Aysha A. Bodenhamer, PhD
October 29, 2020
No doubt, COVID-19 put the world in a tailspin, making the grim realities of a global pandemic an apocalyptic nightmare we never thought possible. At the time of this writing, the World Health Organization reports that we have over 43 million cases of COVID-19 and 1.1 million deaths, globally. In the United States alone, the CDC reports that we have over 8.6 million cases and 225,000 deaths. This means that we have 20 percent of the world’s COVID cases in our home country, the United States of America.
The pandemic in and of itself has been, and remains, traumatic for everyone. What’s more troubling, however, is what it has revealed about the social fabric of our society. We are one of the wealthiest nations in the world, yet our society is falling apart at the seams. The current crises we face, are many. There are many lessons we can learn from COVID, that actually have nothing to do with COVID.
One thing is for certain, not having a stable environment for children to attend school has rocked the worlds of families and businesses alike. Families have struggled to make decisions about how their kids would attend school. Regardless of the pathway chosen—online, hybrid, or face-to-face—each decision has carried strain, uncertainty, fear, and stigma. Additionally, able-bodied parents are having to quit their jobs (or have been laid off) in order to navigate the cumbersome online and hybrid learning platforms. This puts strain on household budgets as most families require a two-person income to survive. Women are disproportionately affected by this dynamic because they are expected to be the ones to take care of the children.
Another lesson we can learn about education, is that teachers don’t get enough credit, nor are they paid what they’re worth. Signs and banners touting “Heroes work here!” are simply not enough. Let’s put our money where our mouths are and pay our teachers the competitive salary they deserve for the instrumental role they play in our society and our economy by allowing parents to be productive citizens. As should be obvious by now, teachers are more than just educators, they’re the glue that holds our society together.
Another awakening caused by COVID is the vast amount of food insecurity among our school-aged children. Of the five billion lunches served in 2019, over three-quarters of them were free or reduced lunch. How can we even begin to believe we are the greatest nation in the world, when three-quarters of our schoolchildren are impoverished and food-insecure?
There’s no greater trial than a global pandemic to test the preparedness of our country. I would say that we have failed and failed miserably. I recall the early months of the pandemic when I was glued to the tv desperately trying to make sense of this nightmare as it unfolded before my eyes. I recall feeling disappointed, shocked, and scared that our production facilities could not keep up with our own domestic demand. Toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and first-aid supplies disappeared from the shelves for months. Grocery stores were frighteningly bare. The air felt eerie and uncertain.
For me, the biggest shock was feeling like our country was woefully unprepared. I had assumed that in times of crisis my country would take care of its own and prevail. That’s not what happened. The inadequacy of N-95 mask production is still hard for me to understand. How can we, the United States, not have the capacity to produce what we need during a global pandemic?
Our health care deficiencies in the United States are vast and grotesque. Our health care system remains divided among the haves and the have-nots. Not only are we divided along party lines, but by race, ethnicity, class, and gender. Despite being among the wealthiest of nations, we remain the only developed nation that does not have a universal health care plan for its citizens. I’m not talking about socialized medicine; I’m talking about health insurance. We currently have over 27 million people who do not have health insurance in the United States and this number continues to rise. Many also remain underinsured and avoid medical treatment for fear of suffocating costs. The number one reason for personal bankruptcy in the United States is medical expenses. Why is it so hard to see that health care is a crisis in the United States?
People are dying, alone. People are turned away from doctors’ offices and hospitals because they’re not priority patients, or they’re “not sick enough.” People have scrounged for COVID-19 tests only to be turned away. Others, lucky enough to get tested, will wait for 7-14 days for results, while celebrities, politicians, and athletes are tested multiple times a week with nearly instant results. What does this tell us about how we have stratified our society? How do we determine whose life is worth more? It is a disgrace. We can do better as a nation.
In addition to the great class divide, we also have horrific racial and ethnic health disparities that have been exacerbated by COVID-19. The veil has been removed. We know that Black and Hispanic Americans are far more likely to contract and die of COVID. Why? Because they were already at the bottom of the health care spectrum, they were already uninsured and unable to visit a doctor for primary care. Black Americans make up 22 percent of the population, yet make up 28 percent of COVID-19 deaths. Hispanic Americans represent 29 percent of the population and 34 percent of COVID-19 deaths. Why? We know these findings are intertwined with the health disparities that already exist for people of color. Hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease are risk factors for COVID, and these comorbidities are historically higher among Black populations. Medical sociology and social determinants of health tell us that the social matters just as much, if not more, than biology. Poverty, inaccessibility to care, insufficient housing, food deserts, and unsafe neighborhoods also play into health issues for people of color and low-income families. We cannot continue to ignore how unequal our country remains.
When people are excited to receive unemployment because it is the most money they have ever made in a paycheck, we should be ashamed as a nation. The extra $600/week for federal unemployment benefits was pivotal for families. It actually provided them the ability, for once, to fix the front door, that broken dishwasher, get a new set of tires, or a new pair of shoes for their child simply because they’ve never had the disposable income to do so before. Roughly 74 percent of workers live paycheck to paycheck in the United States. This is in stark contrast to the $845 billion raked in by the richest Americans including, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Warren Buffett, in the first six months of the pandemic. This isn’t capitalism, this is financial cannibalism. We pride ourselves on handsomely rewarding those at the top, while continuing to annihilate working and middle class citizens. Reward the rich and business-creators, but also reward the folks whose labor created that wealth for them. Imagine how strong our economy would be if the top stopped hoarding and provided their workers with a fair wage instead. If Americans felt financially secure, they would spend more money and our economic troubles would fix themselves.
COVID has been called the “great equalizer,” but that couldn’t be further from the truth. COVID has shown us just how badly low-income individuals and minorities fare in this country. The veil has been fully removed as these disparities have exploded because of COVID. We live in two radically different worlds—those who have healthy stock portfolios and those who have nothing.
In addition to the unequal deaths experienced by people of color in the United States, due to COVID-19, people have also become willing to risk their lives and health in order to march for racial justice. The public execution of George Floyd was a frightening realization that the amount of racial tension, hate, and disaccord we have in our country is unacceptable. We are one of the most diverse nations in the world and that should be celebrated, not destroyed. We have to listen to the stories of others, we have to extend open arms, we have to heal as a nation.
I have had perhaps too much time to think about these issues and I can’t be silent any longer. I am a proud American and I believe in the greatness of this country, but we have a long way to go. We shouldn’t force patriotism by whitewashing science, history, and media. We should spend more time trying to understand those with opposing views instead of gaslighting and inciting violence and despair. Who are we as Americans? What lessons have we learned, and which ones will we act on?
 USDA. 2020. “National School Lunch Program.” Economic Review Service. Retrieved October 28, 2020 (https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/child-nutrition-programs/national-school-lunch-program/#:~:text=Eligible%20students%20can%20receive%20free,below%20130%20percent%20of%20poverty.).
 Yancy, Clyde W. 2020. “COVID-19 and African Americans.” JAMA 323(19):1891-1892.
 Pesce, Nicole Lyn. 2020. “A shocking number of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.” MarketWatch. Retrieved October 28, 2020 (https://www.marketwatch.com/story/a-shocking-number-of-americans-are-living-paycheck-to-paycheck-2020-01-07).
 Sardana, Saloni. 2020. “US billionaires’ wealth grew by $845 during the first six months of the pandemic.” Markets Insider. Retrieved October 28, 2020 (https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/us-billionaires-wealth-net-worth-pandemic-covid-billion-2020-9-1029599756#).