COVID-19: An Accomplice to Systemic Inequality
By Reg Ledesma
This past Monday, I listened to Abby Maxman—the executive director and CEO of Oxfam-America—converse on how COVID-19 relates to domestic inequality. Oxfam is a global organization working to end poverty, by rooting its origins in injustice. Her talk reinforced a point I’ve been mulling over: this pandemic has unraveled deep systemic inequalities in the United States. These aren’t issues that are foreign to most people, especially those in the policy world, but the crisis has made them so blaringly obvious that they can no longer be ignored or pushed off for another day. The virus has drawn clear divisions along race, class, gender, disability, and immigration status. These were lines that for years, decades actually, have been etched in the sand, but are now so pronounced that they are impossible to disregard.
Labor organizers, for years, have been vouching for unions as a means to protect workers. Healthcare advocates have stressed the need for Medicare for All, chanting healthcare is a human right. Proponents of immigrant rights have protested on the frontlines for undocumented people to have access to social programs, especially since they pay taxes. Students have protested for the end of debilitating student debt. All of these issues, in the past, were associated with “the left”, but this virus exposes the present reality, that the majority of Americans, regardless of political affiliation, are drowning.
Even the guidelines for preventing the spread of the virus aren’t equitable. CDC guidelines suggest that people should stay home and social distance. However, this isn’t realistic for poor people who are deemed “essential workers” and desperately need to continue working jobs because they are living paycheck-to-paycheck. These workers may not have “sick leave” available. Middle income and upper income workers can work remotely and safely, making COVID-19 a pandemic that uncovers the class inequalities within our society.
Coronavirus unmasks our country’s biases against people with disabilities. Oklahoma’s treatment rationing for COVID-19 deprioritizes people with disabilities for life-saving treatment and care. Their protocols send out a message: the lives of people with disabilities have less value than those who are able-bodied. Schools transitioned quickly from in-person classes to online classes, allotting more flexibility to students. This is the same kind of flexibility and understanding that people with disabilities have been asking for, but it’s only when able-bodied people have trouble with access that the need is prioritized.
Our systems have some serious work to do; thankfully, the first step is realizing just how profound the injustices are. Oxfam’s report Dignity Not Destitution has viable actions our government can take to salvage our economy. The first is to give cash grants to all who need them. The United States has doled out stimulus checks, but they’re not enough. Millions of undocumented workers don’t qualify for these payments. $1,200 also doesn’t take into account standard of living varying drastically from city to city. Another action is to bail out businesses; these bailouts should be focused towards small businesses not huge corporations. To pay for these actions, the report recommends introducing emergency solidarity taxes on extraordinary profits and wealthy individuals. Now more than ever, redistribution is necessary. This report has credible policy solutions that our government should explore; furthermore, we all need to work from the ground up to uproot and rebuild our broken systems.
Reg Ledesma is a first year MPP student at the Sanford School of Public Policy.