This week I heard a story that had nothing to do with the coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged the United States throughout 2020 — and yet it had everything to do with it. On the New York Times’ The Daily podcast, the Black activist Sharhonda Bossier tells the story of what really radicalized her growing up in Los Angeles in the 1990s. It wasn’t so much the Rodney King case and subsequent riots but what happened a few years later when Bossier’s grandmother, who was raising her, suffered a heart attack and was rushed to the nearest facility, a public hospital.
The health-care center on the border of L.A.‘s Watts neighborhood and Compton had been renamed for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — pretty ironic considering that the separate and unequal health care doled out to its underprivileged clientele had caused local Blacks to dub it “Killer King.” After her grandmother died, family members murmured about the decision to take her there. “I was pretty angry at God when my grandmother died,” Bossier told the podcast, adding: “So I enter high school just mad at the world and mad at authority, in particular.”
The death rates and shoddy care at this public hospital called “Killer King” were so bad that it closed in 2007 to be replaced with a somewhat better institution, But across America, a grossly unequal medical system — with shiny glass towers for those with private “Cadillac” insurance plans, but rundown, understaffed, and under-equipped facilities for the rest — muddled its way right into COVID-19 and America’s worst health crisis in a century.
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When the New York Times dug deeply into why its home city — where more than 23,000 have died from the virus — became the national epicenter of the outbreak this spring, its reporters found the biggest factor in who survived the coronavirus and who didn’t was whether a patient was admitted to a private or a public hospital.
Amid the biggest surge in cases in April, the Times found that patients were three times more likely to die at community hospitals in New York City’s outer boroughs than at private facilities in the wealthiest zip codes in Manhattan. That’s because the nurse-to-patient ratio at those swamped public hospitals was astronomically higher, because patients at the wealthier hospitals had better access to drugs like Remdesivir, while those in the poorer hospitals dealt with ventilators that didn’t have all the right settings. In Queens, the paper reported, some unwatched patients died removing masks to go to the bathroom.
Roughly five months into the coronavirus crisis, with the U.S. death toll racing well past 150,000 and daily infections at a high plateau unseen in our counterparts in Europe or Asia, we’ve entered in August the “first draft of history” phase of the pandemic, as writers and pundits stop wondering if America will get it right on COVID-19 and start analyzing what went wrong.
The much-talked-about leader in this category is this month’s Atlantic cover story by its science writer Ed Yong simply titled “How the Pandemic Defeated America.” In the same vein, the Times opinion writer David Leonhardt was out Thursday with the more Times-y sounding, “The Unique American Failure to Control the Virus.” These and other pieces cover all the recent waves of decadence to sweep over the United States in the 21st century — the anti-science, anti-expertise bent of dominant Republicans in tandem with cuts to the public-health infrastructure, the libertarian streak that confounds the empathetic, communal responses called for in a pandemic (like wearing masks), and finally an authoritarian, narcissistic buffoon in Donald Trump who seems uniquely unsuited to the overlapping crises of 2020.
Indeed, it is the Season-4-reality-show-meltdown of America’s first reality-show president that, like those faulty ventilators in Elmhurst, has smothered all the oxygen in the summer conversation. But the myth that simply replacing Trump with Joe Biden in the Oval Office on Jan. 20, 2021 — after tens of thousands more deaths and what’s sure to be a bumpy landing — will kick off an FDR New Deal-type response that in a few weeks will turn America into New Zealand is a dangerous one. If Biden’s basic instinct is merely to reset the clock to 2015, as many fear, that will ignore the uniquely American flaws that very much existed in 2015 ... or even 1815.
“Racist policies that have endured since the days of colonization and slavery left Indigenous and Black Americans especially vulnerable to COVID‑19,” Yong writes in the Atlantic. “The decades-long process of shredding the nation’s social safety net forced millions of essential workers in low-paying jobs to risk their life for their livelihood.”
Even before the coronavirus, Americans were constantly asking how the richest nation in the world can lag so far behind other developed nations in metrics such as school achievement or health-care outcomes. The answer is not rocket science, even as we’re probably falling behind in that, too. The wealth of the richest nation in the world is concentrated in the few, who have access to some of the best medical care or schooling on the planet. Tens of millions on the bottom live more like the world’s less advantaged nations, in asbestos-laden schools lacking textbooks, or taken by ambulance to “killer” public hospitals.
We seem shocked at America’s coronavirus fail even though it’s only 15 years this month since we last saw something exactly like this, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. At first, the better-off folks struggled to grasp how the nation couldn’t even get basic relief to New Orleans, until we saw the pictures and realized that almost all of these trapped, frantic citizens were also Black. In 2020, the death rates for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous Americans are also ridiculously higher, even if this time we don’t see them waving from a Mississippi River bridge.
America’s coronavirus death toll is higher because — even before they are taken to those understaffed and overwhelmed public hospitals — Black folks are more likely to suffer respiratory problems from the dirty air in their neighborhoods, Latinx Americans are more likely to endure preexisting conditions from a lack of health insurance, and Indigenous people are more likely to lack sanitary drinking water in their isolated communities.
America’s coronavirus outbreaks are worse because the worst outbreaks of all occurred in our overcrowded prisons and jails, because no comparable nation comes close to locking people up like the United States, nor lack the simple compassion to take measures that might have protected our incarcerated citizens. And also because our mostly private nursing homes are mostly staffed to maximize profits, not safety. And also because our urban housing crisis requires lower-income folks to live in close quarters, a nightmare for stopping virus spread.
America’s economic meltdown is worse because our European counterparts have both a much stronger social safety net and union protections that — while not perfect — kept more workers attached to their paycheck and created fewer scenarios where so-called essential workers risked their lives to get money for food or rent.
Yes, America surely suffered because there was a bozo at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue who gave permission not to wear masks and wanted to “liberate” states with high infection rates while promoting quack cures, but let’s not forget the 62 million Americans who put him there because they wanted to preserve a caste system that celebrated white supremacy, even for the many whites without a job or health insurance. Or, to be honest, the millions more who detest Trump but who as “nice white parents” look the other way on segregated schools or hospitals, as long as they can get admitted to the ones with the new machines and the experimental drugs.
The pandemic defeated America not so much because of Donald Trump but because of America. There’s a reason that the George Floyd protest movement erupted in 2020 and not, say, in 2014 or 2005 — because the virus has eaten away the last veneer of denial that still covered our systems of oppression and inequality. If America changes only at the top in January and not from top to bottom, if there isn’t a mass movement to get rid of “killer” hospitals and soul-crushing schools and overstuffed prisons and the systemic racism that undergirds all of them, then our nation will have learned nothing from our near-death experience.
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