Privilege. Our worldwide panic over coronavirus has been talked about in many different contexts as it continues to upend normal life, but what I have heard only whispered about but not named is privilege. How is this pandemic disproportionately affecting people? What groups are being granted special privileges over one another? I’ve picked out, as I see them, four threads of privilege in the larger picture of what is happening now. They do not represent everything related to privilege happening currently, but they do show some of the ugly side of life that is being picked out by the pandemic.
First up, the protections and exploitation of low-wage workers. Many have the privilege to work at home, but many others do not. Grocery store employees, sanitation workers, and other miscellaneous low-wage jobs (including GameStop employees, who have been forced to remain open against statewide closures as GameStop corporate insists they are part of the essential workforce to keep society going), are normally portrayed as low-skill portions of the workforce, and as such receive low-wages. But in this moment, they are the necessary parts of our system (except maybe Gamestop. Can you let them go home please?). While everyone else works from home, our most basic needs are being met by the same workforce it’s always been supported by, but this time a light is being shown on the conditions they’re facing. Their own health is at risk by the hordes of people coming into their stores or using their services, while they very likely do not have health care to support them if they get sick with coronavirus. Plus, there are many people already laid off or out of work currently because their job in hospitality, food service or other hard hit sectors have been made redundant at a time we’re forced to stay home.
What protections do we have in place to help those keeping our stomachs full and our streets clean? What are we doing for those without the privilege of a salaried job, without steady work or safe work in the coming months? I do know that whatever does happen (*major sarcasm alert*), we at least do not have to worry about some of our US Senators who engaged in insider trading following secret briefings on the virus a few months ago. Thank goodness their money is safe because they knew before the rest of us!
It’s not just the workforce where we are seeing privilege in action. For the past couple weeks, we’ve been hearing about the crazy sold out shelves at grocery stores. A lot of people have been buying in bulk, toilet paper and food and whatever else they get their hands on that they think they’ll need to ride through this situation. Other than the annoyance of finding what you need at the store, many may not think much more about the cleared out shelves. But a viral video of one mom breaking down in the grocery store trying to buy diapers has brought attention to another facet of the situation.https://www.tiktok.com/embed.js
This mom asked how she was supposed to diaper her child now, because she “can’t afford to buy 20 at a time like you”. And what about the families on food assistance programs? A social media post alerted me to the restrictions some of these programs have on what people may buy (which you can read more about here, in terms of WIC (Women, Infants and Children)), while others just go in and blindly buy everything in sight. These already cash strapped families may not be able to buy what they are assisted to buy. It’s the privilege of choice, as well as the privilege of not living paycheck to paycheck.
Then there’s the difference between the privileges afforded to the everyman versus the very visible privilege of celebrities. In an ill-attempt at unity, actress Gal Gadot recruited many celebrities to join her in singing John Lennon’s “Imagine”, a video swiftly hailed as tone-deaf. The New York Times in particular talked about the negative raction on social media, saying the participants were “lambasted for bumblingly contributing, well, whatever this is as opposed to money or resources. Their genial naïveté is blinding them to the grossest sin here: the smug self-satisfaction, the hubris of the alleged good deed.” No one is thanking their favorite celebrity for (in the case of most of them) singing an off-pitch, off-everything version of a song that does little to ease the strains of today’s situation. I thought the following tweets summed it up pretty well.
They’re out of touch with the situation most people are facing down, where they’re unsure about how their job will continue in the coming months whereas the participants in this video are sitting pretty in their expensive homes. Maybe the movie industry has slowed, but they’re more able to not work for a few months than others because of the wealth they’ve accumulated. Their privilege blinds them to what is really needed right now- and that is not a poorly sung song.
Our final thread of privilege comes from the struggles with testing that the US has been facing the past couple weeks. While the general population has been unable to get adequate and widespread testing for coronavirus, plenty of celebrities and public figures have had no problem gaining access. Many people appearing asymptomatic or with low-level symptoms have been refused tests whereas celebrities and whole NBA teams have been tested. While some public figures have expressed their own lack of ability to get tested, it hasn’t been too long before that fact changes. With testing still a major struggle for the US and also a major factor in keeping people safe, why is it that only the most prolific among us have the best chances at knowing whether they’re sick?
These are only four small threads to a story still being woven, but it’s important to recognize that now more than ever, these privileges are being exposed and the ugly face of our current situation is being seen. Do not ignore it. Do not forget it. Much more could be said about the ableism and ageism cropping up in response to who is most vulnerable, who it is our duty as a community to protect.
And while this is a serious time with serious matters to stay involved with, a little levity may help us stay sane through it all.