Visibility and Vulnerability in the Age of COVID-19

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While diseases don’t discriminate, social responses to pandemics do. The disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on African Americans in Chicago, the Navajo in the Southwest and the incarcerated across the country highlights the way marginalization contributes to tragically different outcomes from the same disease. But even in these stories, we are glimpsing only one set of measurements—the infection and death rates. These are horrifying, but the impact of this crisis goes far beyond those who get sick. The politics of what we measure, who we see on the news and whose experience of the disease dominates cultural discussions is not just an intellectual curiosity but a practice that keeps some lives and some struggles invisible.

Whose deaths are necessary?

Even as COVID numbers continued to climb in May, armed demonstrators marched on state capitols to demand an end to the shutdown. President Trump, in between sparring with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and cutting funding for the World Health Organization, argued that America should “get back to business,” even if it resulted in “necessary deaths.”

But exactly whose deaths are we accepting? It turns out that it matters very much who Americans see in this space. When the COVID crisis hit China and Iran, there was little empathy here. But the tune changed when the disease crossed our borders. Suddenly the hypothetical victims Americans were asked to protect by staying at home were vulnerable grandparents and senior neighbors.

The highly infectious disease is still most lethal to seniors, but now that the early panic has subsided, some Americans have grown comfortable with the illusion that they can manage vulnerability through the magic of fortress living. Privilege brings protection (grocery delivery, curbside takeout, zoom office meetings . . .), but obviously it’s the invisible workers courting risk behind the scenes that make staying at home possible for others. Now that the face of the COVID victim has become those same cashiers and meat-processing laborers, the American calculus has changed and the “necessary” deaths that will accompany reopening have become tolerable. Infection has been recast as an occupational hazard of being poor.

Cultural and Economic Quarantines

In early May, the Illinois Department of Public Health warned that COVID cases were severely underestimated among Hispanics. The Champaign Urbana Public Health District (CUPHD) until very recently did not track Hispanic or immigrant populations as a demographic category (another kind of invisibility), but it was completely predictable that this community would be hit hard. The Social Vulnerability Index (SVI), used by the CDC to predict how communities will fare in the epidemic, measures factors such as access to food and transport, social marginalization, home language, etc., to estimate resiliency. The areas the SVI marked as highly vulnerable in its 2016 County map had indeed by May become the hotspots of the disease.

The Social Vulnerability Index combines social and economic factors such as access to transportation, home language, education, racial and cultural marginalization, etc.

The CUPHD has done a remarkable job reaching out in several languages to spread information, but there are some things that a communication strategy can’t fix. It’s one thing to shelter at home in a three-bedroom, two-bath house with a backyard and home office; quite another to care for a family of five in a 500-square-foot trailer, or share the kitchen with three other families in an 800-square-foot apartment. As jobs disappear, households have consolidated, sometimes taking in unrelated adults to share the rent. Tensions increase with overcrowding, as do risks to teenage girls with little privacy, and yet the ability to reach out to domestic abuse hotlines is reduced with constant supervision. Home is hardly a shelter in these circumstances.

Many immigrant and non-immigrant working poor are in the informal sector, meaning that when restaurants or cleaning companies close there is no unemployment insurance and no stimulus check. Programs set up to help with rent or utility bills usually require an employer COVID impact statement, which many employers are unwilling to sign. Many immigrants are also worried about applying for emergency aid because of the successful scare tactic of the February, 2020 so-called public charge rule, which states that an immigrant’s use of public benefits can be counted against them in future naturalization applications. We know that thirty million Americans have filed for unemployment and that millions have lost health insurance, but we have no idea how many others are struggling through lost income and the fear of seeking aid.

Also unquantified is how many of these workers assume risks that would be unacceptable to those with alternatives. The working parent worried about bringing the disease back home from the factory, however, is not the face of Life Under Coronavirus in America. Instead, pop culture gives the impression that taking a conference call while juggling a two-year old or finding a new Netflix series—problems of the fortunate few—are the great challenges of the era.

Education and Unmeasured Gaps

In mid-March, schools moved to online education. While many families in CU are device-laden, other families had no home computer. Many had no internet. Many had no car to make the computer loan pickup times or didn’t understand the language of school communications. Many had their phones turned off because there was no money to pay for service.

he U of I provided two mobile WiFi hotspot buses that rotated locations to help area schools connect with families lacking internet service

The schools worked to distribute loaner computers and to register families for internet service, and the U of I  provided mobile Wi-Fi buses to underserved neighborhoods, but a month into the switch many children were still disconnected from their teachers and falling behind. For some, the danger is that they might never return at all. As teens watch their families take on additional debt to survive the crisis, they will come under tremendous pressure to help dig the family out of the financial hole. The teenager you see this fall putting a roof on the neighbor’s house might be one of the uncounted victims of the COVID crisis.

There is yet another educational casualty. Many immigrants send money home to pay school fees for younger relatives, or to pay for a child to get vaccinations or buy uniforms. As income disappears here, opportunities there vanish as well—but we won’t see or hear much about it.

The Optics of Food Aid.

Half of the children in CU public schools qualify for free lunches, and the school districts committed themselves to providing food even during the school closure. The initial rollout was uneven, as many parents either missed the school communications or didn’t have the transportation to take advantage of food disbursements, but even as the schools worked that out it became clear that household food insecurity was skyrocketing. Food banks, PTA volunteers, churches, mosques, and other groups spread the message across social media and organized to deliver to hundreds of households every week. This food is essential and, as I have been one of those making weekly calls to dozens of families, I can assure donors that without this food children would go hungry. What is uncomfortable, however, is that the one time this invisible community of working poor comes into the local spotlight is when they are on the receiving end of a box of rice and beans or a package of diapers. These are the people that make possible clean offices, takeout dinners, or restocked grocery shelves. Why do we only see them when they play a supporting role in stories that flatter our community self-image? This vision of food as charity empowers the donors, not the recipients, and ignores ugly realities about who is supporting whose way of life.

Food distribution locations have been established at the CUPD, area schools, and other sites to meet skyrocketing food insecurity in the CU area

Invisible, but Targets of Political Exploitation

An Asian-American friend in Urbana has had trash and obscenities hurled at him several times this spring, as he was told to take his dirty disease back to China. Sadly, his experience isn’t unique. Across the country assaults and harassment of Asians have increased markedly since mid-March. This isn’t just a vestige of older patterns of discrimination, however, but a conscious campaign that’s coming from the White House itself. By tolerating and retweeting racialized depictions of the virus as well as anti- immigrant comments, Trump sets a model for the nation that would have him sent to the principal’s office in any schoolyard.

And it’s not just rhetoric, nor targeted only at Asians: Trump has invoked new immigration restrictions and increased deportations, including those of unaccompanied minors as young as ten years old, under cover of the crisis and for the purpose of feeding his politics of anger.

This is the final exploitation of the marginalized invisibles in this epidemic. They are targeted as scapegoats to distract the public from the administration’s appalling performance in addressing the COVID crisis. The struggles of the working poor, both immigrant and non-immigrant alike, are invisible in this crisis. Their lives are considered expendable. And the only time they appear in our newsfeed is as recipients of aid or agents of infection.

It’s not rational. Ignoring and stigmatizing half of our community will not buy the other half safety, and it certainly won’t build a better country.

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