Our new issue, “The Working Class,” is out in print and online now. Subscribe today and start reading.

Coronavirus Should Be a Wake-Up Call

From prisoners making hand sanitizer to people forgoing testing because of cost, the coronavirus has exposed the social rot in American society. But we don’t have to live this way — we can transform society for the better.

A USPS worker is seen wearing a mask while delivering mail as the coronavirus continues to spread across the United States, on March 14, 2020 in New York City. (Jamie McCarthy / Getty Images)

“The coronavirus,” Joe Biden has said, “does not discriminate on the basis of national origin, race, gender, or zip code.”

I can only assume that whoever wrote that line thought it sounded like a nice bit of unifying rhetoric. The ugly truth, though, is some of us are far more vulnerable than others. Health care coverage, ability to stay home, and even access to hand sanitizer vary according to “zip code” (i.e., economic position). The pandemic and the attempts by various institutions to respond to it are exposing the depravities of economic inequality in new ways every day.

While expensive Manhattan prep schools have already canceled classes, New York City’s public schools remain open. New York City public school chancellor Richard A. Carranza reports that one reason they haven’t closed is that 114,000 of their students are homeless. The coronavirus has become an index of social rot.

Coronavirus Meets American Society

To ensure schools and government agencies have a steady stream of hand sanitizer as regular supplies run short, New York State has turned to prison labor (i.e., slave labor). Inmates are earning a few cents an hour manufacturing “NYS Clean” sanitizer — sanitizer that they themselves might not be able to use. Most US prisons treat hand sanitizer as contraband because it contains alcohol. Combine that with “cramped conditions and spotty medical care,” not to mention soap shortages, and prisons might as well be factories for spreading the virus.

On Wednesday, Iran’s government confirmed it is temporarily releasing fifty-four thousand inmates to try to slow the contagion. So far, nothing similar has been announced in the United States, even though the majority of those locked up in federal prisons are there because of drug or immigration offenses rather than violent crimes.

The portion of the United States workforce outside of prisons is obviously at a lower risk for contracting coronavirus — but by how much crucially depends on their place on the economic ladder. People like me can just stay home. (I write articles like this from home anyway, and my university, like others across the country, seems to be moving toward putting all of its classes online.) People in some of the jobs most susceptible to infection have no such luxury. You can’t make food at a restaurant from your apartment. There’s no way to stock shelves at a restaurant online.

And with an abysmally low rate of private-sector unionization, many US workers are quite rationally afraid of being fired if they displease their boss, even in situations where their jobs are theoretically protected by the law. Others are no doubt cowed by the thought of risking any loss of income; half the country lives paycheck to paycheck.

If the economic rot has been on full display, so too has the political rot. Earlier this week, lawmakers tried to push a paid sick leave bill through Congress, only to have it blocked by Republicans. The GOP might as well change its slogan from “Make America Great Again” to “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”

On Saturday, the House passed a gutted version of the bill that includes some unemployment relief and food assistance, yet leaves millions of workers uncovered by its paid sick leave provisions. “Large employers are excluded,” the New York Times reports, “and the Labor Department will have the option of exempting workers at any company with fewer than 50 employees, if it determines that providing paid leave ‘would jeopardize the viability of the business as a going concern.’” The bill’s paid sick leave requirements would also expire at the end of the year — meaning that we’ll be faced with exactly the same problem when the next public health emergency comes along.

Democrats’ capitulation shows yet again that while they’re marginally better than Republicans, they can rarely be counted on to stand up for working people. And unless Bernie Sanders is successful in his long-shot bid to win the party’s nomination, the party will be led by a man criminally incapable of rising to the coronavirus challenge. Even as uninsured and underinsured people avoid treatment and testing because of the cost, Democratic front-runner Joe Biden is comfortable going on national television and telling the public that if he becomes president he would veto Medicare for All.

The Italian Example

Italy has a civilized health care system — the Servizio Sanitario Nationale — which eliminates most costs at the point of service. When coronavirus hit the country, they had more hospital beds per capita than the United States does right now.

Yet the system was overwhelmed by the pandemic. Doctors and nurses have worked “marathon hours” to deal with a flood of cases. Marco Resto, an intensive care doctor working in the hard-hit city of Lodi, was quoted in a recent Wall Street Journal piece saying, “The terms I use when friends ask me how I am doing are ‘Afghanistan’ and ‘Vietnam.’” On Wednesday, Italian authorities confirmed that two hundred people had died in a single twenty-four-hour period.

If that’s what’s happening in Italy, what’s it going to look like when the disease comes in contact with the United States’ barbaric for-profit health system?

We don’t have to accept any of this as natural — not the lack of paid sick leave, not the homeless schoolchildren, not the forced labor or oppressive bosses or unconscionable health system.

If the coronavirus shows how bad things are, it also shows us the urgent necessity of transformative change.

We don’t have to live like this.