50.50: Opinion

How my north Texas students taught me ‘we’re all in the same boat’ is a lie

Asking big questions and learning from our different experiences are the first steps to a better world beyond coronavirus.

Özlem Altıok
9 April 2020
People wait to get food at the Union Gospel Mission in Portland, Oregon, US, on 3 April 2020
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Alex Milan Tracy/SIPA USA/PA Images

Despite the theme of daily messages and memes we’re receiving, we are not “all in the same boat” – and this pandemic is proof.

I like the sentiment of this statement, compelling us to act as if we were all in the same boat about to sink; to pull together to survive. But the truth is that we are not positioned equally to weather this storm.

Living in rural north Texas, I’ve seen firsthand how this crisis is compounding other financial, social, and personal struggles that people endured long before COVID-19 - in ‘normal’ times.

I work at the University of North Texas, a minority-serving research and teaching institution, and though it falls outside of my job description, I deal with my students' everyday crises all the time.

Their cars break down and they cannot attend class. They cannot buy textbooks until their financial aid kicks in. They get sick but, lacking insurance, do not go to the doctor, and so can’t give me doctors’ notes.

Those who struggle with mental health issues face too few campus counsellors and cannot afford off-campus care. Those who suffer domestic violence may not be able to report it, for example, because of their immigration status or if they depend financially on their abuser.

Many of my students are the first in their families to go to college. Those about to graduate this May are heartbroken that ceremonies to celebrate this achievement, that they worked so hard for, may not happen.

Many are full or part-time workers in addition to being full-time students. They worked in various retail jobs, coffee shops, restaurants, bars, in hospitality and various other service jobs. Many were also Uber and Lyft drivers; some babysat, taught yoga, or did other odd jobs.

These young people are now among the record near-10 million in the US who applied for unemployment benefits since 21 March 2020.

“We are not positioned equally to weather this storm”

Last week, one of my students described how she and some of her co-workers felt trapped working in an unsafe environment – and they were considering quitting, but were worried that if they did so they might not be eligible for relief from the federal stimulus package.

They work at a small, for-profit residential treatment facility for people with eating disorders that is still open. Last month, a patient tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalised. But my student said management hasn’t taken steps to make it a safer working environment.

She said it is nearly impossible to maintain social distancing in the facility. Staff members, who may be already infected, have been explicitly told not to give clients any information about coronavirus or their exposure to it, and to redirect the conversation if the subject arises.

According to my student, the facility's Chief Operating Officer responded to concerns from nurses and other staff by stating: “if they are concerned about their health, they could resign.” (But can they “resign” in the current context of record unemployment and especially when this would disqualify them from applying for unemployment benefits?)

But while outrageous, my student’s situation is not unique. Healthcare is a deeply gendered industry, and only a minority have the high-paid, high-profile jobs like surgeons. Globally, 75% of all healthcare workers are women, who are concentrated in lower status and lower pay roles.

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Nurses sit along 5th Avenue across from Mount Sinai Hospital, in New York, on 2 April 2020 | Anthony Behar/SIPA USA/PA Images

My student is considered “direct support staff,” and provides much of the direct care patients receive in her facility, where there are extended periods and shifts without licensed medical professionals. She makes $13-15 an hour – about half what registered nurses make at the facility.

Hers is not the only life endangered at healthcare facilities that are still open amidst COVID-19. But her story has made me ask: What recourse do healthcare workers have – in a “right to work” state no less – to “whistle blow” and expect improvements to their working conditions?

This emergency is also exposing the contradictions of our ‘normal’. The facility for eating disorders where my student works is apparently among the many unregulated health clinics in Texas that are considered “essential businesses” and are still running amidst the pandemic.

Meanwhile, reproductive health services are “non-essential”. This was made clear in Texas Governor Abbot’s executive order, which banned abortions under COVID-19, by deeming them not medically necessary.

Abbott and other conservative lawmakers seem to be using the pandemic as cover to attack access to abortions, which are time-sensitive procedures that women need and have clear legal rights to.

Even in ‘normal times,’ it is already very difficult to get an abortion in Texas thanks to an organised and well-funded network of right-wing, anti-abortion groups that have long influenced state-level politics.

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Texas Governor, Greg Abbott, arrives at a Capitol news conference on 13 March 2020 | TNS/SIPA USA/PA Images

Anti-abortion politics at the top make women’s lives on the ground much harder. But women aren’t in ‘the same boat’ here either. Low-income women looking for abortion services bear a greater burden.

They need to find money to pay for procedures and to travel sometimes long distances to reach increasingly few abortion providers. It is hard to get time off work, especially if you cannot tell your supervisor why.

For a woman who is trying to end an unwanted pregnancy, “every day feels like a year.” Similarly, a day can feel like a year in an abusive home.

Just days before our campus shut down, another student texted me for help escaping a domestic abuse situation. We contacted a community group who said they’d call her for an appointment, but they have not. Its crisis hotlines are supposedly still active, but no one answered her call.

It is not hard to imagine that community organisations are also finding it difficult to adjust and meet the ‘shadow pandemic’ of violence against women that increases the demand for their services.

Research from previous crises suggests that we will see more, not less, intimate partner violence during the pandemic – just as women will find it hard to access services. What is my student to do? Where is she to go?

“What is my student to do? Where is she to go?”

I am privileged to be able to work from home and continue to get my paycheck. My students have also taught me how many struggle to follow the most common public policy prescriptions amidst this pandemic.

“Social distancing,” is not an option for everyone, while “sheltering at home” can increase the pain of women and children who are subjected to economic, psychological, physical and sexual violence. Many lack the means to escape these situations even in “normal” times, and this state of emergency is further limiting their already heart-breaking options.

There are other obvious questions too: What does “shelter at home” mean for homeless people, or for people displaced, or forcibly removed, from their homes and put into crowded detention centres? What does it mean for the millions of people in prison in America?

Why are governments now granting grant amnesties to some prisoners convicted of violent offences, including possibly sexual abuse and gender-based violence, but not to journalists and political prisoners?

Will rising domestic violence during the current pandemic teach us to view it, even in ‘normal times’ as a public health problem?

COVID-19 is pushing to the surface plenty of proof that our systems and politics are not working. We are not all ‘in the same boat’ when it comes to the impacts of this crisis – but it is giving us all an opportunity to reflect on the kind of post-pandemic world we want to live in.

We must all seize this opportunity, sooner rather than later. Learning from each other’s different experiences is a crucial first step.

US election: what's at stake for the rest of us?

Our editor-in-chief, Mary Fitzgerald, is on the ground in key battleground states ahead of the US election.

There's never been more at stake. But the pandemic has kept many foreign journalists away. Hundreds of international observers who normally oversee US elections aren't there.

Hear Mary describe what she's seeing and hearing across the country, from regular citizens to social justice activists to right-wing militias arming themselves for election day.

Plus: hear from the journalists behind openDemocracy's latest big 'follow-the-money' investigation, which lifts the lid on how Trump-linked groups have exported their culture wars across the world.

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 29 October, 5pm UK time/1pm EDT.

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