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Privilege in the time of COVID-19: What should “the few” be doing?

Abigail Murray
Mar 26 · 17 min read

Solutions to the health crisis will come. Beyond taking measures to self-isolate and maintain social distance, it’s mostly out of our (chapped, dry) hands. But what about the economic crisis? Can we make a difference there?

What does this scene from Love in the Time of Cholera have to do with COVID-19? Very little.

TL;DR: Are you so eager to do some good that you’re not sure you can sit through this entire article? Skip ahead to the juicy stuff! The header you’re looking for is “Where can we step up?

Many of my friends and coworkers are privileged to be unaffected by the novel coronavirus. Yes, you read that right. They’re unaffected, or at least relatively so. And before you race ahead to read about these maddening people, unmoved by the obvious disaster touching us all, consider:

How much does this sound like you?

You’re living in or near a city, maybe watching the news to glean hints as to what new restrictions on recreation, shopping, and movement tomorrow will bring. You’re practicing social distancing, following all the rules, and posting about cabin fever and your new WFH setup. You’re not an “essential worker” but somehow you’re still plugging away. Maybe you’re shifting your investment position. And yes, you have no idea how long this will go on and are steeling yourself for the toll it will take (has already taken) on your mental health. You’re also very likely worried for your older family members and the people you know with preexisting conditions that put them squarely in a more virus-vulnerable position. Maybe you are even struggling in a very real way with how to provide adequate childcare to your young kids and still join video calls and get work done. But bottom line, your income hasn’t changed.

If you’re still getting the paycheck you got two weeks ago, and you don’t expect that to change tomorrow, one could argue that you, like me, are relatively unaffected.

More seriously, maybe not all of this applies to you. But maybe most of it does. So while “unaffected” may not be technically correct or fair, “privileged” probably is. Here I’m using “privilege” as a stand-in for one important marker:

We aren’t losing money. We may even be accumulating more of it. And when things turn around in the market, as they always do, we’ll be more on top than we ever were before.

What about everyone else?

It’s the rest of my friends who have a lot more in common with, well, everyone else. When we are not mid-pandemic, they work in television or theatre, or they clean houses or babysit or teach music classes. They work at gyms or brick-and-mortar stores and maintain a regular 9-to-5, overtime, or nightshift schedule. Maybe they own a small business, now shuttered until this passes. Maybe they have side hustles. Or maybe that’s their only gig. But there’s a big chance that they, like so many others in the U.S., many of whom were already living paycheck to paycheck, have gone from “getting by okay” to completely unemployed, overnight.

As I write this, the front page of the NY Times reports that 3.3 million people filed for unemployment last week, the greatest number of claims ever, in data going back half a century. That’s 4.75 times worse than the last “worst week ever” when 695,000 people filed for unemployment during the Recession of 1981–1982.

Buzzfeed has been updating the chart above weekly.

Of course, in some cases, it’s not so straightforward. Some have gone from employed to underemployed. Some will stretch to new ways of doing what they did before and eke by for a couple of months. Living in a city just means we get to see the two extremes of this spectrum up close and personal: at one end, the privileged few for whom this is “really scary” and certainly challenging but not world-ending, and at the other, the many facing life or death levels of economic insecurity.

The virus is novel, but inequality isn’t.

As we observe the second- and third-order effects of COVID-19 on our economy, we are getting a scaled-up view of how gross, systemic issues drive individual families to financial ruin, poverty, and homelessness across the country. As a whole, we don’t notice when one person loses their job and can’t scramble fast enough to get a new one before missing bills and losing the roof over their head. Will they be able to get some help to turn things around? It turns out that less than a quarter of unemployed workers are eligible for state unemployment benefits. State governments have been cutting these benefits despite studies showing that these cuts cause employment rates to grow more slowly.

We turn a blind eye to massive gaps in a social safety net that, if repaired, could give all Americans a better shot at getting through tough times. We also accept that there are virtually no protections in place for members of the expanding “gig” economy and the self-employed.

In summary, a massive and increasing portion of our country’s workforce sits in this perilous position on a good day, sans pandemic. And as much as creators, helpers, sales associates, and artists bear the brunt of it when their jobs or contracts fold without warning, we expect them to still be there for us the next day producing the things we consume and performing the services we need. At best, we think of them as helping us get through our day as smoothly and happily as possible. At worst, they’re the idiots who got our takeout order wrong. We don’t consider how we are helping them get through theirs — or what we’ll be left with if we run out of people who can keep doing this often thankless and impossible dance.

This crisis is revealing an imbalance between compensation and expectations, along with gaps that virtually guarantee bad outcomes for a huge segment of society. And so our existing system is a recipe for a crippled economy. If anything good comes of this, and many good things will, it should be some action in response to that revelation. But in the meantime, government, NGOs, and citizens are all left holding the bag together. It’s not the time for blame. It’s time to figure this out.

Local governments are stepping up.

On March 20th, Governor Cuomo signed the “New York State on PAUSE” executive order. The order placed a 90-day moratorium on any residential and commercial evictions. This, along with the moratorium on mortgage foreclosures, means that, in theory, people in New York shouldn’t lose their homes, whether they rent or own. But it hasn’t worked out as hoped. While homeowners facing hardship will get an interest-free break from making mortgage payments for 90 days (and then get to resume payments as normal), renters without income will still owe three months of rent at the end of that period. Prior to this crisis, many New Yorkers were already putting more than half of their monthly income toward rent alone. What happens to them when they can’t pay? Not to mention the loophole that allowed landlords to file hundreds of eviction notices just after the order was announced, causing exactly the panic this moratorium was meant to avoid. Keeping roofs over people’s heads, partial check. There’s clearly more to be done here. (Next up: what about the people without homes?)

Prior to this, Cuomo was emphatic about not closing schools — until potentially damaging second-order effects could be addressed. The two primary concerns were 1) feeding kids who rely on free school breakfasts and lunches and 2) childcare for essential workers. More than 50% of public school kids in New York State are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. In New York City, it’s roughly 70%. Many of these kids wouldn’t get breakfast or lunch without free school meals. And most of New York’s essential workers with children, including doctors and nurses, rely on school for childcare. When New York City announced school closures on March 15th, it included a plan for how the city would meet state requirements, providing both free meals to affected kids and childcare to essential workers.

As of March 23rd, NYC students can go pick up as many as three free meals a day, so there’s one fewer thing for families in a tight spot to worry about. Food for kids in low-income households, check.

City childcare for some essential workers also kicked in on March 23rd. Unfortunately, it looks like it only applies to a small subset, mainly health care workers, first responders, and transit workers. This is in contrast to the long list of services classified as “essential.” So childcare for people who still need to go to work, partial check. Yes, grocery store workers with kids still have a job. But if that salary isn’t enough to cover full-time childcare and living expenses, they may not have that job for long.

Charities and NGOs are stepping up.

Local, national, and international organizations are shifting their focus to help deal with the public health crisis of novel coronavirus around the world. Check out the bottom of The Center of Disaster Philanthropy’s COVID-19 Coronavirus page for a long list of the resources, whether you want to read about NGO responses to the crisis or find links to facts and figures. Or if you just want to hear about a few specific organizations that are doing good, you can also check out BuzzFeed’s list: “These Organizations Are Helping People Get Food And Medical Help During The Coronavirus Pandemic.”

The above covers one of two major ways that non-profit organizations are stepping up. They’re deploying money and resources directly to take action on the ground or to direct funds to the organizations that can. There are myriad expressions of this, from mask and supply manufacturing, vaccine development, and Doctors without Borders style medical interventions to free meals and direct financial assistance to the people hit hardest.

The other, more easily overlooked way that some of these organizations are going above and beyond is in support of operations that have nothing to do with COVID-19. These include charities and social work agencies that will continue to provide vital in-person help, whether it’s delivering medically tailored meals to those who were too sick to leave their homes before this crisis, or being there for vulnerable populations in need of in-person mental health interventions. They also include arts organizations trying to keep staff employed through this crisis, so they can continue to support artists and run community programming. Art tells stories, the stories that challenge our perspective and dare us to celebrate our shared identity and values when we might otherwise be overwhelmed by fear or frustration.

Where can we step up?

We’re following the latest CDC guidelines and local rules. We understand “social distancing” is not just a suggestion. What else can we do?

A lot, it turns out. We likely have more dollars on hand than we would otherwise. Or maybe that’s not strictly true: let’s say it’s remained about the same. Each of the dollars we have now has more value than it did a few weeks ago. That’s an objective fact, relative to the shrinking wealth of so much of the rest of the country. And every dollar you put into helping people now has far more value to society as a whole than it does to you, as it sits in your savings or investment account.

There are two ways to look at our position right now, and both are true. We are benefitting from a crisis. And have the opportunity to use our considerable combined wealth and privilege to soften that crisis for those hardest hit.

STEP 1. Be a patron to the organizations, businesses, and people who have been there for you. Even if you get “nothing” in return.

We see much of the world we enjoy falling apart. “But I would love to pay theatre, arts, and music companies to perform and live-stream their content,” we might say. Or “I am obsessed with that restaurant and am worried it won’t make it through this. If they could still deliver to me, I would order from them.” Or “The guy who cleans my house does a great job, and I don’t want him to lose his livelihood. It’s a shame that social distancing means he can’t come this week.”

The thing is, in most cases, we actually can still pay artists to make and perform their art. We can still support our favorite restaurant. And we absolutely can pay our cleaning person. It’s all a matter of whether we are willing to accept we won’t receive a service in return. This is what patrons do. They support the things they enjoy, so those arts, experiences, or services can continue to exist.

pa·tron·age (noun): financial or other support given to a person, organization, cause, or activity

The inspiration for this article was a phone call I received last week from MCC, an NYC-based off-Broadway theatre company. I’ve been one of their patron members since I attended last year’s production of Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play. The play was amazing, but I walked out shaken. Dryly observing that the ending wasn’t exactly a happy one, I was struck by the reply from a friend: “Yeah but how often do you get to watch an all-women-of-color cast perform a story written by a woman-of-color writer with an all-female Director team?” MCC tells important stories that wouldn’t get told otherwise. I love their shows, and I love supporting their mission.

Fast forward to the phone call: “I know this is the worst time to ask. But would you, maybe, possibly, be able to see a way through to renewing your patronage?” They also tested the waters, with a great deal of hesitation and sincerity, to see if I would consider paying in full and upfront for the year, rather than breaking up payments by month. This was a no-brainer for me. It’s not the worst time to ask. It’s the best. I’m spending the exact same amount I would be spending with them anyway. But giving them that money now enables it to have a much bigger impact.

Be a patron of the arts. Patrons offering membership fees or other support upfront during a dry spell can give these organizations a much better shot at weathering this storm, at keeping staff employed, and at making sure they have the reserves to get through the next few months until they can resume their season. Are there any arts or other organizations particularly important to you? Now is a great time, arguably the best time, to become a patron. Or if you are already, would it make sense to increase your support? Offer a one-time donation? Pay the next twelve months’ dues upfront? At a minimum, if you had tickets to a not-for-profit or non-profit show or event that was canceled due to COVID-19, have you considered telling them to keep your money, rather than asking for a refund?

Be a patron to the businesses you love. The same logic can apply to anything you appreciate and enjoy. Is food really important to you, especially from that one restaurant around the corner? Many small, family-owned restaurants and other businesses are offering gift certificates to be purchased over the phone. Square has even set up a site so you can easily locate merchants near you and purchase gift cards online. If all else fails, check Facebook pages or websites, or reach out directly by email. If the business you want to support isn’t already doing something like this, see if they might consider it, and then promote them to your friends. The worst-case scenario is that they never reopen, and you’re out the cost of a meal or two.

Be a patron to your support crew. My partner and I resolved early on, as the seriousness of COVID-19 grew, that although social distancing would soon preclude our having our house professionally cleaned, we would continue to pay our cleaner, Alex. There are two main reasons for this:

  1. Not supporting the livelihood of our “support crew” today means they will be less likely able to offer their services to us tomorrow. The economy works better for everyone when money is moving through it. We don’t want dollars to get “stuck” with us, the people who don’t have to spend them right now, and thus deny others what they need to make it through. That’s bad for everyone, including us.
  2. Where it’s possible, we don’t want to experience a windfall at the expense of others. Our incomes haven’t changed, and cleaning is a budgeted expense. We realized that not paying for cleaning would represent one of many small windfalls for us, windfalls at the expense of all the less privileged people who are there for us on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. That feels wrong.

We can’t pay the Lyft drivers, food delivery people, and various other members of the gig economy who are there for us every day because we don’t have a relationship with them. But where we do have a standing relationship, as with Alex, we have the opportunity to model a little of the social contract we’d like to see in the world, wherein consumers bear a reasonable cost for benefits, sick pay, social security, etc. of the gig workers on whom we depend.

STEP 2. Don’t let analysis paralysis stop you from donating funds to people who desperately need it.

Let’s do inventory. How much has your spending decreased? Compare your credit card statements. Or maybe you decide that regardless of how much you’re saving vs. spending, it’s reasonable to apportion some percent of your monthly income to make a difference. Five percent? Ten? Even ONE percent, as long as it’s something. Just calculate the number of dollars you want to throw at this. Write it down. And make sure you follow through sooner rather than later. This disaster is ongoing. The sooner you give the greater your impact.

There is an overwhelming number of options for where we can put our money to make a difference. This was true before COVID-19. Let’s work through it and pick a few anyway.

The value of your dollar is greater than ever. And it’s far more valuable to non-profits and the people they’re helping in crisis now than it is to your overall net worth.

There are plenty of other ways to contribute, including targeting any of the organizations responding to COVID-19 with a more public health focus. We want to go in a different direction because we already see a lot of good things happening in public health. And while there are certainly ways that funding benefits public health efforts, it feels like the main bottlenecks in that area are capacity, supply, and influence. Finally, most of the world’s attention is already focused on the very real public health risk posed by the virus. That means there is an opportunity to do a lot of good by instead focusing on mitigation of the economic fallout in our communities.

  1. Give cash directly to people in need with GiveDirectly. GiveDirectly has a proven history of getting results by giving cash directly to those who will benefit from it. Their overhead is low, their transparency is high, and they have a 100% rating from Charity Navigator. They’re giving out $1000 per household starting with 200 of the most vulnerable families enrolled in SNAP (food stamps), mostly single moms. By donating, we can support their expansion to more households. These are the families likely to be underserved by other aid programs, so our contributions make a big difference.
  2. Let the New York Community Trust disperse your giving to the organizations that need it most. The NYCT provides grants to NYC-based non-profits responding to this crisis. They look at healthcare, food insecurity, and support for the city’s arts and culture. In giving to the NYCT, we not only support organizations doing our city’s critical work right now, but we also enable these non-profits to survive inevitable short term financial losses so they can keep doing good in the future. (Not a New Yorker? Find your local community foundation.)
  3. Support organizations well-practiced at taking care of the sick and/or elderly populations, such as Citymeals on Wheels, God’s Love We Deliver, and UJA Federation of New York. Each of these groups has the infrastructure and experience to provide a service that is now in greater demand than ever before: getting meals to the sick and elderly who cannot leave their homes. These examples are NYC-based, but you’ll be able to find similar organizations operating almost anywhere.

Giving to ANY of these organizations makes a difference, now more than ever. If none of them resonate with you, choose another.

If you intend to give, choose an organization and make it happen. Do it right now. Or schedule time. Set a deadline.

STEP 3. Volunteer.

What do we do after we’ve made a difference by supporting people and organizations with our dollars? If you have more free time on your hands now that your social calendar has been effectively canceled, consider volunteering. Many organizations are still actively recruiting, including some listed above. Contact them and ask what you can do to help. Check their websites. Here are just two examples of what that could look like:

  1. Some non-profits need dollars more than anything else right now. Contact the ones most meaningful to you and ask if they want help putting in calls to other potential donors. Or promote them yourself. If you feel passionate about what a group is doing, put out the call on social media to get help for their work. It could be a welcome break from the other content flowing through your friends’ newsfeeds.
  2. In select cases, help is still needed on the ground. [PLEASE NOTE: Social distancing is important, especially in dense cities, and we must avoid taking unnecessary risks. The risk of meeting up with some friends multiplies many times over and poses a very real threat to lives several orders of separation away. But essential aid still requires some in-person activity. There is a risk to that, too, but it has the distinction of being “necessary.”] God’s Love We Deliver is just one example of an organization still looking for kitchen prep and delivery volunteers. You’ll be washing your hands a ton, and you shouldn’t come in if you or anyone else in your home is at all under the weather, but it’s one potential ticket out of total social isolation. You can sign up for a shift on their website in just a few clicks.

STEP 4. Discuss!

Ask your peers what they’re thinking. Not about what went wrong or who messed up or how we got here. Talk about what you have already done. Ask them what they are doing.

We are all a bit preoccupied with our new life in a survival horror game that somehow still features “that guy on this conference call who won’t stop talking.” But when you have a chance to hit the “pause” button on that never-ending feed of everything you can’t control, take it.

Do some good. Recruit some friends. Step up.

Abigail Murray

Written by

Consultant but not your consultant. Unless you’re getting unsolicited advice. Then it’s probably me.

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