How Inequality Leads to Global Pandemic
As of 16:00 EST on Mar. 4, 2020 the US has confirmed 80 cases of the COVID-19 Novel Coronavirus. There have been nine total deaths in the US, and 13 states with confirmed cases of the coronavirus. Because health is gatekept by capitalism, those who make up the working class will be more susceptible to the spread of COVID-19.
We live in a time where labor is increasingly polarized between those that can work remotely and those that must work in person. Jobs that require human contact fall under the service industry, which is made up of 86 percent of US workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These workers face low pay, very little benefits, and uncertain hours. Unfortunately for this 86 percent of the US working class, COVID-19 spreads through human contact. These workers face an elevated exposure risk to the coronavirus.
So, what happens if a service worker contracts COVID-19? Couldn’t they take paid time off to isolate themselves?
For many service workers, this is not a reality.
The Economic Policy Institute states that only 47 percent of the bottom quarter of wage earners in the US have access to paid sick leave. However, 90 percent of the top quarter of American wage earners do. Even in places in the US where paid sick leave is mandated by law, low-wage workers are unable to take advantage of it. This is because many low-wage workers have to work multiple jobs to supplement their income, so they are unable to build up sick days with their employers.
Working-class people without sick leave often can’t skip work when they’re ill, simply because they can’t afford it. According to a recent survey done by the Federal Reserve, 4 out of 10 workers would struggle to recover from a $400 emergency expense, such as treatment for illness. The spread of COVID-19 has prompted many labor unions to plead with companies and the government to increase worker protections and benefits so that days off won’t carry such an absurd cost.
However, capitalism will never allow this to happen. Days off carry the price they do because labor power is a commodity. To the capitalists who run every aspect of our oligarchic society, these workers are not people. These workers are money, ripe for the taking.
This commoditizing of people in spite of a global pandemic closely parallels the spread of Influenza (H1N1) in 1918. Medical journals written during the pandemic showed that viral infection of H1N1 was no more aggressive than previous strains of the virus. Be that as it may, soldiers who fought in WWI massively facilitated the spread of H1N1. Soldiers’ immune systems were weakened by malnourishment, lack of sleep, and “shell shock.” The war’s overcrowded hospitals and poor hygiene standards prompted viral spread at an incredible pace.
These soldiers fought in “the war to end all wars,” and thus became a commodity. Capitalists cared less if they had what they needed, because to them, these soldiers weren’t people. These soldiers were victory, ripe for the taking.
Instead of promoting tactics to prevent the spread of H1N1, countries involved in the war censored this information in fear of losing morale for the war effort. The needs of the many were silenced by the needs of the few, and humanity suffered from a virus that could have been stopped early on.
The spread of COVID-19 has highlighted the deep gap between the privileged and the poor. If worker’s needs continue to be ignored, and workers continue to be commoditized, then inequality created by capitalism will once again allow a virus to cause global suffering.