Last week my son’s preschool closed for five weeks because of the coronavirus. My husband’s office had already asked employees to telecommute, so on Friday, my husband, my four-year-old, my baby, and I were all in our apartment. We made a stop sign for our home office to let our oldest know when he can’t interrupt daddy. We are trying to come up with creative ways to keep our two boys entertained inside while we work — we wonder how we will manage.
This is the part where I’m supposed to say I’m lucky.
Neither of us is a doctor or nurse or hospital janitor or grocery store stocker or garbage collector or firefighter. Our jobs don’t require us to physically show up at a factory or a hospital or a power plant. So when the government announced it was closing all schools where we live in Berlin, we didn’t have to scramble to figure out who could watch our kids while we continued to work. We will try to do both, though we’ll likely do each a bit worse than normal, and that will be okay.
Our kids don’t need free or subsidized meals at school, so we don’t need to worry about nutritional deficits either. Our biggest concern about keeping our kids inside is how much screen time they will get.
We don’t depend on gig work, like driving a carshare or delivering groceries or long haul trucking or renting out our house. We aren’t small business owners, so we don’t have to worry about no one coming into our restaurant or our shop. Our employers aren’t cutting back on our hours because demand for hotel rooms or sporting events or airplane tickets has all but disappeared, so we don’t have to immediately revise our monthly budget.
We don’t have to worry about missing a paycheck if we are sick, or if one of our loved ones needs care. Even before the threat of coronavirus, our employers didn’t want us working if we were ill. In Germany, as in so many other countries besides my beloved America, society agrees that the health of an economy depends on the health of its workforce (and beyond that, people might just believe that it’s a fundamental human right). Here, the government mandates that companies pay six weeks of sick leave, and if you are still sick after that, the insurance company pays 70% of your salary until you can work again. Insurance does not disappear if you lose your job.
If we need to get tested for coronavirus, we won’t be worried about the financial implications. In Germany everyone is covered by a public-private mashup. But in our home state of California, Representative Katie Porter estimates the costs are at least $1,331 per person. As a family of four, that’s $5,324, just above the median monthly income in the U.S. (it was $5,264 in 2018, according to the latest data I could find in a quick google search). Even if Congress passes the coronavirus response bill to cover the costs of testing, what happens when the person who bags your groceries or takes care of your kids needs a test that isn’t covered by insurance?
And if we lose our jobs because the economy tanks, we won’t have to worry about paying back crushing educational loans from college because we never took them out in the first place. We are doubly lucky we didn’t choose meaningful, underpaid professions — like teaching children in public schools — with the promise of loan forgiveness that turned out to be a government sham, like way too many public servants did.
Our parents taught us about checking accounts, how not to get screwed by credit cards, why it’s important to have an emergency fund — none of these fundamental lessons were part of my high school curriculum and probably weren’t part of yours, either. We didn’t have to get a second or third job just to make rent. We had jobs that paid enough so we weren’t living paycheck to paycheck (unlike a huge portion of Americans — estimates range from 48% to 80%). So we have savings to fall back on.
We also know that sometimes things go sideways, even for the most privileged. When we moved back to the U.S. after working in China, we thought we’d easily find jobs. We didn’t. We had help from family. If we needed help again, it would still be there.
We are told to think of ourselves as lucky. But that is a lie. My luck is systemic. My luck was built for me while denying it to others — mostly people of color and the poor.
I keep thinking how much harder this pandemic is on shift workers, gig workers, people who need to take the bus, drive their car, ride the metro, ride their bike, or walk to work — not just telecommute. People whose hours have already been cut. People who the federal government has failed to protect. People will go bankrupt. Families will lose their homes.
The burden is double for workers when they have kids. Kids who can’t go to school or daycare, not because kids are particularly vulnerable to the virus, but because they might pass it onto the wider community and to the most vulnerable — old people and those with compromised immunity (who may or may not have decent, affordable health insurance). How will the janitorial staff at your hospital keep things clean and sterile while their children stay home from school? How will the woman ringing up your groceries and toilet paper make sure her baby is safe when there is no daycare?
I worked on energy and the environment for a long time — the impacts of climate change disproportionately affect those who did the least to cause it. For example, extreme weather events like droughts or floods (a symptom of climate change) hit poor countries that rely heavily on agriculture. Crops are wiped out. Farmers, who make up a bigger percentage of the workforce than in the US, have nothing to sell. We get trickle-down economics in reverse: everyone suffers. But these aren’t the people who built massive factories or drive demand for oil, coal, and natural gas — all things that help cause climate change.
The economic impacts of this pandemic will disproportionately affect the poor — people who cannot afford to miss a paycheck, who already have to make compromises between paying rent and filling their medical prescriptions.
I keep asking myself, why do we think health care is something that should be provided as a perk from our employer? Coronavirus doesn’t discriminate. Neither do autoimmune diseases. Cancer doesn’t. Drunk drivers don’t hit only the well insured. Premature babies aren’t born exclusively to the wealthy. Why is healthcare a luxury good in America?
My luck started with high quality childcare when I was young and two stable, loving parents. It continued with great education from kindergarten through graduate school. When I joined the workforce, my company provided me sick leave, vacation, 401(k), and telecommuting options. When my monthly childcare costs and mortgage payments grew beyond reason, I had the ability to move overseas to a country that provides affordable healthcare and almost free childcare for my family.
This is not luck. This is a system that rewards me. The American system is a result of thousands of choices about who matters, who is entitled to affordable healthcare and childcare and housing and decent education. These are choices that have mostly been in the hands of powerful, rich, white men, who do not accurately represent what our country looks like. Our society is a rich tapestry — why do we pretend we are a beige rug?
We do not have to keep making these same choices.
We can expand my luck to everyone so that when someone gets the coronavirus or gets diagnosed with cancer or has to take time off from their job (whatever kind of job it is), they don’t lose their house, their savings, their dignity. I’m sick of being lucky when it means so many other people are just sick.