How to Check Your Privilege During a Pandemic
Recognize that COVID-19 will hit the poor and the marginalized the hardest
As we watch coronavirus spread across the United States, many of us are trying to stay sensible but be prepared. We’re keeping up with the science and taking practical, yet effective, steps to help contain the spread of disease. And we’re telling ourselves we’re not living in a Michael Crichton novel — yet.
All of us should recognize, though, that COVID-19 will hit the poor and the marginalized the hardest. We already know the virus is much more severe for the elderly, with a greater likelihood of complications or fatality. And people who suffer from chronic illness are especially at risk.
For those of us who do not fall into those groups, and who do not have a compromised immune system, we have a responsibility to protect those who do. The first step is to admit our privilege.
For those who are not particularly afraid of COVID-19, or even those who test positive, but are young or have a strong immune system, please recognize that you could still be carrying the virus even if you never show symptoms. You could be spreading it to your most vulnerable neighbors, and potentially give them a death sentence without even knowing it.
Panic! At the Costco
How do you prepare for a disaster that leaves your city intact but destroys your way of life? Buy toilet paper.
This is not the time to panic. But you should be considerate enough to follow simple rules to prevent this disease from spreading. Wash your damn hands, stay home if you’re sick, and don’t break quarantine to go to a father-daughter dance or a Dartmouth Business School social event, no matter how much you’ve been looking forward to it.
Even if you have really good health insurance, that’s great for you, but plenty of people don’t. The number of uninsured Americans rose in 2018 for the first time in a decade, with some 27.5 million non-elderly people having no insurance at any point during the year. Among adults who were insured all year in 2018, 29% were underinsured, meaning the high deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses would make them more likely to skip care or struggle to pay medical bills.
In a supposedly developed nation, people should not have to choose between affording medical care and everything else, like food, transportation, or paying rent — especially when their lives are on the line.
Nearly one in four working people in the United States have no paid time off, and service employees and gig workers rarely have the luxury of working from home. Meanwhile, more than 20% of Americans don’t save any of their annual income at all, and 58% have less than $1,000 in their savings accounts. This means that huge portions of the country can’t afford to be off work for a month or more to avoid getting sick themselves or putting others at risk.
I worked in the restaurant industry for almost a decade, and my memory of that time in my life is very clear. My paychecks could vary by hundreds of dollars depending on how many hours I was able to work. Being forced to take weeks or even days off due to illness could mean my electricity would be shut off the following month. It could mean I wouldn’t make my rent payment.
Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have had the luxury of stocking up on basic supplies — and yes, “stocking up” is a luxury. Back then, going over my grocery budget meant I had to bear the humiliation of deciding what to put back on the shelves after I didn’t have enough money at the checkout counter. There was no savings account, no credit card safety net (if I had one at all, it was perpetually maxed). I lived paycheck to paycheck and if the money in my checking account was gone, that was it until the next direct deposit hit.
So many people live paycheck to paycheck, and far worse. Not everyone is equipped to prepare for a pandemic.
Let’s be clear — COVID-19 can’t tell if you’re rich or poor, whether you live in a rural community or the city, whether you’re young or old, male, female or non-binary, God-fearing or atheist, homosexual, heterosexual or somewhere on the spectrum. It cannot determine your race. It does not discriminate. But it will hit certain populations harder than others, at least partially due to privilege.
If schools close, what happens to the children who rely on school meals to stave off hunger and get proper nutrition during the week? If companies send workers home to prevent the spread of the disease, but without offering paid time off, who will make sure their families have the means to survive until they can work again?
Caring about our neighbors with less privilege than ourselves may have a significant impact on the spread of this virus.
As Sandro Galea, dean at the Boston University School of Public Health, noted in Scientific American, this is not the only epidemic our country is facing. “We should not forget that the U.S. is in the midst of an opioid epidemic which contributed to 70,237 drug overdose deaths in 2017, and a gun violence epidemic which killed 39,429 people last year and over 7,000 so far in 2020,” Galea wrote. “We have also seen up to 52,000 deaths from flu since October.” And by writing specifically about this one, at this time, I’m by no means attempting to minimize or negate the seriousness of our other challenges.
However, this is an opportunity to shed light on the inequalities rampant in our supposedly great nation. Another sign of a healthy society is caring for each other, and we don’t do enough of that. The bottom line is: Those of us who have privilege should use it to protect and help those who don’t. Not just amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but all the time.
And if you happen to be a heartless, selfish waste of a person with the compassion of a pit viper, then consider this: Caring about our neighbors with less privilege than ourselves may have a significant impact on the spread of this virus and how quickly we can stop it. If you won’t do it for them, then do it for yourself.
Like it or not, we’re all in this together.