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Divided we stand – the pandemic in the US

The account of the pandemic could equally be labelled an account of the current politics, economies, and unequal social structures in the US.

Bandana Purkayastha
15 April 2020
Donald Trump having announced that he has instructed his administration to halt funding to the WHO, White House, April 14, 2020.
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Stefani Reynolds/PA. All rights reserved.
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On April 10, COVID-19 infection numbers in the US reached 427,460, with 14,696 deaths and 16.8 million unemployment claims, filed between March 15 and April 14. The pandemic has touched every part of the country, from astronomical figures of infection and deaths in New York to increasing spread throughout the rural countries.

In every area, there are continuing accounts detailing the lack of essential supplies and personnel to help those who are sick. The two trillion-dollar stimulus package has had scant impact on the ground, while other welfare packages are held up on the Senate floor. Racial minorities, especially African Americans, are adversely affected in disproportionate numbers. The political rhetoric in the US ranges from somber assessment and advice about continuing to “flatten the curve” to strident assertions of success.

As the virus moves through the United States, it has continued to reveal pre-existing social and economic divisions, and show the active political decisions being taken to further undermine the countries’ democratic processes and impose further restrictive (and exploitative) labor and human rights violations. The account of the pandemic could equally be labelled an account of the current politics, economies, and unequal social structures in the US.

Old battle scars

Some of these challenges starkly reveal economic and political systems and inequalities well-documented by social scientists. For instance, access to universal healthcare has been a political battle for over a decade now. Many decades of research have documented the sources of racial health disparities – how segregated housing, jobs, high levels of stress due to structural and everyday racism, poverty and attendant lack of access to healthcare, among other factors – create health conditions that are likely to make racial minority groups particularly susceptible to such pandemics.

Both overcrowding and sub-standard housing, that are typical in poorer areas of cities and suburbs, as well as geographical dispersion can exacerbate such vulnerabilities. In New York City, African Americans and Latinos are dying at twice the rate of the rest of the population. In an account about the rapid spread of the virus within the Navajo reservation, Romero points out that multiple people within small houses – as well as the lack of clean water, which often has to be carried to the houses – increase the vulnerability of a group that shows high rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and related ailments, and already lacked easy access to health care facilities.

Added to this is the social pattern of older people moving to elderly-housing. While the ability to afford different grades in this housing is definitely a class-based issue[1], currently, the diminishing cadre of service workers as well as decisions by administrators to confine the elderly to their rooms or flats, creates conditions of social isolation and confinement with interruptions in the provision of care. The differently abled people are similarly confined; as a result they are being infected disproportionately. Equal access to the economic and social resources would normally enable people to live lives free from want and with a modicum of dignity in a wealthy country like the US. Yet unequal access, tied to structures of capitalism, stratify access; this is starkly evident as people succumb to this pandemic.

Work and education

In a stream of research, social scientists have documented the impacts of the rise in contingent labor, the increasing number of people who work in the gig economy, and the patchwork of laws and policies that safeguard labor rights in the US. The development of three tier labor forces, with the ever-expanding lowest tier with little guarantee of work, wages, and social benefits are intersecting with health vulnerabilities.

Images of New York City with empty landscapes actually indicates the large numbers of people who cooked, cleaned, provided elder care, child care, personal care (cutting hair, doing nails, providing massages, running laundries), selling newspapers, providing quick lunches and dinners from carts, driving taxis, buses, and other transportation, and a host of other such activities to support all those who can afford such services. At the other end, many are sufficiently privileged to work from home or get an education through online learning initiatives. While the personal service workers suffer, the average home continues to require care work – Hochschild’s account of the Time Bind and third shifts has not disappeared. While gendered hierarchies reestablish themselves in completing all that is needed to be ready to work and learn, the rhetoric of online work or learning continues to erase the time, effort, and energy required to perform these tasks at home. A right that was acquired through sustained fights, and the US government’s help to address violence against women, is, perforce in abeyance; even as rates of violence appear to be increasing, women and children have few options to go to shelters or seek alternative housing to avoid abuse.

On the work and education front, the large-scale shift to online platforms has been achieved “successfully,” if one studies the question at the level of college shut-downs, sending students home and converting classes to some form of synchronous or asynchronous education. Yet, as sociologists have been writing for years, the intersection of race/gender/class/sexuality structures inevitably added new inequalities to these forms of work and learning. Casey describes the unequal environment in which students try to learn from home. Those who are in big homes with sufficient private and quiet spaces for work, robust bandwidth, and up-to-date multiple computers are far better poised than their peers who move back to crowded homes (as other siblings return), inadequate space, and varying responsibilities to attend to home-based tasks. A vast number of international students are stuck in areas without access to public transportation, trying to shop for food, get to health clinics or pharmacies, trying to convince private landlords to extend the end of the semester leases. They face homelessness or severe, under-the-table, over-crowding in the flats of students lucky enough to have housing through the summer. It is not clear if non-citizens, like international students, are eligible for debt or rental relief.

Strident rhetoric and electioneering

These glimpses of the precarity of life are set within a national political strident rhetoric, from the White House, of blaming others and taking credit for successes that are yet to materialize. This rhetoric has significant consequences. The repeated emphasis on the “Chinese virus” has resulted in a spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans who “look Chinese”. Asian American advocacy groups and other human rights focused groups have noted over 600 incidents against Asian origin people in the past month. A recent knife attack on a family – an adult, a two-year old and a six-year old – has been made headline news as the Federal Bureau of Investigation has determined it was a hate crime. At the same time however, the ruling party’s agenda has continued undeterred, including severely negating immigrants’ rights and security[2], aggressive restrictions on labor rights including unions’ ability to function, and rapid dismantling of environmental controls.

A stark process of undermining the democratic process of the US has been under way in Wisconsin. As Krugman has described, this state recently elected a Democratic governor, and 53% supported Democratic candidates; yet the state rules allocated only 36% of the Assembly seats to Democratic candidates. The states’ elections (primaries) were held on Tuesday, amidst calls to extend the data and allow mail-in ballots midst the pandemic. A particularly important point of this argument was that many voting centers in the mostly Democratic strongholds had been shut down by the Republican lawmakers, and the denial of mail in ballots were more likely to affect Democratic areas. As a result, there were very long lines and frustrations over the challenges voters faced as they broke their quarantines to vote in these elections. According to the New York Times (2020), Wisconsin is one of the key states for Trump’s reelection, and the President has been very much against mail-in ballots because he felt that Republicans would never win elections if mailed in ballots were allowed. On a separate note on the process, NYT reports that thousands of mailed in ballots were disqualified as having been mailed late, or because they were not delivered. Since the US postal service is also being dismantled as federal support is withdrawn, this is probably a harbinger of greater problems in the November national elections.

Big data

Social scientists have also begun to warn us of another process – of data colonization – that is transforming our lives as human beings around the world. Cauldry and Meijas (2019) among others have argued that in the contemporary phase of colonization, we, as human beings, provide the mine from which data are extracted by companies whose profits are based on both trading on our data, and concurrently, controlling the knowledge (including the range of political and sales messages) that can be generated and distributed.

Part of these complex arguments indicate that we are “owned” by those who own our data because our privacy safeguards are insufficient to address the larger structural changes associated with data extraction and mining. The messy worlds of science and the caveats about validity and generalisability are interruptions to the seemingly simple messaging; histories are altered, dissident voices are silenced, especially through increasing surveillance in digital and tangible spaces, and knowledge for profit – including fake news – is distributed.

Equally important, due to the reach of these companies, there are few political processes in place to assert controls over these businesses, globally, across multiple political systems. Irrespective of the exact details of these arguments, what is pertinent right now is that most of us are providing more and more data on our work, our social lives, our buying patterns, about our relationships as we live through this period of lockdown. The racist interruptions of zoom meetings that have been reported, also showcase how fragile some of these systems are in terms of privacy assurances. Thus, along with the pains of experiencing this pandemic, we are in the midst of a heightened state of providing more and more data, most likely for profit, to entities with whom we may not have had any previous dealing.

In sum, the problems of US’s political, economic, social systems, which often remained less visible, or were experienced as individual failures, are now revealed starkly through this lockdown.

In sum, the problems of US’s political, economic, social systems, which often remained less visible, or were experienced as individual failures, are now revealed starkly through this lockdown. Amidst numerous individual-level accounts of dedication to work and responsibilities, and of caring, kindness and support for others, the institutional-level arrangements remain full of cracks and fissures, impeding possible ways of harnessing ground-level goodwill towards crafting robust terrains for the common good. The quarantine of people who contribute in a million different ways to the public operations of this society, are acting as reminders of how this country is organized. The tragedies unfolding right now are the consequence of earlier decisions not to travel on the path to ensure widespread human rights and human securities for all Americans.

[1] Purkayastha, Bandana, Shweta Majumdar Adur, Miho Iwata, Ranita Ray, Trisha Tiamzon. 2012. As the Leaves Turn Gold: Asian Americans and Experiences of Aging. Rowman and Littlefield.

[2] Purkayastha, Bandana (2018). Migration, Migrants, and Human Security. Current Sociology Monograph Vol.66(2), pp.167-191.

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