Who is bearing your burden of exposure to COVID-19?
Remembering the local grocers, delivery people, first responders, bus drivers, and others who can’t afford social distancing.
We knew COVID-19 would reach us eventually.
For many knowledge workers with the privilege of a flexible work location, the virus has meant working from home, stalking the re-stock schedule at Trader Joes and Costco, and adjusting to empty restaurants, public spaces, and canceled events. In this global experiment of employees working from home, reduced productivity and a possible loneliness epidemic are among the consequences of spending more time within our homes.
For others, figuring out how to live in a world with COVID-19 has meant choosing between their health and economic wellbeing.
As a knowledge worker at a national nonprofit (Common Future), I work remotely with a team that is split between coasts, I have the luxury of working from home, of practicing “social distancing” while keeping my job, and working a flexible schedule that allowed me to track down baby formula on a moment’s notice when my shipments were canceled last week.
Unfortunately, these privileges are a distant reality for many folks in the Common Future network and my community. From my vantage point of Queens, New York, I’ve seen the virus draw a visceral line between the haves and the have-nots, most noticeably in my own family.
I come from a working-class family — law enforcement (NYPD Traffic), federal employees, (USPS), and service sector workers (restaurant, Uber, home health aides) and others. My relatives interact with dozens of people every day they go to work, despite knowing that those who have been infected with COVID-19 often do not display symptoms.
These are the people whose lifeblood is human contact.
This New York Times data visualization makes it startlingly clear that people on the front lines of this virus are working jobs that are most often occupied by people of color, immigrants, women, and other marginalized communities. Many do not have access to essential benefits like paid sick leave, all but ensuring that people who suspect they might be sick will not take the necessary precaution of staying home.
While I can afford to raid Trader Joes and trek out to Fairway and Costco to shore up my supplies, most of my own family cannot. With few vehicles in my family, they resort to local retailers — convenience stores, dollar stores, and others — to stock up on food that often lacks nutritional benefit.
Above all, they just don’t have the time to crisis-manage. It’s not that they are being cavalier, they just don’t have the privilege to prepare as I do. Jedediah Britton Purdy captures this well:
The scramble reveals a class system in which a mark of relative status is the power to withdraw. If you have wealth or a salary from an institution that values you, and enough space at home, you might be able to pull off the essentially absurd trick of isolating yourself for a few months by drawing down the global web of commodities on display at Costco and Trader Joe’s. But for the 50 percent of the country that has no savings and lives paycheck to paycheck, or in small apartments with little food storage, or has to hustle every day to find work, this is simply impossible. People will be out every day, on the subways, at the gas stations, choosing between epidemiological prudence and economic survival, because they have no choice but to make that choice.
We’ve heard that these same challenges are just as present throughout the Common Future network.
As we all watch this unfold, day-by-day, we’ll bring local stories into a conversation that is truly global. Just as the world has been captured by the spirit of the Italians or the courage of doctors on the frontlines in China, we need to hear about the farmworkers, the parents, the artists, and others who are staring down the barrel of this crisis with true resilience.
The numbers — the transmission rate, the new cases — are step one to understanding our new reality, but it is the stories that will help us to grasp the future beyond the immediate crisis. We know local economies have been hit hard with restaurants shuttering their doors, artists facing canceled gigs, and parents juggling work at home with kids shut out of closed schools.
We’ve also heard messages of hope. That this pandemic may just be the turning point we need. Our generation’s world war that could amplify a progressive agenda. In looking at our vast, interdependent systems and what might arise from the failures of this crisis, Jedediah Britton Purdy exhibits a cautious hope:
The hands and minds that built up this order are not powerless to make one that puts health first, at every level: of individuals, communities, the land, and the globe. That is a different, deeper resilience, though to get there requires a political fight over the value of life itself, whether we are here to make profits or to help one another live.