The Politics of Social Distancing

Elites have the money and resources to hide in their homes and ride out the coronavirus pandemic till kingdom come. The rest of us will need a better plan.

Environmental services worker Mercedes Garcia-Blanco sanitizes a slot machine at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino after the property reopened on June 18, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Ethan Miller / Getty

America is failing . . . the marshmallow test.

In a recent op-ed, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman revisits the famous 1972 Stanford experiments in which psychologists hypothesized that children who successfully resisted eating a marshmallow (on the promise that if they waited a bit, they would receive two marshmallows) would be more successful later in life. Krugman acknowledges that the experiments have been largely discredited but, nonetheless, he insists that they are a useful analogy for America’s apparent inability to delay gratification during the coronavirus pandemic.

Krugman contends that we have a workable two-step plan for beating the virus: “Impose strict social distancing long enough to reduce the number of infected people to a small fraction of the population,” and then “implement a regime of testing, tracing, and isolating: quickly identifying any new outbreak, finding everyone exposed and quarantining them until the danger is past.”

But we can’t seem to implement this plan. Americans are like greedy, impatient children, he scolds, incapable of resisting “the temptation to return to normal life.”

There are a number of reasons why the marshmallow experiments fail to convince decades later, but a central problem was sampling — the experimenters drew their conclusions based on a small, unrepresentative group of children. Krugman’s assessment suffers from a similar problem. He fails to acknowledge that “strict social distancing” is experienced very differently depending on where one stands.

For professionals who can earn a paycheck from home, the pandemic has been inconvenient and stressful but manageable. Zoom spaces are carved out. Chores are divvied up. Groceries, games, and home decor are delivered.

These individuals are the folks who can boast about not having left their homes for weeks. They can rest easy knowing that the “small fraction of the population” that is infected is not them. Continuing the shutdown for another six months or a year, this group imagines, is prudent and doable.

But like the Stanford kids, this sample of the American population is not representative. The burden of the no-risk lifestyle enjoyed by stay-at-home professionals is borne by other people — mostly poorer people.

The first group bearing the burden are the “essential” workers — the nurses, doctors, grocers, cleaners, teamsters, childcare providers, meatpackers, farmers, and warehouse workers whose labor keeps the country going.

Some of the risk experienced by essential workers is unavoidable. But much of the risk they face is outsized and unfair.

Nearly six hundred front-line health care workers — the majority of whom are people of color — have died of COVID-19, and tens of thousands more have been infected. As nurses’ unions have argued, many of these deaths are a direct result of a lack of quality, readily available personal protective equipment.

Workers outside the health care sector are at risk as well. A recent New York Times video chronicled the struggles of Tyson meatpacking workers to stay safe. The company gave workers paper masks and installed plastic flaps between some line stations, but Tyson refuses to slow down the breakneck speed of the disassembly line (140 birds a minute), making it impossible to practice social distancing. Workers toil elbow to elbow in a confined space — and they get sick. Roughly twelve thousand meatpackers have contracted the virus, and dozens have died.

The distinction between “essential” and “convenient” has also been blurred. Amazon, for example, has seen demand surge since March, pushing it to hire 175,000 extra workers and implement mass overtime. But in the rush to fill orders for everything under the sun — certainly not just “essentials” — Amazon warehouse workers say the company’s safety compliance has been mostly a “facade.”

In a lawsuit filed against the company, workers say they are forced to labor “at dizzying speeds, even if doing so prevents them from socially distancing, washing their hands, and sanitizing their work spaces.” They say employees who complain about safety or report that they are sick are punished or silenced.

The other group bearing the burden are the people who have lost their jobs because of the shutdown. This group is disproportionately made up of low-wage workers. A recent report from the Federal Reserve Board found that “among households with an annual income of $40,000 or less, nearly 40 percent of individuals who were employed in February experienced job loss in March or early April, compared with 20 percent of the population overall.”

These households are likely to have little or no savings, and many have yet to receive state or federal unemployment insurance (which runs out after July). According to One Fair Wage, on average, only 56 percent of unemployment claims filed nationwide have begun to pay out benefits, and in some states, the payout rate is much lower.

These numbers begin to explain the surging demand at food pantries across the country. The First Congregational Church in Revere, Massachusetts, reported a 630 percent increase in need since mid-March; these days, its team of volunteers gives grocery bags to about 375 families in need. Pantry directors and volunteers across the country worry that if things continue as they are, they’ll run out of food.

Likening Americans to greedy, impatient children for desiring a light at the end of the shutdown tunnel belies an obliviousness, or at least an unawareness, of the fear and desperation experienced by millions of people in this moment.

Does this mean that states should throw open the doors and immediately reopen? Absolutely not.

The gun-toting right-wing protesters (many of whom are sponsored by shadowy business groups) who demand unimpeded shopping, who think wearing a face mask is an affront to their constitutional rights, who believe the coronavirus is a hoax designed to unseat Donald Trump, live in a fantasy world that is equally out of touch with the one occupied by liberal elites.

Underlying both of these worldviews is the misconception that if we’re just patient enough, or reckless enough, we’ll be able to go back to the way things were before the virus.

Indeed, the notion that we’ll be able to get back to normal if we either wait it out or throw caution to the wind is why, four months into the crisis, with more than one hundred thousand Americans dead, short-term solutions and moralizing carry the day instead of hard conversations about how to meaningfully share the risk rather than foisting it onto the working class.

The harsh truth is that there is no going back.

This virus isn’t going to be solved in a few months or a year. It’s going to be around for years, and if and when we beat it, there’ll be another lurking around the corner. We need long-term solutions.

Consider the most obvious and necessary solution: health care. Medicare for All has been a major topic of debate and organizing over the past few years. Yet once the pandemic hit, it has virtually disappeared from mainstream policy conversations. How can we share the risk and make the country’s population healthier if millions of people can’t go to the doctor or the hospital because they’re too poor?

We also can’t prevent unnecessary deaths if we refuse to protect our health care workers who put their lives on the line every day. In the immediate term, we should requisition manufacturing plants to produce all of the personal protective equipment (PPE) we need for the next year while simultaneously building permanent, in-country capacity to mass produce affordable, high-quality PPE.

Protecting health care workers must include a special emphasis on nursing home workers and residents. A recent study found that 42 percent of all American COVID-19 deaths occurred in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and in some states, the percentage was much higher. In New Hampshire and Minnesota, more than 80 percent of deaths occurred in care facilities; in Ohio, it was more than 70 percent; and it was more than six out of ten people in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

The grim reality is that we could have prevented many of these deaths. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities are perpetually underfunded and staffed by overworked, underpaid employees who are disproportionately women, immigrants, and people of color. If we want to save lives and quell the pandemic, we need to transform our eldercare system.

Persistent, deadly outbreaks will also keep cropping up if we refuse to protect all workers, not just white-collar professionals. Worker-led safety committees in partnership with community health officials — not bosses worried about their bottom line — should be devising and implementing safety protocols at every workplace in the country.

Moreover, while much is uncertain about the virus, it is clear that its lethality jumps with victims’ age. Older workers and those with underlying health conditions shouldn’t be working at big box stores, supermarkets, and warehouses — period. These folks should be given the opportunity to contribute in ways that don’t put them at risk but still provide them with a living wage and a sense of dignity.

You might wonder how we will pay for these solutions, but rest assured, the money is there. The Fed, for example, is following through on its promise to begin directly buying corporate bonds. This unprecedented move comes on top of the trillions it has already handed out to Wall Street since February.

Instead of up propping up a sector that has spent more than $4 trillion on share buybacks — more than 90 percent of profits, when you include the money spent on dividends — over the past decade, or allowing billionaires and corporations to pay peanuts in taxes, we can direct this money toward programs and institutions that implement the policies we need to keep people in the United States safe.

Elites have the money and resources to hide in their homes till kingdom come. For everyone else, we need a better plan.