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The Real Pandemic Gap Is Between the Comfortable and the Afflicted

Beneath society’s plutocratic layer, America is not as united in the face of crisis as we like to pretend.

A masked waiter serves a group at an upscale restaurant in Virginia, days into its reopening amid the pandemic.
Olivier Douliery/Getty Images

The stories from the front lines of this country’s abandonment of the poor in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic are not in short supply. The Washington Post reports on the devastating stories of workers waiting for benefits from the cold and broken bureaucracy of D.C.’s unemployment bureau; one ends the story with $1 left in his wallet. The Guardian brings us stories from the Deep South, where a young Black woman named Sandy Oliver counts off the number of people she knows who have died from coronavirus—“at least 10.” Kaiser Health News details the agonizing inevitability of Covid-19 spreading through a cramped household of low-income Hispanic workers and their families in Marin County, where some of the richest people in America reside.

These outrageous stories, and the millions more that remain unknown to the press, depict lives being lived in our failing nation. This is the real world. But another real world exists on top of this reality, smothering it: The world of the rich and powerful, where things are mostly fine. Walk up 14th Street NW in Washington, D.C., on any weeknight, and the bars and restaurants are almost as packed as they were before the pandemic. Le Diplomate, the trendy French restaurant, has spilled onto Q Street and never appears less than bustling. In a city where low-wage workers choose between the risk of dying of coronavirus or dying of hunger, the professional class of politicos and other workers from the Bullshit-Job Boom face an easier choice: Moules or Lobster Frites?

The coronavirus pandemic is, at least, highly visible in the media. In that way, it’s different from many other problems to which we’ve become more accustomed: the income gap, the opioid crisis, the rise in homelessness. These and other ongoing disasters affected millions of people long before this virus appeared on these shores and have naturally become intensified and sharpened since then. But the arrival of an even worse situation doesn’t seem to have sparked action. It’s like there was already a raging fire that we were just letting burn, and now Godzilla has arrived—and we’re letting him rampage, too. Sure, why not. Go for it, dude.

We’re left to wonder why Washington isn’t doing anything. But why aren’t we doing anything, either? How is it that Mitch McConnell leaves his house without being pelted with rotten tomatoes? How can our leaders, and the people who work for them, continue to show their faces in public? When is the fire going to reach them? What has to give? And why hasn’t it happened yet? One answer may be that the rich, including not just billionaires but the ordinary affluent of America, are not in anywhere near as much peril. And our politics is tuned to their frequency, whatever’s happening to the poor.

It was clear from the outset that the impact of the pandemic was going to be felt disproportionately among certain populations and along predictable demographic lines. Even still, it was possible to be taken aback by the rapid and pinpoint-accurate way the disease zeroed-in on the groups most neglected by society. Early on, we heard about rich people and celebrities accessing testing when others couldn’t, the Manhattan elite fleeing to their second homes, and the hoarded equipment sought by the super-wealthy. Now, months into the pandemic, there is another dynamic becoming clear: The crisis, predictably, barely affects the super-rich—but it’s not all that bad for the regular-rich, either.

Rates of Covid-19 are far higher among the poor, according to a federal analysis reported by The Washington Post. For Medicare beneficiaries also eligible for Medicaid, the rate of coronavirus cases was 1,732 per 100,000. For those with incomes too high for Medicaid, it was just 320 per 100,000. Earlier in the pandemic, poor neighborhoods in New York City were affected far worse than rich neighborhoods in part because the people who lived there were unable to work from home or socially distance, an effect confirmed by other studies. Racial disparities persist beyond income lines, according to a study of 10 major metropolitan areas, though among counties that are substantially non-white, poorer counties experienced more deaths and infections than richer ones. The reasons for the vast disparities in Covid-19 deaths are numerous and tragic, including lack of insurance, worse hospitals, and higher rates of preexisting conditions. Name almost any previously disadvantaged, neglected, or forgotten group—Black people, Hispanic people, Native Americans, prisoners, people in nursing homes, low-wage workers—and you will find them more likely to die from the coronavirus.

On the other hand, for many wealthy and predominately white Americans, the pandemic is mostly invisible. Roughly 1.5 percent of the population has been infected, most of whom are not rich. A significant minority, around 41 percent, of the dead are nursing home residents; 62 percent of nursing home residents are primarily supported by Medicaid. Naturally, the affluent can’t fully escape the pandemic’s ravages; wealthy people can and do die of this disease. But the trend is clear: The people who were better off at the start of the pandemic are far more likely to be doing just fine now. The pandemic is not something they have seen or felt; it’s just the thing that has stopped them from going to their favorite restaurants, taking summer vacations, or meeting friends at bars. It canceled their favorite sports, delayed concerts, and postponed weddings. But it didn’t make them or any of their friends sick. It didn’t kill their parents. It’s mostly been an inconvenience.

People who have escaped the dire and existential threats of the pandemic still have to live under the lingering shadow of a national emergency, watching as the disease plucks small businesses from their neighborhoods while struggling through intense bouts of loss, dread, and ennui. We shouldn’t dismiss these experiences, but they are on a different scale from the stress of choosing between going to your poorly paid grocery store job, where your coworkers have already gotten sick, or losing your income and your apartment. Or being scared to go to the hospital about your difficulty breathing because you are an undocumented immigrant, afraid of being deported. Or having no other option but to live in cramped quarters, toiling hours a day to pick tomatoes for poverty wages.

The billionaire class has been an all-too-visible villain during our crisis year, having carted off an additional $434 billion during the pandemic while millions of others have lost everything. It is trivially easy for them to avoid the virus; they can hunker down in one of several mansions or compounds with armies of staff to bring them what they need. Critics on the left have, probably wisely, focused on these oligarchs as the source of our societal woes in recent years. It is easy to illustrate the problem of inequality by noting the incredible difference between a hundred thousand dollars and a hundred billion dollars. No one should have a billion dollars; those who do can use their wealth to disproportionately influence the political system to maintain the status quo.

But there’s a divide that’s been more difficult to talk about: The one between Americans earning about the median income or less and Americans who earn two or three times that wage. Life is vastly different for people who earn $30,000 and people who earn $300,000—not on the same scale as the distance between the average American and Jeff Bezos but distinct nonetheless. Life is also significantly different between people who earn $30,000 and people who earn $130,000.

These people are likely to have a good, if not perfect, situation going: They have decent jobs and are probably able to work from home. They have health insurance through their job, which also gives them paid vacation and sick leave. They have retirement accounts, though these might fail the CNBC test. They don’t know what it’s like to apply for Medicaid or low-income housing. They don’t live in food deserts. They can make frequent use of the services provided by our app underclass, getting food, groceries, or whatever they like delivered to their door.

These little bonuses of a comfortable life range from basic rights that the government ought to provide—but doesn’t—to conveniences and minor luxuries, none of which are universally available. Even though you’d never mistake this life for those who live in the income stratosphere, the availability of these perks tends to warp one’s understanding of the dire needs of less fortunate Americans, as does the American tendency to blame individuals for their poverty. The American political system runs on a heady cocktail of simultaneously coddling and threatening the upper-middle classes—constantly assuring them that they won’t have to give up anything to help the poor but also warning them of the consequences of trying. Employer-sponsored insurance is a great example of this dynamic: Those who profit from its existence maintain their grip on this wealth by threatening those who depend on this health coverage with the idea that everything will be worse if this comparative privilege is lost. You might not love your private insurance, but wouldn’t want to lose it, would you?

The economic toll of the pandemic is so vast and wide-reaching that it has affected even people who are pretty well-off: Pew reports 18 percent of “upper income” (above $112,600 in annual income) people have been laid off or lost their jobs since the pandemic started (compared with 39 percent of “lower income” people, who earn less than $37,500). But those with comfortable, professional-class work—people who do jobs like marketing or social media or, indeed, writing about national politics for a magazine—are far more likely to have remained comfortable. People whose jobs were terrible, painful, and tiring in normal times are more likely to have been through hell in the last few months. And, crucially, the less money you had before the pandemic, the harder it is to weather the loss of a job. As Pew reported, 75 percent of those in the upper-income strata said they had emergency funds to survive three months of an emergency; just 23 percent of lower-income people said the same.

For a variety of completely unacceptable reasons, federal and state governments have proven unwilling to provide adequate relief that would have allowed more Americans to avoid the more severe impacts of the pandemic. Lawmakers could have paid workers to stay home, provided ongoing support to industries that cannot safely open, or offered financial assistance to parents for child care instead of rushing them back to school. These sensible options weren’t on the table. After the first round of paltry relief expired at the end of July, nothing has happened. Like someone breaking their diet with one extra cookie and deciding they might as well go HAM on a whole sleeve of Milanos, the nation’s leaders have blown past their deadline and have thrown up their hands. They’ve tried nothing and they’re all out of ideas, man.

As many have observed, the United States is broken, barely a country anymore. Tens of millions of people are in truly desperate need of help. Some need protection from eviction. Others require a rescue from the dangerous conditions of nursing homes and prisons. Many more just need the unemployment money that the state owes them. A portion of this country larger than many European nations has been abandoned to life-ruining chaos. Less than two weeks since the extra unemployment benefit expired, lawmakers have quit the scene and the media has largely moved on to covering Kamala Harris.

The question of why there are not widespread, large-scale protests or riots specifically about this is worth considering. Perhaps it should be surprising that no one has burned down an unemployment office. The elusive detail is that we’re talking about people who have long been left to wither; many were left abandoned during the last financial crisis and its aftermath. Millions of ordinary Americans have lived their lives as the frogs boiling in the water of austerity and neoliberal neglect. Instead of channeling their rage into a broken political system that has been unresponsive to their needs, they post about committing suicide on Reddit.

There is obviously a major problem in our political system, where the ongoing disaster unfolding does not necessarily translate into an electoral threat for the Republicans. As my colleague Osita Nwanevu noted recently, the Republican Party is insulated from its own mistakes by the absurdity of the Senate as an institution and their general success in structuring the political system around their continued victory. Like the rich boss’s nephew who gets an internship and spends it fucking around on the internet and harassing his coworkers, the party knows what it can get away with and by how much. Our democracy has been warped such that one of the parties in charge in Washington can flamboyantly embrace the mass death of impoverished Americans, knowing that the consequences will be too minor to be of any real concern.

The surviving residents at nursing homes that let their patients die aren’t likely to present much of a force at the ballot box. The Black and Hispanic people affected by the coronavirus are not a constituency the Republican party seeks to bring into their tent. It feels horribly likely that the anemic response from both congressional Republicans and the White House has a lot to do with the fact that this pandemic affected poor and non-white Americans—people they’ve never had much interest in keeping alive.

In response, we demand that these Americans go and vote. But it’s not that simple. It is true that the less money you have, the less likely you are to vote. In 2018, voters with Bachelor’s and advanced degrees increased their participation by more than 12 percent since 2014; for voters without a high school diploma, the increase was 5 percent. But the barriers to voting are much greater for Black and Hispanic voters. In 2018, one study found much longer wait times in mostly minority districts; the existence of such wait times at all, let alone the images of lines that stretch for hours, disproportionately deter voters who have jobs or children. Universal vote by mail could ameliorate this problem. But even if we didn’t have a president bent on suppressing this option, the obstacles in the way of those who are evicted or otherwise displaced from their homes during the pandemic limits this option. Then, as ever, there is the question of what they are voting for. Most people live in safe seats, and the time to influence who appears on the ballot is mostly passed. Joe Biden notched his victory on Super Tuesday, mere days before the pandemic chased America into lockdown.

The facts are these: We have a country where poor, non-white people are suffering and dying from a mysterious virus and where rich, white people are continuing to live their lives mostly as comfortably as they did before. Our leaders have abdicated their responsibility to do anything about it, and there seems to be no mechanism for throwing them all out. All along, it has felt like something has got to give; some spark will ignite the utterly oppressed and hopeless in this country to say no, to strike, to explode. But the fact remains that in America, when something collapses, it lands on the backs of the poor.