Social class in a time of pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has shown us Americans how we are divided by economic class.  Robert Reich, the well-known labor economist, outlined the four main ones.

Robert Reich

The Remotes: These are professional, managerial, and technical workers – an estimated 35 percent of the workforce – who are putting in long hours at their laptops, Zooming into conferences, scanning electronic documents, and collecting about the same pay as before the crisis.

This group is doing fine.  Their main problems are boredom and not being able to deal with their normal activities.  Yet, interestingly, they get the bulk of the coverage in my local newspapers and in on-line newspapers I follow.

The Essentials: They’re about 30 percent of workers, including nurses, homecare and childcare workers, farm workers, food processors, truck drivers, warehouse and transit workers, drugstore employees, sanitation workers, police officers, firefighters, and the military.

Some of them are well-paid for the important work they do, and also are given what protection is available.  But many aren’t.  In a pandemic, janitors and cleaners are key to stopping the spread of infection.  They ought to get hazard pay and the equivalent of a military medal for their work.  Yet we mainly hear of the essential workers when they strike for better pay or better protection.

The Unpaid: They’re an even larger group than the unemployed – whose ranks could soon reach 25 percent, the same as in the Great Depression. Some of the unpaid are furloughed or have used up their paid leave. So far in this crisis, 43 percent of adults report they or someone in their household has lost jobs or pay, according to the Pew Research Center.

If the United States as a nation requires certain people to stay home in order to protect the rest of us, then we as a nation ought give them the means to stay home and still pay their bills.  If not, they can’t be blamed for defying the lockdowns.  We the public only hear of them when they engage in protest demonstrations.

The Forgotten: This group includes everyone for whom social distancing is nearly impossible because they’re packed tightly into places most Americans don’t see: prisons, jails for undocumented immigrants, camps for migrant farmworkers, Native American reservations, homeless shelters, and nursing homes.

Everybody, including movie stars and prime ministers, is vulnerable to the virus.  But people in jails, nursing homes, meat-packing plants and the like are the ones who are going to die in largest numbers.  When pundits or politicians say a certain number of deaths is acceptable, these are the people who are being written off.

As a retiree with a good income, I am in an especially privileged position to ride out the pandemic.  For me, it is an inconvenience—nothing worse.

I would like to be able to go out in public without a mask and gloves.  I would like to be able to get a haircut, visit a bookstore or public library and have my regular dental checkup.

But I do not expect anybody to risk their lives in order to give me these thins.  And I don’t think it is right that people should be reduced to poverty or worse because they need to stay home to help keep the virus from spreading.

LINKS

Covid-19 pandemic shines a light on a new kind of class divide and its inequalities by Robert Reich for The Guardian.

Covid-19 in prisons and meatpacking plants sheds a light on America’s moral failures by Dylan Matthews for Vox.

The False Dawn of Ending Coronavirus Lockdowns by Yves Smith for Naked Capitalism.

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