What the Pandemic Uncovered — Pt. 1
COVID-19 revealed an American system unprepared for a crisis and unlikely to quickly recover from the damage done in 2020.
As I write these words, the United States is approaching 20 million confirmed coronavirus cases nationwide and more than 340,000 deaths. In many instances, these figures far surpass the worst-case projections of the spring when the nation went into lockdown to “flatten the curve” of this deadly pandemic. India, the world’s largest democracy, is second to the US, with just over half of the confirmed case count as America. Brazil is second on the death count total, more than 120,000 fewer deaths than the US.
By Christmas Eve, the US was averaging more than 2,500 coronavirus deaths per day. There were also 119,000 people hospitalized across the country for the virus. Few believe these numbers will improve in the next month. They will likely worsen as Americans largely ignore or simply grow tired of official warnings and guidance for the worst pandemic in a century.
As terrible as these pandemic realities are, infections, hospitalizations, and deaths are not the real measurement of the 2020 pandemic tragedy. Our unique American tragedy’s real measure is the incredible and revelational impact the pandemic took upon the American system and our ways of life. As we look retrospectively upon 2020, we need to recognize the corrupted landscape laid bare by COVID-19. Speaking of economic crises, Warren Buffett once remarked, “When the tide goes out, we find out who’s been swimming naked.” The same could be said for the crisis of 2020.
Vaccines may turn back the COVID-19 virus, but there are far deeper problems in America that have been exposed by the pandemic. While many hold their breath, hoping the turning of the calendar to 2021 will put this terrible year behind us, the reality is that 2020 is likely only a prelude to greater chaos and upheaval to come.
The pandemic revealed an American system unprepared for the crisis and unlikely to quickly recover from the damage done in 2020. It exposed a system already divided by inequity, anger, and injustice. These issues are not symptoms of the pandemic. They were underlying realities which the pandemic laid bare.
In many ways, the COVID-19 virus was the perfect weapon to strike at the heart of American society where individualistic perceptions, voices, and ideologies define reality. The disease’s subjective nature means one person may die after contracting the virus while another person tests positive but remains completely asymptomatic. In between these two experiences lies confusion as Americans do not know whom to believe. The absence of trustworthy leadership and the diversity of individual experience meant personal opinions took far too large a role in shaping our understanding of the virus and the danger it posed.
Thus, we have more than 300,000 deaths while simultaneously large segments of the country argue over the minor inconvenience of facemasks. Across the country, our individual experience with the virus separated us from one another as we grew more polarized and angry by the deluded perception of others.
The pandemic literally touched down on specific segments of American society with greater severity than others. By the beginning of December, nursing homes accounted for only 5% of the nation’s total coronavirus cases but nearly 40% of the country’s COVID-19 deaths. Across the country, America’s elderly were locked into lonely “houses of death,” and their families were told to stay away over the holidays.
Prisons served as amplifiers for the coronavirus. In November, prisoners in Texas were dying of the coronavirus at a rate 35% higher than the rest of the nation’s prisons. At one point in 2020, 45 of the top 50 coronavirus clusters in the US were prisons. By December, 1 in 5 prisoners in state and federal prisons in the US had contracted the coronavirus.
The lesson learned from American nursing homes’, and prisons’ encounters with the virus was clear. If a group could be easily forgotten and ignored in the crisis — they would be.
Multiple accounts have demonstrated that African Americans and Hispanics experienced a greater impact from the pandemic with far higher percentages of infections and deaths in their communities than white Americans. Some studies have demonstrated a rate of infection among African Americans nearly twice that of white Americans. But African Americans and Hispanics are not biologically more susceptible to the virus than others. The virus does not discriminate. The difference is that more impoverished populations, of which a larger proportion of African Americans and Hispanics classify, experience greater exposure to the virus and lower quality medical care after they contract it. The differences are socioeconomic, not biological.
People are more likely to contract and die of the coronavirus based upon where they and their families live and work. And the poor are far more likely to live and work in high exposure contexts. At the same time, the middle class and wealthy experienced the luxuries of working from home, ordering their groceries online, and social distancing, not to mention better and more quickly accessed healthcare.
Studies are already demonstrating the poor have suffered far more from the coronavirus pandemic than others. Perhaps that is stating the obvious, but after enormous amounts of federal stimulus and aid, that reality did not budge. The American system has trapped some groups into the ranks of the victim while others experience far higher qualities of life and liberty. Nothing we did in 2020 changed that reality.
The pandemic did not cause these social divides. The pandemic exposed the divides that were already present.
This is Part 1 in a four-part series — What the Pandemic Uncovered. Read Part 2.