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The Classism of a Pandemic

A team of immigrant farm workers clean the remains of a harvested cauliflower field near Coachella, CA. (Credit Image: © Robert Gallagher/ZUMA Wire)

My sister Kyam is a Senior Accountant with a top-rated global accounting firm. Her twin daughters are at the top of their classes in all subjects. When Covid caused us all to shelter-in-place, the firm sent my sister home with everything that she needed to do her job. She was already working from home a few days a week, so the transition to full time home employee was virtually seamless. Each of the kids have their own phones and tablets, and they are able to do all of their schoolwork from their couch or bedroom. My sister and the kids follow a strict regimen and haven’t really missed a beat since this thing began. My sister’s fiance lives up in Connecticut, so she decided it would be safer for them to shelter-in-place up there. Less people walking around, no need at all to travel on public transportation, it just made sense for them. Before they left, I had come up on a few boxes of masks and I called her to offer her some. She told me that her firm had given them a care package that included masks and gloves.
I was on a video conference this week with one of the schools that I work with. This conference call was for parents and teachers alike, a check-in on how the homeschooling process was progressing for the students. More than a month into the shelter-in-place, and many of the parents on the call were expressing real issues that were impeding their children’s opportunity to properly engage in the homeschooling process. One mother stated that her child has to use her phone’s hotspot for Wi-Fi. Another mother said that because she still has to go out and work, the child is left at home with the grandma and doesn’t engage in the schoolwork.
The majority of the parents on the call were from NYCHA homes in East New York and Brownsville. I live in a brownstone in Clinton Hill. There are exactly 7 people that live in the entire brownstone, including me. I have a backyard that I can go into to get some sun, and even a stoop that I can sit on alone and watch the world. I can work from home. I don’t have to engage with society much at all, except to buy food. For those parents though, social distancing isn’t that simple. They live in tenement buildings, with hundreds of other people. The hallways and elevators aren’t cleaned properly in regular times, so there is no need to assume they are cleaned properly now. They don’t have private backyards to soak in the sun, or stoops on which they can sit in solitary contemplation. And, in many cases they also don’t have the ability to work from home.
This phrase “essential worker,” when it’s said in the media, people automatically think of our city’s first responders. But the guy that works at your bodega that has stayed open, he’s essential too. The cashier at the supermarket, the people working at Target, the lady that tends to the laundromat on the corner, they are all essential. But unlike many first responders, these essential workers have neither the salary or the benefits to insulate their lives in a way that would protect them. So, while those of us that are fortunate spend our quarantine time making tik tok videos, doing Zoom happy hours and tweeting about how horrible Donald Trump is, many of our less fortunate neighbors continue to live in a state of high-risk for contracting this virus simply because their options in life offer no other option.
Right now, as you read this, there are undocumented immigrants in this city sharing an apartment with friends, or living in a room amongst strangers. And, if they contract Covid, they won’t go to the hospital because they are scared to be revealed as undocumented. They can’t self-isolate for fear of losing whatever income they make, or because their living arrangements don’t allow for it. If they contract Covid, they will spread it to the people around them. And, because of the lack of medical attention, the lack of resources, and the lack of trust, some of them will die, in their beds, in their rooms.
So, when you hear talking-heads and weirdo pundits discussing how this virus is disproportionately affecting Black and Brown communities, instead of listening to their cookie-cutter, bi-partisan reasoning, I want you to remember some of the situations I touched on in this article. Black and Brown communities aren’t at a greater risk because they take less precautions. Black and Brown communities are at a greater risk because racism and systemic oppression strips them of the ability to take precautions. While I’m thankful that my family and I are blessed, I’m also quite clear on how classism and oppression open our communities to be attacked by any and all enemies, even when that enemy is a virus.

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