Currently at 1.39 million cases and 82,000 deaths, the United States is once again surging past all other nations in the public health department as it attempts to manage the COVID-19 outbreak. As in most health care statistics, the United States is at the end, the wrong end, be it top or bottom. The nation is lacking in health care but leading in deaths. In the past couple months, the public has become exposed to not only a deadly virus, but also the destructive consequences of a healthcare system shaped by profit instead of people. The shortcomings of our national healthcare system are nothing new, but now the COVID-19 outbreak has made the deadly consequences class disparity amplified by the national healthcare system especially clear. Death still remains the great equalizer. Disease among the living occurs more frequently among communities of color that are less wealthy and less healthy than their more affluent white neighbors to begin with. Communities that already face higher levels of poverty, disease, and unemployment are more susceptible to outbreaks and higher death tolls. In a country where health care is a privilege and not a right, an individual’s wealth does indeed have a profound impact on their health, and in the case of COVID-19, even their survival. Testing and treatment can be administered, but the COVID-19 pandemic reveals that access and affordability to healthcare from the start are what vulnerable communities most need. This outbreak will place further health and economic strain between classes, a separation that has primed America to be the land of opportunity for a full-blown COVID-19 outbreak.
Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, “social distancing” was metaphorically in effect between the affluent and the poor. The upper class has socially distanced itself from the lower one, retreating to private homes and broadcasting to the rest of the communities to stay safe as essential workers face higher rates of layoffs, unpaid sick leave, and disease cases. Policies intent on helping low-income Americans have loopholes exempting large companies, are not mandatory, or exclude groups of workers like undocumented immigrants (North, 2020). Looking at the environments in which the Top Ten Percent reside, the upper class has already generationally established itself in better neighborhoods, have better health care, go to better schools and receive a better education, positioning themselves to have more financially secure jobs. Although upper-class Americans express genuine concern for the rest of the nation at large, their wealth grants them social and safety that ensure their risk of becoming sick is significantly less than the rest of the population. The social distance between them and their fellow citizens has only grown larger and more evident during this pandemic.
While white-collar workers can “shelter in place” by working from home and share in the concern over the spread of the virus, low-wage minority workers who cannot afford to lose their jobs must put their health at risk to provide the basic services essential to the upper class. The stay-at-home orders are sensible, but they assume that everyone has a place to stay and do not account for those without homes or who live in crowded conditions. Instead of access to quality health care, the residents of low-income neighborhoods have limited access to quality healthcare or education. Low-quality food combined with high-stress levels from working multiple shifts during this health crisis are even more common now among the lower working class. As a result, chronic heart, kidney, liver, and lung diseases are more common while secure jobs and influential professional connections are scarce (Stewart, 2019). Those struggling in low income-environments face pre-existing health and economic challenges during this pandemic that make it harder to receive and afford treatment, much less prevent illness in the first place.
Recent polling conducted in states such as Illinois, Michigan, and New York highlights healthcare and class inequality through developing racial disparities, showing that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected black communities. In these states, blacks make up fourteen percent of the population but account for over forty percent of the deaths (nytimes, 2020), and in southern states, the disparity is greater. Institutionalized racism is largely responsible for this disparity. Housing discrimination such as redlining means that black communities are living in more crowded conditions in more polluted areas. Many residents do not even own washing machines or dryers to wash masks properly. Medical racism has diverted funds away from public health clinics in black communities so the infected are left untreated (Chotiner, 2020). The inability to shelter in place, possible link between air pollution and coronavirus, chronic illness, and lack of resources lead to long-term health consequences (Walsh, 2020) that have transformed the highly vulnerable black communities of major cities into hotspots of COVID-19 outbreaks.
Overall, the nation may be facing a new virus, but it is still dealing with the same issues of class and race inequality that have contributed to its far-reaching effects and devastation. Though present before, it took a pandemic to realize how deeply flawed and inefficient our healthcare system is, as well as recognize how deeply rooted and influential wealth and racism can be in determining who has access to healthcare and who does not. In order to address current conditions, extensive nationwide testing is needed and paid sick leave should be enforced (Walsh and North, 2020). But fighting this pandemic also requires a unified response and consistent action across the public. Racial and class inequality preventing different communities in the country from receiving the care they need will impede the efforts of the health care workers and allow the virus to continue its spread. Politicians need to address these disparities by reducing food insecurity and improve the health conditions of minority communities. It is in the nation’s interests to improve the living conditions of its most vulnerable communities in order to ensure public and national health.
Chotiner, Isaac. (2020, April 14). The Interwoven Threads of Inequality and Health.
The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/the-coronavirus-and-the-interwoven-threads-of-inequality-and-health.
New York Times Editorial Board. (2020, April 9). The America We Need. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/09/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-inequality/america.html.
North, Anna. (2020, April 10). Every aspect of the coronavirus pandemic exposes America’s devastating inequalities. Vox. https://www.vox.com/2020/4/10/21207520/coronavirus-deaths-economy-layoffs-inequality-covid-pandemic.
Stewart, Matthew. “The Birth of a New American Aristocracy”. Readings for Sociology: Ninth Edition, edited by Garth Massey and Timothy L. O’Brien, W.W. Norton & Company, 2019, pp. 265-277.
Walsh, Colleen. (2020, April 14). COVID-19 Targets Communities of Color. The Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/04/health-care-disparities-in-the-age-of-coronavirus/.