Two months into the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s estimated that 100,000 U.S. residents have died of complications of COVID-19. Over 90% of patients hospitalized for COVID suffer at least one underlying condition, primarily hypertension, obesity, lung disease, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease.
The effects on our community go far beyond the medical issues, almost overnight turning a low unemployment rate into the highest unemployment rate since The Great Depression, with the shuttering of entire industries. Similar to how our bodies are suffering unequally from COVID, our community is suffering unequally due to underlying conditions made plain and more severe by the virus.
In medicine, diagnosis is the first step toward a cure, and there are emerging cures for some of our community’s underlying conditions as well.
Underlying Condition #1 – Poverty and Racism
The U.S. social safety net, already tattered by decades of cuts to public services, is clearly not able to support us as our economic conditions deteriorate. Although Oregon seems to be an outlier, with layoffs due to COVID tracking with the overall racial breakdown of the workforce, nationwide layoffs and furloughs are hitting people of color harder in the same way that infections and deaths from the virus are hitting them harder. This impact has everything to do with structural racism and racial capitalism. Across the political spectrum, we now see an imperative for broad scale investments to strengthen social safety net programs and services. We knew that “we are all in this together” even before the pandemic, and now is the time to build a movement to successfully restructure public policy and ensure we have a strong safety net to help resolve underlying poverty, racism (including devastating effects on Indigenous communities), and gendered economic disparities.
Underlying Condition #2- Disregard for Workers’ Rights
There is a paradox to calling poorly compensated workers in grocery stores, nursing homes, meat packing plants, farms, and child care facilities “heroes” and “essential” — an inconsistency that is glaringly apparent to union members and workers’ rights advocates. Essential work needs basic protections, and work is safer for us all when workers themselves have a voice in their workplace. For decades, employers have attacked workers’ rights, reducing the percentage of workers who are part of traditional unions to less than 11% of the workforce. Yet workers in low wage jobs, essential workers across the country, are now taking collective action to protect themselves — and they are winning, often without the backing of a union. A revitalization of militant labor organizing is underway. We should support them by requiring that health and safety standards are enforced by workers’ councils at all workplaces. These councils should have the power to change practices or cease work if they deem it unsafe.
Underlying Condition #3- “Gig” Employment
Over the last decade we have also allowed gig platforms like Uber and Lyft to grow and operate without basic worker protections like healthcare, paid sick leave, and unemployment benefits. All of this took place within a logic of innovation and ‘job creation’ following the last recession. It’s clear now that this was a colossal mistake, as we scramble to provide benefits for workers whose employers resisted paying into the unemployment insurance system and public benefits.
Underlying Condition #4 – Health Care
Our employer based health care funding system was not working for us before the pandemic, and that fact has been made even more clear in the face of widespread unemployment. Now is the time to permanently disconnect our health care from employment. Support is growing for the federal Health Care Emergency Guarantee Act, to ensure that anyone who loses coverage due to the pandemic is covered by Medicare, a clear and necessary measure to keep us healthy and safe.
Our Time To Make Our Own Solutions
As artist, trickster, healer, and friend of Portland JwJ Ricardo Levins Morales said on his blog: “…the resources we’ve needed were here all along. Trillions of dollars that were never offered to house, clothe, feed and heal us, appear out of thin air when the survival of the aristocracy is at stake…. Why is access to all our basic needs in the hands of predators in the first place? Why not ours?” Our community’s and our bodies’ underlying conditions can be treated, and now is our time to make our own solutions.