Inequality — The Achilles heel of American pandemic response

There always have been two Americas — the America of the “haves” and the America of the “have-nots.”

These two Americas look nothing alike, and systemic structures have been built, reshaped and rebuilt to make sure the “haves” are not negatively impacted, inconvenienced or made uncomfortable by the hunger, oppression, poverty and suffering of the “have-nots.”

The walls that protect the sanctified mythology of a united, just and free America from the realities of the “other” America are our longest-standing and dearest attribute of this divided nation.

If there’s one thing that has the ability to tear down those walls, and demonstrate the inherently dangerous flaws in our national structure — on top of its inherent injustice — it is perhaps a pandemic virus.

A virus is no respecter of class, and the very structures that have protected the “haves” and repressed the “have-nots” now endanger us all.

It should come as no surprise that America has a rapidly increasing and grossly top-heavy income gap. We have the highest income inequality of all the G7 nations, and the wealth gap between America’s rich and poor more than doubled between 1989 and 2016.

There always have been gaps between the rich and the poor. But in the two Americas, that gap is getting ever-bigger. Between 1979 and 2017, wages for the top 1% increased by 157% — the top 0.1% went up 343%. Meanwhile, for those of us in the bottom 90%, real wages have gone up 22%, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

The monopoly of political power among the rich has created a uniquely American lack of what are considered essential public services in every other industrialized nation.

Today, the novel coronavirus is hitting an America that is the only industrialized nation in the world without universal access to health care, and the only industrialized nation without paid family leave.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), we spend more per capita than any other industrialized nation on health care — you know, the ones with universal coverage — and have fewer hospital beds per capita than those other nations. Yes, the hospital beds we’d need to handle a pandemic outbreak.

Right now, about 43% of all American workers are working in low-wage jobs (thank goodness for those low unemployment numbers), according to analysis by Capital Area Asset Builders, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for low-income families. And, 40% of all households in the United States are considered liquid asset poor — meaning they’re one unpaid leave from work away from eviction or foreclosure, homelessness and bankruptcy.

What that means in practical terms is, in a pandemic scenario, roughly two-fifths of American families have to choose between the risk of contracting and/or spreading the disease, and the almost certain outcome of their children ending up homeless and hungry. Which option would you choose?

And those same people likely can’t afford to be tested, treated or undertake good preventive health care that would help them stave off infectious diseases like coronavirus.

According to the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University, close to 30 million Americans have no health insurance at all. And many who are covered can’t afford their co-pays or deductibles.

Again, from a practical standpoint, that means people who can’t afford to stay home from work when they’re sick also can’t afford to seek treatment, which makes voluntary quarantine almost impossible.

For decades, so-called “conservatives” have been dismissing concerns over the injustice and inequality of the “great” American system. If people are starving, and lack health care, well then they should just grab ahold of those boot straps. And if they have no boots, well, that’s really their fault. We’ll pray for them as they wither and die. That, in a nutshell, is the conservative stance on social justice.

That system is inherently wrong on its own, from the standpoint of human decency and every world religion (with the exception of Americanized “christian” money worship). But, in practical terms, the disparities and lack of basic human services in our society are not only unjust and wrong. They are dangerous. And they are dangerous to all levels of our society.

In the end, no matter how many false divisions we create of class and race, a polity is one living entity. We all live together, and all are connected. And what is bad for some Americans is bad for all Americans.

This always has been the case. The welfare of our brothers and sisters is the welfare of us all. Unfortunately, it may take a pandemic to make us realize this truth.

COVID-19 probably won’t have disastrous effect on our nation as a whole. But, it’s almost inevitable we will face a pandemic with that kind of destructive effect.

And, if we don’t use this pandemic as an opportunity to create a society that is more sustainable, because it is more just, then we will have earned our own condemnation in the eyes of history.

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