As the coronavirus bears down on the world, it is casting brutal light on societies’ biggest weak points and failings, from structural racism and extreme inequality to waning trust and the deterioration of the public sphere. The pandemic may offer the last warning ― and our best opportunity ― to begin repairing those fractures before an even bigger stress hits.
The looming dangers of climate change mean rising seas, powerful storms, frequent wildfires, floods and droughts that are likely to bring tests even more painful than COVID-19.
“The pandemic is showing us our vulnerabilities,” including supply chains built for profit rather than resilience and disparities that have left African Americans suffering disproportionately high death rates, said Elizabeth Sawin, co-director of the think tank Climate Interactive. “People who study climate change have long been saying exactly the same thing ― that it reveals to us the fault lines of our society, who’s disposable and who’s not.”
As the virus gallops around the globe, it is intersecting with the biggest issues many nations were already grappling with. In China, it collided early on with limits on free expression, as political leaders sought to silence doctors raising the alarm about a mysterious new ailment. In Britain, COVID-19 has provided vivid evidence of how a decade of state-shrinking austerity has affected the National Health Service and local authorities responsible for elder care and other social support.
But perhaps nowhere has the gap between self-image and reality been more starkly on display than in the United States, a superpower whose preparedness and capacity to cope with the crisis have proven stunningly inadequate. COVID-19’s rapid spread across America has laid bare a bevy of failures that had festered for decades, if not longer.
Its most direct hit has been on the health care system, whose shortcomings have long been apparent. The limitations of a system that ties insurance coverage to employment are coming into even sharper focus as millions lose their jobs.
Decentralization has been another critical weakness, making coordination difficult and pitting hospitals against one another in the scramble for supplies and equipment, said Robert Yates, director of the Global Health Program at Chatham House, a London-based research center.
“It’s exposed the market failures of a privately financed health care system,” he said.
The inability to quickly ramp up testing squandered any chance to detect and contain the virus before it spread out of control. Early reports of people being billed thousands of dollars for testing were clear indicators of the absurdity of the system’s incentives, Yates said.
Now, a continued shortfall of tests threatens to slow the return of economic activity, because scientists say widespread testing is essential for preventing the virus from roaring back when restrictions are lifted. Similarly, a lack of basic protective equipment for medical staff is putting patients and caretakers at risk.
“Disparities in testing and treatment ... have mapped right onto the nation’s existing racial and economic divides.”
Such failings are symptoms of a political ideology that denigrates the public sector and venerates profit above all, said Steven Cohen, director of sustainability policy research at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.
“It starts with Ronald Reagan in 1980 saying the government is the problem,” Cohen said. “We’ve now had four decades of disinvestment in public sector everything. So the infrastructure’s crumbling in all the different kinds of systems we have.”
It reflects an “extreme focus on the market and individual wealth,” said Cohen, “and not enough focus on what do we as a community need to have to protect ourselves, and what does that require us to invest in ― whether it’s mass transit or more resilient infrastructure to deal with climate change, or having enough capacity when a new virus emerges.”
It’s as true within the health care system as the larger society. Insurers and government funders see excess capacity ― whether in supplies or staffing ― as wasteful, and punish hospitals for it, Cohen said. But, “guess what we just found out: It doesn’t hurt to have a few excess beds.”
Within that dysfunctional system, disparities in testing and treatment ― like many of COVID-19’s multilayered effects ― have mapped right onto the nation’s existing racial and economic divides, said Jamila Taylor, a senior fellow and director of health care reform at The Century Foundation in Washington.
Chilling evidence comes from data showing the disease is disproportionately killing African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and other people of color. That disparate impact is sharpest for African Americans.
A Washington Post analysis found infection rates were three times higher ― and death rates almost six times higher ― in majority-Black counties than in majority-white ones. In Louisiana, where African Americans make up 32% of the population, 70% of COVID-19 deaths are Black people. In Chicago, they are 32% of the population and 67% of virus deaths; in Michigan, 14% of the population and 42% of deaths.
“We love to blame the sick for their health challenges, particularly when it comes to people of color,” but in fact the disparity stems from a multitude of interconnected causes tied to the impact of inequality and structural racism, Taylor said.
Gig economy workers ― drivers, delivery people, home health care aides ― “are really highly exposed,” said Juliet Schor, a sociology professor at Boston College. “They have to take risks, because they need the money.”
Those workers, and others who are unable to stay at home, in essential sectors such as transit, cleaning, and groceries, are more likely to be people of color.
African Americans are also more likely to have preexisting medical conditions that heighten the risks of the coronavirus. That itself is rooted in racism, driven by factors such as disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards like air pollution, the stress of living with discrimination and poverty, and inadequate health coverage, said Harriet Washington, author of ”Medical Apartheid” and “A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind.”
African Americans also suffer discriminatory treatment within the medical system, particularly when doctors or administrators make subjective decisions with little scrutiny, Washington said.
Such problems are likely to be exacerbated as the pandemic overwhelms hospitals, Washington warned. Extreme circumstances “put great pressure on already compromised systems, and people of color tend to be the fault lines,” she said.
She’s particularly worried about discussion of hospitals adopting do-not-resuscitate policies for COVID-19 patients, intended to prevent medical teams from being exposed to the virus while trying to revive those unlikely to survive. Given a history of unequal treatment, she said, “it’s a disaster waiting to happen for African Americans.”
“People of color tend to be the fault lines.”
Even following the federal recommendation to wear a face mask in public can be fraught for people of color.
“I, a Black man, cannot walk into a store with a bandana covering the greater part of my face if I also expect to walk out of that store,” Aaron Thomas, of Columbus, Ohio, wrote in the Boston Globe. “For me, the fear of being mistaken for an armed robber or assailant is greater than the fear of contracting COVID-19.”
Racial disparities are not unique to America. Research shows Black and Asian Britons are also disproportionately suffering coronavirus complications and death. And a study found members of the Roma ethnic group in Spain, working in informal jobs like street vending, scrap collecting and farm work, are at risk of extreme financial hardship and virus-driven stereotyping.
Also exposed by ― and exacerbating ― the COVID crisis in America is the deterioration in the quality of public discourse and a rejection of objective realities.
“Your facts vs. my facts,” said Andrew Hoffman, a professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan. “We have denigrated expertise across the board, whether it’s expertise in scientific institutions, or expertise in policy institutions. We don’t trust government.”
The consequences are painful. If political leaders had listened to scientists, “we wouldn’t be on lockdown right now,” Cohen said. “The same people who didn’t believe in climate change ― they thought it was a belief, as opposed to a fact ― they thought the coronavirus was like the flu.”
Anti-government views are particularly strong in the South, where Republican governors have for years declined to expand Medicaid, and some have delayed issuing stay-at-home orders to curb the viral spread. Taylor said she feared that leaves the virus poised to sweep through the region, and to exact a steep toll among its large African American population.
That tragic dynamic is already playing out in Louisiana, where COVID-19 is reopening some of the wounds Hurricane Katrina inflicted in 2005. That storm and its traumatic aftermath, of course, offered a stark demonstration of the brutal impact extreme weather can have on communities of color and the poor. So did Hurricane Harvey, when it battered Houston in 2017.
Those experiences may foreshadow a future in which climate change intensifies storms. “That is a cause for alarm,” Taylor said.
Like climate change, “COVID-19 is a threat multiplier,” said Matthew Henry, scholar in residence at the University of Wyoming’s Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources. “People are already struggling and COVID-19 makes it worse.”
And if the two pressures overlap, things may get even more dire. Should the pandemic still be raging when the hurricane and wildfire seasons hit this summer, “What happens when people are displaced and are confined to massive shelters?” Henry asked. “That could exacerbate the spread” of the virus.
Flooding in the Midwest may come next. And wildfires bring an additional danger. As they have worsened in recent years, summertime smoke has pushed air pollution to frightening levels across the West. That is unhealthy at any time. With a respiratory illness running rampant, the risks are amplified.
Such crises are likely to grow more frequent as the effects of decades of carbon emissions play out.
“We expect more and stronger shocks from climate change,” Sawin said. “If we haven’t created a more equitable society, with better ways of sharing risks and burdens, then we’re going to continue to see those with the least power experience the most impact.”
The upheaval created by COVID-19 and its economic aftermath could offer the chance to change course.
“The best, most hopeful response is centered on what the whole purpose of an economy is: Human well-being, collective well-being, rather than maximizing profits for a small number of people and corporations.”
For starters, it might remind Americans of the value of a well-functioning public sector. “It’s a very stark experience of how important government is,” Schor said. “You see how quickly so many of these right-wing ideas just evaporate in the current context,” such as opposition to public spending or direct financial support for individuals.
It is clear in particular that the federal government must boost its disaster response capacity, to prepare for a future where multiple crises hit at once, Cohen said. “But that means we have to pay for it, and that means people are going to have to pay higher taxes.”
To Sawin’s mind, changes like better protections for workers, or universal health care and child care, would not only ease the pain of future pandemics, climate impacts and other economic shocks, but also smooth the transition away from fossil fuels.
It could start with targeting pandemic recovery stimulus to help the most marginalized and address other problems, too. A model, Sawin said, was funding in President Barack Obama’s financial crisis stimulus package in 2009 to insulate low-income families’ homes, helping them save money on heating while also reducing carbon emissions and providing jobs.
Of course, it’s far from clear such changes will happen. Those invested in the status quo would rather dismiss the pandemic as an aberrant event that need not trigger big changes, Hoffman said. President Donald Trump and his Republican allies are pushing to cast blame for the viral outbreak ― on China, or the World Health Organization.
“If they can make that narrative stick, this is just a standard problem of international politics,” Hoffman said. “It’s critical that this event get framed in the right way, so that the solutions emerge from the framing.”
A choice lies ahead, Sawin said. Address the stark realities the pandemic has brought to light, or “not look too deep under the surface, keep hoping for that old normal where we were comfortable ― even if we sort of know that not everyone is comfortable.”
At a time of overwhelming and disorienting disruption, she said she saw a chance to change course, by focusing on the big picture.
“The best, most hopeful response is centered on what the whole purpose of an economy is,” Sawin said. “Human well-being, collective well-being, rather than maximizing profits for a small number of people and corporations.”
“If that is the North Star, then that gives us the road map to recovery.”
Beth Gardiner is the author of ”Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution.”
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