EDITOR’S NOTE: The Nation believes that helping readers stay informed about the impact of the coronavirus crisis is a form of public service. For that reason, this article, and all of our coronavirus coverage, is now free. Please subscribe to support our writers and staff, and stay healthy.
“Anyone who wants a test can get a test,” President Trump said in early March, encouraging the country to remain calm over the coronavirus pandemic during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control headquarters in Atlanta. We know what happened next: The threat began to proliferate exponentially, and most people who wanted tests couldn’t get them. The CDC’s early attempts to distribute them were disastrous, and they have continued to be strictly restricted. “It is a failing,” said White House Coronavirus task force member Dr. Anthony Fauci at a congressional hearing, a week after Trump’s remarks.
The sudden spread of the virus is so alarming that it has had many observers reaching for the comparison to science fiction, to disaster movies, to apocalyptic horror. “There can be no more divisions among the living,” says Dr. Millard Rausch, the fictional scientist in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, as a zombie pandemic spreads. A virus is a kind of zombie, an undead contagion that reproduces itself without distinguishing between its hosts. But among the living, divisions already exist. In Romero’s vision, human victims become exposed in the most commonplace site of consumerism: the mall. It’s in precisely this kind of space that public assembly, and our participation in the national economy, is no longer possible. But the economic structures this space embodies stubbornly persist.
Dystopian fiction is often characterized by societies with rulers in remote locations, securing protection from the threats of both nature and the global masses. As it happens, that is the world we already live in, one where eight men own as much wealth as half of the world’s population. Needless to say, this divide affects our access to security and safety in the midst of crisis. As Americans isolate themselves in fear and uncertainty—in some cases, exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms but being told to stay out of the ER unless they can’t breathe—reports have poured in about certain citizens’ getting tested. Ostensibly, these tests are unavailable to those who cannot supply direct contact tracing. Yet supermodel Heidi Klum, online influencer Arielle Charnas, Senators Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and Lindsey Graham, and other high-profile figures have flaunted their results. Some have been positive, some not, some are even asymptomatic. At a press conference, NBA player Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz jokingly touched all the microphones within reach, echoing the president’s insouciance. The next day, he tested positive.
To date, eight NBA teams have been tested, including the Jazz, in spite of Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt’s admission that the state was “critically low on test kits.” It is hard not to wonder how tests became so easily available to the rich and famous, when they have been largely inaccessible for those who need them most: health care workers, the critically ill, and the elderly. In February, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney described news of the virus at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where an attendee was later discovered to have been infected, as a political maneuver by the president’s enemies. He had already been tested.
In The Atlantic, Adam Harris writes that a former insurance industry executive offered him a stark explanation for this disparity: “the health-care system in the United States is built for the elite.” Wendell Potter, once a communications director for industry giant Cigna, is now an advocate for universal health-care. “We hear politicians say all the time that we have the best health-care system in the world,” he told The Atlantic. “We have fabulous doctors and health-care facilities, but they’re off-limits to a lot of people because of the cost.”
The New York Times reports that after old age and the presence of preexisting health conditions, the third-highest indicator for risk of death from Covid-19 is “low socioeconomic status.” This is a cause for alarm for most of us, with the Labor Department recently reporting that a record 3.3 million Americans have applied for unemployment. But for a privileged few, it puts them on the right side of a widening chasm.
The wealthy are already more able to stay home from work, and to live comfortably while sheltering in place. But a crisis of these proportions brings us, again, to the realm of science fiction. The most absurd features of this kind of imaginary future appear to be playing out in reality, with the richest among us not only securing exclusive access to medical care, but plotting their escape. Some have alighted to summer homes, risking carrying the illness to small towns with less reliable health care infrastructures and more limited supply chains. A few have gone to further extremes. The founder of a California-based manufacturer of underground concrete bunkers told The Guardian that his firm “had seen a surge in inquiries and sales since the crisis took hold.” The CEO of a competing firm told the San Francisco Chronicle his company has received 1,000 inquiries since the outbreak. Another told the Los Angeles Times about the amenities available in some of these structures. “Movie theaters are common,” he said. “We built one in California that has a shooting range, swimming pool and bowling alley.”
But the lifestyles of the rich and famous are not characterized by self-sufficiency, and the luxury of mobility is cold comfort against nature’s imposition of both contagious illness and a rapidly encroaching climate crisis. This has always been the ominous truth underlying the apparent security of the ruling classes, who rely on the labor of others to produce their conditions of affluence. As geographer David Harvey writes, “In the cholera epidemics of the nineteenth century, the transcendence of barriers of class was sufficiently dramatic as to spawn the birth of a public sanitation and health movement (which became professionalized) that has lasted to this day.” Public health emerged as a result of this dawning recognition that belonging to a society, including one starkly divided by class, puts even those at the top at risk. For wealthy individuals to make sure they, and only they, are safe, the threat will remain, lurking around every corner.
It’s obvious why many commentators on the left have been invoking the old Industrial Workers of the World slogan “An injury to one is an injury to all”: A pandemic serves as proof of concept. In the age of Covid-19, the sentiment appears even in the pages of the Financial Times: “In a time of contagion, the case for universal healthcare, at times a fog of detail, has also found painful simplicity: unless everyone has care, no one does.”
Few situations have ever challenged the assumptions behind our sociopolitical structure so baldly (or so quickly): Many workers have had to stop working, not only for their own protection, but for the safety of others. Without their incomes’ being fed back into the market, the whole framework threatens to collapse. The ideological presupposition of a functional society based on rational self-interest no longer seems to hold.
In a letter he wrote in 1868, Karl Marx anticipated a grim outcome should we ever face a crisis like the one we find ourselves in today: “Every child knows a nation which ceased to work, I will not say for a year, but even for a few weeks, would perish.” In order for a society to function under capitalism, the circuits of the market have to remain unbroken. But the inability of this system to weather the threat of a pandemic makes the terms of survival clear: The prerogative of certain members of society to secure their own safety at the expense of others will doom us all. The refrain of the moment has been “We’re all in this together.” But unless the divisions among the living are dismantled, we are not. Without universal health care, housing, and a living wage, the nation will remain collectively at risk from disasters both natural and economic. If this crisis doesn’t get us, the next one will.