By Neil Cosgrove
Western Pennsylvanians cheer for health care workers now, but will UPMC allow its hospital service workers to organize a union once the pandemic has eased? Americans now pray that our food supply chain holds up, but will those same Americans later acknowledge that half of our farmworkers are undocumented immigrants who deserve a living wage, health insurance, and a path to citizenship, not deportation?
The stark inequality steadily evolving within our economy over the past 40 years is long apparent to all but the most obtuse among us; but that awareness has been abstract for many. The pandemic makes the marginalized, the poor, the chronically desperate clearly visible, in large part because they are the ones upon whom our own lives so greatly depend. Can we now so easily dismiss those people who gather and prepare our food, clean our buildings, and care for our small children as “unskilled” peons who exist in shadows we choose not to penetrate?
It’s ludicrously obvious folly to attempt to fight a pandemic while tens of millions of Americans lack health insurance, including more than half of farm laborers and a significant number of so-called “gig workers” who also perform “essential service,” not to mention what one study cited in Business Insider estimates could be up to 35 million people who lose their coverage once “furloughed” from their employer-related policies. How many of these people will ever be tested? How many of them will die of the coronavirus without ever receiving proper diagnosis and treatment?
Laura Perkins, Emergency Response Organizer for Casa San Jose here in Pittsburgh, told us of a client she took to a nearby hospital for treatment of pneumonia. The hospital staff made him wait outside, and then refused him treatment because of a lack of health insurance. A second hospital did treat him, and subsequently sent him a hefty bill. President Trump has assured hospitals the federal government will reimburse them for uninsured treatment of COVID patients, but this patient tested negative for the virus. (Was it a “false negative,” of which there have reportedly been many?)
In a letter to state and regional political leaders, Pittsburgh’s Black Political Empowerment Project, Urban League, NAACP, and 1HOOD Media drew attention to the disproportionate numbers of coronavirus deaths among African Americans in Louisiana, Michigan, Chicago and Milwaukee. “The extreme poverty rates in African American communities across the country,” stated the letter, “along with the health care disparities, high levels of diabetes, respiratory problems, hypertension, and the more crowded living conditions in many of these neighborhoods,” increase vulnerability to the virus.
“Name almost any American city,” health care reporter Akilah Johnson told Slate, “and you’ll see similar things: gaps in wealth, in home ownership, in access to insurers, in access to medical care, in access to clean air” that can be traced back to “historic redlining and residential segregation.”
“Higher-income neighborhoods are more often getting tested,” Tiffany Gary-Webb, a University of Pittsburgh public health professor, told an April Virtual Town Hall, adding there were “anecdotal reports about how some people can’t even get transportation to get tested in Philadelphia.” And yet, as Jasiri X of 1HOOD Media commented at the same event, “Most of the essential workers look like us.” The American Civil Liberties Union told Governor Wolf, while advocating for race and ethnicity data on the infected, that “only 20 percent of Black workers and 16 percent of Latino workers are able to work from home.”
Casa San Jose’s mission is to serve Pittsburgh’s Hispanic and immigrant communities. Perkins sees a “safety net for citizens—options that our community doesn’t have” but also “prejudice against people who use resources that they are entitled to.” Opposition among some in Congress to the extra $600 a week allocated to the unemployed in the $2.2 trillion CARES bill was yet another manifestation of that prejudice. We live in a country where working people who dutifully pay taxes are either denied benefits, or made to feel guilty for using a government benefit, while those who disproportionately avoid taxes can count on the government to back-stop their ill-advised, greed-induced, business decisions.
About that unemployment insurance. Only because of the federal stimulus have “gig workers” been included in the system. Weekly payments won’t be enough for service workers earning Pennsylvania’s $7.25 an hour minimum wage, or $2.83 an hour for tipped restaurant staff . “Any money they receive,” advocates argue, according to the Post-Gazette, “is calculated on their $2.83 base wage plus tips that are often under-reported.”
The inequities inflicted on our economy’s victims both before and during this pandemic, including in housing, in education, in other basic human needs, cannot be encompassed within this article. Suffice it to say that all the anxiety, all the suffering, and yes, all the cheering will be for naught if we do not emerge with a permanent sense of how much our prosperity depends on those victims. They need to be justly rewarded and sustained if we are to do better the next time, and there surely will be a next time.
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board.
NewPeople Newspaper VOL. 50 No. 4. May/June, 2020. All rights reserved.