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What the Coronavirus Outbreak is Telling Us About Our Country

 

Just a few days ago, we were all living our normal lives, joking about the impending coronavirus and relaxing on spring break. In just a few short hours, many of our lives were turned upside down. Suddenly, we are stuck inside, taking online classes and anxious about what was to come. 

Since we likely all have more time on our hands now than we previously thought, it’s a good time to reflect on what this outbreak is showing us about our country. More specifically, it is showing us what is wrong with our country.

The first, and perhaps most obvious point, is how our country, or rather how our federal government, handled this impending pandemic. It started well before this disease became a global issue when Trump and his then National Security Advisor John Bolton fired the pandemic response team. This left the federal government quite ill-prepared when coronavirus started spreading globally and reached our waters.

Then, when coronavirus did show up here in the U.S., the response was messy, uncoordinated and ineffective. Ever since the first case was diagnosed, Trump and his administration has told us lie after lie in an attempt to deny the existence of an outbreak here. He claimed the virus would die with warmer weather, that it was virtually the same as the flu, and that it was completely contained and under control. None of these claims were backed with hard facts – he was simply spewing nonsense in an attempt to cover up his terrible work.

Oh, but of course, none of this was his fault.

To add to the lies and ill preparation, the U.S., with Trump’s full support, is well behind where we should be when it comes to testing for the disease. We have tested far fewer people per capita compared to other nations, and despite the World Health Organizations template, we still fall far behind where we should be in developing an accurate test. This has led to a misrepresentation of the extent of the disease here in the U.S., giving us all a false sense of security. Plus, the government supported this lack of testing so that we wouldn’t “look bad” for having an outbreak. We missed our chance to prevent a massive outbreak and hundreds of deaths just to maintain an image. Smart, right?

Besides our government, this lack of testing leads to another important point: our nation’s issue of inequality. Thousands of people across the country struggle with access to healthcare because they cannot afford it or afford insurance to get it. In the wake of this crisis, those without access to healthcare (those low in socioeconomic status and in disproportionately minority communities) are going to get the brunt of the impact. And this inequality is going to make the crisis worse.

If they cannot afford healthcare, it is highly unlikely people will go get tested. If they get sick, they will likely just push through as long as the symptoms are not severe. This means they will probably end up at work since they cannot afford to take time off, which leads to a greater chance of them further spreading the disease. Even if they do get tested, or the test is free, the cost of the healthcare afterwards is not and can leave people in debt for years to come. In turn, this sickness and financial debt keeps these individuals and families stuck in the cycle of poverty.

Illegal immigrants have it even more difficult – they don’t have the documentation to get access to healthcare and receiving healthcare may end up getting them in trouble in other ways. Immigrants deserve to be healthy just as much as the rest of us and should not suffer consequences by doing what is in the best interest for public health. 

Additionally, many low SES families cannot afford to stock up on food for a full two weeks. They typically live paycheck to paycheck, and with the possibility of losing income from missing work, they do not have room in their budget to buy extra supplies. When those of higher SES freak out and start hoarding supplies (toilet paper, anyone?), lower SES families are then screwed over and can’t obtain those supplies since they have to buy a little at a time. Plus, poorer neighborhoods usually have smaller supermarkets that do not offer as many bulk products, and poor people lack the access to transportation to get to places with more supplies. This limits them even more in their ability to prepare for the outbreak.

Further, this outbreak has revealed insecurities in the housing system as well. Lower SES individuals often have service and other low-paying jobs that are about to be severely restricted as restaurant hours lessen and people go out less. This leads to a loss of income and greatly increases the likelihood of lower SES families missing rent payments and becoming homeless. 

Homeless people are even more at risk. They lack access to personal hygiene facilities, and those they do reach, such as in homeless shelters, are shared with many other people. They also often live in close quarters with others, either in shelters or encampments. And if they are homeless, you can bet they have zero access to healthcare. Instead, these people will suffer with sickness and continue its transmission throughout the community because they can’t even afford to survive. And that isn’t a failure on them – it’s a failure on us. 

We have neglected poor and homeless people for decades, and this outbreak points out our failure. We must implement healthcare and housing policies that better enable these populations to access safe, affordable housing and necessary hygiene and healthcare supplies. What those policies look like is up for debate, but their necessity is not. 

On top of all of this, perhaps the more subtle point it has made is one about our culture. Are we willing to sacrifice some of our freedoms for the health of others? Even if we know we will survive the disease if we get it, will our 80-year-old grandparents when we transmit it to them? For once in our lives, it is time to come together and think about more than ourselves. We will not get through this unless we are all willing to make sacrifices for the health of all.

So stop going to bars. Stop treating this like spring break round two. Stop hoarding toilet paper. Stop caring only about yourself and listen to health officials. Listen to the facts and distance yourself. It may seem extreme, but it is the best way to prevent many, many deaths.

Most importantly, we are in this together, and we will get through this. And afterwards, let us learn from our mistakes. We must address the inequality gap and the self-interest of our federal government. These issues cannot be solved by individuals simply “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.” We must institute wider systemic change across various sectors, from health to economics to education. It’s time we realize that we all benefit from lifting each other up, so it’s about time we do so. After all, we’re all human, and we all deserve the chance to live a good life.

And don’t forget to wash your hands.

Abigail Shepard is a junior at Central Michigan University studying music and psychology. She is the alto saxophone player in Kefi Quartet and the lead alto of CMU's Jazz Lab. She is also treasurer of To Write Love On Her Arms, a mental health advocacy group on campus, and an undergraduate researcher in the Psychology Department. Outside of school, Abigail loves drinking tea, petting cats, and exploring nature.
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