The Real Pandemic Gap Is Between the Comfortable and the Afflicted

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.

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