The Lesser Evil for the Greater Good: How Upper Class Americans Have Left the “Non-Essentials” Behind
I live in California, blessed to be sheltering-in-place while my husband works from home. Sure, the past month I’ve been stripped of many of my basic rights. Hell, today the neighborhood forest trail where I walk several times a week to keep fit and sane has closed, even though I see more people in my neighborhood walking my dogs than I ever have walking that path. Regardless, it’s a state park and it’s now off limits.
Sometimes I feel trapped, like a pretty bird in a pretty cage, but after many weeks of using this SIP time as a “personal retreat” I realize, that’s not the reason my heart is burning. It’s not even fear that I’ll get sick. I don’t want to tempt fate, but I literally have none of the factors that increase risk with this disease. I’m not afraid for my family. Yet every day when I log onto Facebook, my chest feels like someone has lit a match inside of it or stabbed me from behind. My jaw tightens as I read about all my white collar friends who post pictures of working from their cozy beds, or lovely back porches in the sun, or clean and organized shelves, or several hundred masks they’ve sewn, and how great it is to flatten the curve and stay the fuck home memes. Everyone seems so happy to be playing house and having Zoomtails with their friends, patting themselves on the back for caring so much about the sick, elderly, and immune-compromised.
And there’s truth to that, we have sacrificed a certain sense of normality to flatten the curve, and the evidence shows it’s working…in most of California, we’re flat. Only one death so far in my entire county. I’d say kudos, if only my heart would stop aching.
There’s another curve no one seems to be watching, and no one in my income level seems to consider. That’s the hungry curve. The number of people with $0 income, waiting for their unemployment checks to arrive. Stuck in a nightmare, because as of this writing over 17 million of them have filed in the past two weeks. Our systems weren’t built for this and adding a bunch of new servers won’t help manage the bottleneck. In America, we’ve NEVER had that many people file for unemployment at one time, ever. The closest was like 700,000 in 2009. Boy, that seems like nothing now.
As the white collar class in America fled to their homes to flatten the curve, we deemed those businesses that can’t be done from behind the screen either essential or non-essential. Essential workers are forced every day to put themselves and their families at risk so that those of us warm and cozy at home can eat and have health care. There are plenty of stories documenting how they don’t have paid sick leave or proper safety equipment to do their jobs during the pandemic era, but hey, capitalism and profits, right?
Yet how about those non-essential folks? You know, the people who spent their entire lives creating a small business, say electricians, plumbers, contractors, garden store owners, restaurant owners, acupuncturists, massage therapists, etc. etc. etc. When we hide, we don’t use their services. Worse, our government forced them to shut down without a single plan, other than the overwhelmed and incomplete unemployment system, to help them.
How is it we consider any one of us “non-essential?”
I want it to be clear, I believe Governor Newsom used the best data to make his decision to shut down our state. Yet he must call in a new set of smart folks to figure out how he manages the hungry curve. For the more people that go without, the more likely social order will fall apart. There is an equation for how many can suffer in this way while keeping the rest of society safe, and I’m pretty sure a 30% unemployment rate won’t bode well. Moreover, it is clear the federal government will not help us with the hungry curve.
It is morally bankrupt to tell a person they are non-essential and may not work without offering to pay them to stay home. Those societies who consider shelter, food, and health care as a public health issues are going to better. They are going to flatten the Covid-19 curve while also managing the hungry curve. They will also help shape the world we create as we go forward. America is NOT one of those places. We have voted time and time again against such “socialist” policies. We’d rather force our non-essential brothers and sisters to stay home AND starve. Our government has offered little, a $1200 check that you have to pay back next time you pay taxes, and some small business loans that have extremely high consequences if you default. Rather than offer some sort of assistance to employers to keep paying salaries and benefits rather than lay people off, we’re sending Americans into the unemployment queue, where they will be forced to deal with delayed payments while bills keep coming, and then having to find a job once quarantine is lifted in an economy that may see a 30% unemployment rate. But this is the price our people must pay. 17 million and rising must go without work, and countless other independent contractors will go without income entirely for they can’t apply for unemployment. This will be their reality for as long as it takes to fight Covid-19.
How long before we can safely leave our houses? We’re not building any herd immunity keeping our children out of school and hiding behind the walls of our houses. We’re going to get sick if it’s still out there the moment quarantine is lifted. What then? Without a vaccine, how long do we continue to let our brothers and sisters go without work, without income, without help? We are not a socialist country, we’re a “get off your ass and pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” country. Those of us with means have obediently gone into our homes, doing our Zoom yoga, listening to Andrea Bocelli sing in the Duomo this Easter, and learning a new craft, oblivious to the climbing unemployment numbers, the increased needs of food banks, the uninsured fearing for their lives. We can do this as long as it takes, I mean, we’re in this together, right? We’re saving millions.
That’s the paradox, we ARE doing the right thing. When it comes to Covid-19 following quarantine is the only thing we can do. It’s not SIP that’s wrong, it’s the lack of planning and safety nets that is wrong. This isn’t Hong Kong, where they agreed to pay a stipend to people to stay home. This isn’t Spain, where they’ve decided to implement universal basic income, permanently. This isn’t Denmark where the government is paying 90% of salaries and benefits to shuttered businesses so they can keep their employees on the payroll. This isn’t New Zealand where hell, they do EVERYTHING better. This is America. The land of the totally un-free. The land of too bad, so sad.
We will give up our right to move about, to gather in public, to worship in public, to send our kids to school, our very bodily autonomy, but damn if we’ll implement any sort of safety net, because that would mean I lose the great privilege of my private health insurance and be forcing me to give my money to someone else so they can stay the fuck home and do what’s right for the greater good.
This is the land of the lesser evil. Has been my entire life.
This is why my heart hurts.
Originally published at https://nicolesallakanderson.com on April 9, 2020.