As a white male from a middle class family in which both parents had gone to college, a dad who was a tenured professor with a PhD in electrical engineering and degrees from MIT and U of Penn, and a graduate myself from two elite private universities, Wesleyan and Columbia, I have always known that I am a person of privilege. So it is with some interest that I find myself now, in this time of Coronavirus pandemic, suddenly in an un- or underprivileged status.
As a 71 year old, I’m in an age bracket (70-80) that has a 4.3% chance of dying if I contract the coronavirus. On top of that, I have a fairly rare auto-immune condition in my lungs called sarcoidosis. It’s a condition most often afflicting Africans and Scandinavians (that would be me) that, if it flares up, can cause dangerous scarring of the lungs, and that as I have learned from experience makes me vulnerable to pneumonia anytime I contract an upper respiratory infection.
As a result of my age and this underlying medical condition, in a time of pandemic like this when hospital and physician resources are stretched thin I am likely to be triaged out of care, and especially of scarce acute care in an ICU.
I’m not happy about that, but can understand the logic of triage. Why waste precious resources on someone who is less likely to survive when offering it to someone healthier and younger could save them? Knowing the situation, I’m taking special care not to catch this deadly and highly communicable virus, but who knows whether some COVID-19 might slip past my defenses?
At the same time, while I know I’m in a vulnerable position because of age and what might technically be called my “infirmity,” I’m pissed as hell that I have a government that is ready to put my life in jeopardy further by prematurely loosening the lockdown that has been in place now for several weeks, not because it’s done its job, and not because it’s not working, but because there are huge economic pressures to get people back to work and back to spending money in a US economy that is 70% based upon consumer spending.
It’s simply money for lives, and I and my age and medically vulnerable cohort are not the only ones threatened. Also threatened, we know from testing results for the disease and mortality statistics, are poor people and especially poor people of color who are vastly more likely to get coronavirus infections and to die of the disease whatever age they are. Much of the reason for this disproportionate vulnerability is about poverty. Blacks are statistically much poorer than whites, live in more crowded housing, work in settings more conducive to the spread of disease (and less apt to offer work-from-home options), are more likely to have three or even four generations living in the same household, and have vastly less access to medical care — especially primary care. The overall health status among all age groups in communities of color is also poorer than in middle-class, mostly white communities.
I know that and have always known that, but finding myself in a similar situation with regard to treatment in this moment makes me feel that pain a little more concretely. This is particularly true when we look at what federal and state governments are starting to do, lifting lock-down rules so that businesses like restaurants, movie theaters, gyms, bowling alleys, churches, casinos, retail stores, barber shops and hair salons and other not particularly necessary businesses can open their doors again and start making a buck. Doing that, of course, means companies that had laid off their workers would be calling them back again. The workers who were offered those jobs back would, presumably, not have the choice of saying, “Hey, I’m not comfortable with going back into a job where I’m going to be face-to-face with infected people. I want to sit tight a while longer while we see whether this reopening leads to a new surge of coronavirus victims. In the meantime, I’ll just keep collecting my unemployment check and weekly federal bonus, thank you.”
Nope, not an option. Under unemployment compensation rules, if you turn down a re-hire offer from your past employer, you become ineligible for an unemployment check, especially if your employer reports to the state that you turned down a rehire offer.
Now I’m a freelance writer. I’m not in that category. I am still able to work at home, and am not eligible for any unemployment check. But I imagine there are many who would not want to go back to a risky job just because the government says it’s okay for that company to re-open for business.
Now put that together with the age issue. Say I was working as a cashier at Target, as I’ve seen a number of older workers my age doing to make ends meet. If I were told my old Target store is reopening and I can go back to work, at my age I might feel that would be putting me at serious risk of getting a deadly infection that I might even be triaged out of getting treated for. I ought, by rights, to be able to claim the right to stay on unemployment a bit more.
It’s really, when you think of it, a case of blatant age discrimination. If people are called back to work, those who are more vulnerable by reason of age or disability, should not be penalized for not accepting the offer.
Think of universities, where classes are all currently being taught online. There is considerable pressure from parents, who don’t want to pay full tuition for their children’s higher education if the classes are not being taught in a classroom, and on college administrators who want all that revenue, to ensure that come September, classes are back in session on campus as usual. But remember that most of the senior faculty at such institutions are in their 60s, 70s or even 80s (where the risk of death from coronavirus is over 8 percent!). Putting such teachers back in classrooms full of students during a fall semester when we’re told by CDC experts to expect that the coronavirus pandemic, even if it is now slowing down from separation measures already taken, is likely to surge to a new peak, especially if the lockdown is lifted prematurely, is like a death sentence for some — perhaps 4-8% of senior faculty! It’s even worse for faculty with underlying medical issues on top of age.
The same is likely true in many other professions, from truck and bus drivers to waiters, store checkout clerks and greeters, librarians, bank tellers, public school teachers, and other workers who can continue into their “retirement” years working to pay the rent or the mortgage or the kids’ college bills.
We older folks all need to have the right to say no to the higher risk of infection and death we face if we are forced by economic pressures and threat of being let go, to agree to go back to work before it’s safe. We should have a right to either continue collecting unemployment benefits, or if we had been working from home, to continue doing that, until it is deemed safe for us to return to our regular workplaces.
Meanwhile, because I’m getting at least a glimpse first-hand into how dire the impact of being part of a marginalized group can be, I want to add that for those workers, poor and especially poor and of color, who are younger and healthier but don’t have work right now because of the continuing lockdown, I know that we all should be demanding ongoing income support for all unemployed workers and their families.
If this country can magically literally out of air create trillions of dollars in money to bail out investors, investment houses, hedge funds and banks that made bad bets on the recent galloping stock market and wild-west economy, it can also magically create another trillion dollars or so to underwrite the lives of the tens of millions of people with no jobs or income because of a pandemic that has been hugely worsened by the staggering incompetence of President Trump and the feckless politicians of both parties in Congress.
And for gods sake, let’s all demand the immediate opening up of Medicare for the duration of this crisis to offer coverage in full to all people in this country without or stuck with inadequate medical insurance! Not just because if anyone catches this coronavirus and can’t get tested and treated it’s a threat to all of us, but simply because it’s the right goddam thing to do.