Photo courtesy of: Steve Knutson

Quarantine: A Privilege Few Americans Can Afford

Even though the virus is of equal treatment, the working conditions are not.

Isabel Garcia has recently been given the option of working remotely. However, for the 32-year-old second-generation Guatemalan, the task is proving to be more challenging than she previously imagined. Quarantined in a 2-bedroom apartment with her two children, aged 18 months and four years, enduring a cut of her salary of 35%, her experience has been far from ideal. Her husband Manuel doesn’t even have such ‘luxury,’ since he’s been commissioned to deliver food essentials across the country to a series of supermarket chains. Isabel’s situation is similar to that of millions of Americans: she can’t afford to stay home.

Although COVID-19 is a virus of equal treatment, it does not affect everyone equally. Working conditions fissures in our society are — once again — vulnerable amid this public health crisis. As the world is grappling with the worst pandemic in recent history, privilege is a crucial factor determining who gets to be confined and protected and who doesn’t. The virus is already disrupting the lives of many Americans, especially those who are disabled, homeless, unemployed, underemployed, without healthcare access, lacking child care or without paid sick leave. All of them run the risk of facing, throughout the coronavirus outbreak, severe social and economic hindrances, psychological trauma and even ostracism.

For the past weeks, the pandemic has been illustrating the unsafe conditions of workers across America. For instance, those working in the gig economy industry — often regarded as freelancers — enjoy minimal benefits such as fixed salaries, sick pay and health insurance, all of which are vital for the survival of the outbreak. Carlos Zambrano, has three jobs in California, all of them within the gig economy. He’s a driver for both Uber and Lyft. On his spare time, when he’s not driving strangers up to 10 hours a day, the 28-year-old delivers food on Grubhub and Uber Eats. Since the number of requests has drastically fallen, he barely makes ends, putting him on the edge of unemployment.

According to Labor Department data, only 29% of workers have the privilege of working from home amid the coronavirus outbreak, who are most likely to be highly educated and high earners. At the same time, most Americans struggle with remote working or live in communities with limited internet connectivity. Unequal accessibility to health safety precautions falls on the same grounds that fragment the United States in many other ways: education, income, race, and of course, politics.

Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been telling us ad nauseam that we should stay home and that we should avoid socializing in an attempt to “flatten the curve.” It is a question of preventing the collapse of public health and ensuring that all those who need it can access emergency health resources, and that the most vulnerable — the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions — are protected. Nonetheless, all these preventive measures are much easier to follow for specific individuals — especially high-profile professionals. Service sector employees, such as those in restaurants, retail, child care and the gig economy, are often less likely to have sick leave days, the right to work remotely, or even company-provided health insurance — around 27,5 million Americans.

For several citizens, being sick means compromising between sitting at home versus getting paid. As shown by data from the Labor Department, one-quarter of American workers do not have access to paid sick leave: two-thirds of the lowest-paid workers but just 6% of the highest earners. Only a number of local and state governments have enacted sick pay legislation. The emergency relief package that was recently passed on 18 March by the House of Representatives only foresees sick leave for about 20% of private-sector jobs. It significantly exempts big employers like Amazon or Walmart from the obligation of providing any paid sick leave for their workers. This political failure of not allowing uniformly paid sick leave imposes a threat for the health of millions of workers, customers and the broader American public.

Uninsured people, who tend to have low income, are less likely to seek medical treatment if they get sick, whether they are facing a climate emergency like a hurricane or a health one, like the current virus outbreak.

While Public health authorities are still suggesting social isolation, a significant portion of considered ‘essential’ workers will continue to interact with others while performing their duties. These Americans, without whom our economy and society could not sustain themselves at this time, face themselves with an ethical dilemma. They are both terrified and gratified to be on the frontlines of the coronavirus fight. They are making the utmost gesture of humanity, servicing the public, taking care of the elderly, protecting our streets and stocking food for us. However, all of them are subject to a questioning that currently defines their day: staying home or potentially getting infected.

The coronavirus pandemic has not only unveiled the plight of America’s health care system — one that is considered to be of lower quality compared to several other developed countries like Italy or Spain. It has also revealed the high levels of job precariousness that exist in increasingly large segments of the working population.

Thus, the pandemic will disproportionately impact upon the most vulnerable groups and exacerbate inequality. Among those who are most likely to be affected are Americans currently in less protected and lower-paid jobs, particularly young people, minorities, and low-skilled workers. Immigrants may be highly susceptible too since they lack social protection and rights. According to the White House, the unemployment rate could reach 20% over the next few months. This estimate suggests that the virus could move the country’s economy from the lowest unemployment rate since the late 1950s to the highest rate since the Great Depression. If this happens, the American economy will lurch from the most continued progress on record to one of the worst GDP declines in history.

Declining incomes and the effects of the financial crisis may exacerbate low-income workers’ social conditions if access to necessary aid support is not prioritized or guarantee on time. If efforts are not made to prevent the collapse of the working class, then American workers run the risk of isolation and social stigmatization.

While optimists hope that this epidemic will compel policymakers to reconsider inequality, global access to healthcare and fair working conditions, the fact is that the net result of the pandemic is likely to further entrench the already established disparities, reversing years of decreasing inequality. Ultimately, though, the virus outbreak may give birth to a new wave of socialized thought in America which demands health insurance and sick leave for everyone regardless of class, race or income.

American workers are in desperate need of leadership. They need an executive order to waive the costs associated with staying home from work, and the healthcare-associated expenses related to the pandemic is something that also should be covered by the government, in the same way people affected by natural disasters are taken care of. Americans need it quick. They need it now. If not, what will be the societal and economic costs of not doing anything about it?

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