elderly are at particular risk and heartbreakingly isolated. Meanwhile, our rural healthcare systems are struggling to keep pace.
But our individual responsibility is only half of the public health story to be told about the U.S. COVID tragedy. Because, to be clear, not everyone can just stay home and stay safe.
I am amongst the most fortunate of this pandemic, having been lucky enough to thus far remain healthy. For the last 10 months, I have lived nearly my entire life in my second-floor home office, glued to a wifi connection and zoom, with no child or eldercare obligations, and a steady paycheck and health insurance. The timing of the vaccine rollout will have no significant bearing on my ability to pay my mortgage or feed my family. And I live in a relatively affluent college town — where testing is plentiful, Ivy League students quarantine in a fancy hotel, and where my employer has provided regular and free testing.
We cannot continue to talk about the pandemic as solely a matter of individual choices that have manifested the tragedy unfolding. We have become convinced that if we just make the right choices we will be spared, and that those who have fallen ill brought this on themselves.
This public health (and economic) reality has been manufactured and was not inevitable.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, millions have burned through their meager unemployment and stimulus (if they were eligible to get these at all), and reluctantly are heading out to expose themselves in retail and food service (two of the biggest employers across the country) because they need to pay their rent and feed their children. To decry “high risk behavior” as the central problem suggests we as a country and state have put in place a meaningful alternative.
Before the Congress was derailed by last week’s insurrection by home-grown (mostly white male) terrorists, Democrats were celebrating a one-time, perhaps up to $2000 relief package. As welcome as this would be for many, this disbursement is unlikely to cover even one month of back rent and other basic needs, even in relatively cheaper upstate New York. Millions stand to lose their housing (with lasting consequences), and a poorly enforceable state eviction moratorium that still requires that tenants prove their right to retain housing in the dead of winter will be hard to navigate. Neither would this paltry sum hardly cover the copay for a single night in the ER for many insured Americans.
President Trump, the anti-masker in chief, has abdicated his responsibility to (parenting 101, I am told) “model good behavior.” But meanwhile, the liberalism of Democrats wants us all to think that individual and collective austerity and discipline are the only tools necessary for the post-pandemic salvation we hope to see in 2021.
We must reject the myopic focus on just making better individual choices and refocus on also demanding an overhaul of how we ensure the health and dignity of all individuals in our communities. To be sure, even in ostensibly socialist havens like Sweden, “live and let live” strategies have produced death and destruction. But our pithy insistence on Wear a Mask and Stay Home has to be paired with real structural reform….nay… overhaul.
None of us deserve the pain and suffering of COVID-19 – and no one should ever have to choose between health, homelessness, and financial ruin. What we need is a public health policy that provides everyone the resources to decide to stay home safely. To get there, Housing for All, Basic Income Now, and Universal Healthcare must also be part of our demands.
Shannon Gleeson is an Associate Professor of Labor Relations, Law & History at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations in Ithaca, New York. Her most recent book is Precarious Claims: The Promise and Failure of Workplace Protections in the United States (University of California Press, 2016).
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