In an earlier post from April 7 I commented briefly on a popular cliché that has become the go-to mantra of the current pandemic, “We’re all in this together.” Three weeks hence and a revealing set of data later, it has become clear that the message conveyed in this dubious declaration deserves to be revisited with a critical eye. A deeper look into this seemingly innocuous rallying call (“all for one, and one for all”) reveals the stark inequities and disparities that mark not only this pandemic, but the human condition as a whole.
Over the past few weeks emerging data about the primary victims of the pandemic has revealed that COVID-19 is not an equal opportunity infector after all. We are not all equally in this together. Indeed, just as the human-caused crisis of global warming unjustly and disproportionately wreaks havoc on the poor, disenfranchised and least culpable of humanity, so does this unequal opportunity virus.
For instance, in my birth state of Wisconsin 42 percent of the COVID-19 deaths are African Americans—a group that constitutes just 6 percent of the state’s overall population. Milwaukee County, Wisconsin is just 26% black, yet African-Americans account for almost half of the coronavirus cases and 80% of the deaths. In my current home state of North Carolina black residents make up about a third of the population but 44% of its coronavirus cases. All across America the story is basically the same. We are not all in this pandemic together. Not even close.
The blame for this infectious inequality cannot not be placed on the bug. It is not the fault of the coronavirus that across America it is not only the elderly, but also the poor, marginalized masses that are the low hanging fruit that feeds this “invisible enemy.” If war is the metaphor for this viral onslaught, then we’re in a battle of the survival of the fittest. Lack of sufficient PPE (personal protective equipment) put our front line troops (essential health care professionals) in harm’s way at the start of this pandemic. Likewise, along with age, ethnicity and economics are proving to be the prime factors that disproportionately place certain sectors of society in harm’s way when it comes to battling the virus. We are not fighting on a level battlefield.
The impact of the coronavirus is reflecting the racial and socioeconomic disparities of the areas where it’s spreading and the health care system that’s struggling to contain it. According to Fernando De Maio, sociologist and co-director of the Center for Community Health Equity at DePaul University in Chicago, implicit biases and structural discrimination in the healthcare system have stacked the deck against minorities. He notes that, “Leading causes of death such as heart disease and lung cancer see higher rates in African Americans – so much so that they live 10 to 12 fewer years on average than white people.” Such statistics don’t make the breaking news day after day, but they are just as real as the daily death counts that track pandemic casualties. DeMaio also hits the nail on the head when he says, “We need to stop seeing the pandemic as a medical problem but [see it as] a public health problem.”
To that I would add that we need to start seeing the statistics from the pandemic as one more sign (flashing neon, no less) of the unjust inequality that continues to define a modern America that makes the first ‘Gilded Age’ look like a piker. We need to start seeing our 2nd Gilded Age through the eyes of the Prophet Micah who saw God’s vision of the common good and God’s requirement to achieve it by doing what is just, loving what is kind and walking in humility with divinity. Today that means nothing less than building a different social order.
A little over half a century ago Father Gustavo Gutiérrez introduced a paper titled ‘Toward a Theology of Liberation.’ He summarized its themes in these words. “The poor are a byproduct of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. Hence, the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” Today he would be saying that the pandemic must not be treated as merely another call for generous relief action in the face of a ‘natural disaster.’ For all their good intentions, bailouts, stimulus packages, care packages, PPE’s and ventilators are merely the reactive Band-Aids we keep applying to a hemorrhaging planet and social order in need of moral CPR.
Rev. Dr. Samuel Cruz, a Professor at Union Theological Seminary and a Pastor is a proponent of Gutiérrez theology. According to an article in a recent Sojourners magazine, in his Good Friday sermon this year he preached:
“If you miss the reality of why Jesus was killed, you miss the whole story. Jesus was assassinated because he condemned injustice. In Jesus’ day, those who could afford good health care and medicine were not happy when the marginalized received good health care and medicine from Jesus … He died because there were evil individuals in society who wanted to maintain their power and found it necessary to kill him.”
To all who have the ethical ears to hear the cry for justice in the midst of this global pandemic, and to all who have the moral vision to see the lethal inequality in this 2nd Gilded Age it is clear that we are not all in this together. And moreover, we never really have been. Pastor Cruz would prophetically proclaim that it is the mission of Jesus’ followers (the Church) in this 2nd Gilded Age not to miss the reality of why Jesus was assassinated. It is our mission to know the whole story, to tell the whole story and to live the whole story of the one who condemned injustice and championed equality for all God’s children and all God’s creatures great and small.
As an aid in fulfilling this mission I recommend for our mutual edification a project of the New York Times, ‘The America We Need.’ The editorial page editor, James Bennett, introduces the project HERE. Give it a look.
“Through this project, we’ll be arguing our way toward a set of proposals for how American society can eventually emerge from this crucible stronger, fairer and more free.”
Here’s a final parting thought. As a college English major I was exposed to The Plague (by Albert Camus). The COVID-19 pandemic and the larger societal and ecological issues that threaten our lives and livelihood remind me of a line uttered by a doctor in the novel: “It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”