Yes, the coronavirus hit the president and his White House hard, likely because of the irresponsible choices this president has made, but let’s not kid ourselves: The virus has devastated with alarming efficiency minorities and the impoverished, particularly in cities, while accelerating our return to a more hierarchical and far less democratic society.
The virus has been inconvenient for the affluent, many of whom still could work comfortably from home and who suffered far lower rates of infection. And it’s been a boon for the elite bureaucracy and even more so for the already fantastically wealthy tech oligarchs whose ownership of people’s data is even more valuable with shopping and entertainment largely online.
That’s nothing new. Faced with pestilence in crowded cities, the wealthy in past centuries often escaped to country estates and rentals, as they have this year. Of course, some of those escapees died, too, but at a far lower rate than the hoi polloi. Whether in the towering insulae of Rome, medieval hovels, or the tenements of the Lower East Side, the poor have always been hit first and hardest by economic dislocation, infection, and death. Although far less lethal, COVID-19 has followed this pattern.
Overall, counties with urban densities greater than 10,000 per square mile constitute less than 4 percent of the nation’s population but have suffered 14 percent of deaths associated with the pandemic. By comparison, in the most typical suburban areas (urban densities of 1,000 to 2,500 per square mile), where 53 percent of the population lives, the COVID fatality rate is approximately one-fifth of that. In counties with urban densities under 1,000 (largely rural), it is one-sixth.
The biggest problem lies with what demographer Wendell Cox labels “exposure density,” which results from insufficiently ventilated places like crowded housing, transit, elevators and office environments. Poor people, as a new paper suggests, are far less able to socially distance either at home or at work. As race and class often overlap in America, whites are roughly twice as likely to telecommute as African Americans or Hispanics.
Nationwide, African Americans, who make up 13 percent of the population, account for 21 percent of COVID-related deaths. The difference in hospitalization rates between groups is even more striking, with Native Americans at 300 per 100,000, African Americans at 267 and Latinos at 265, while its 57 for non-Latino whites.
Poverty seems to be the common thread. Even in lower density areas like native American reservations and along the Mexican border, poorer people often live in crowded, pandemic-friendly unventilated places. The worst-hit areas have been those with both high rates of poverty and household crowding, like New York’s outer boroughs and Chicago’s south and west sides. Although California’s infection rate has been lower, the worst effects by far have been felt in impoverished parts of Los Angeles County—home to five of the 10 most crowded zip codes in the U.S. In Houston, poor areas like the First and Third Wards have experienced far higher rates of infection and fatalities. An analysis by the Houston Chronicle revealed that seven of the 10 zip codes with the highest rates of infection were majority-black and low-income communities. Some suffered double or triple the county’s (already high for Texas) average per-capita rate.
Poor and minority communities also have endured the worst economic dislocation from the pandemic. The lockdowns, whether justified or overwrought, have pummeled low-income workers. Roughly half of all job losses in April were in such low-paying fields as restaurants, hotels, and amusement parks. Almost 40 percent of those Americans making under $40,000 a year have lost their jobs, seeing wage gains made during the first three years of the Trump Administration evaporate.
Overall, notes Pew, a majority of low-income households have had someone lose their jobs or taken a pay cut, compared to 32 of more higher-income households. In some New York neighborhoods unemployment now reaches 30 percent. Forty-four percent of Black households and 61 percent of Latino household, notes Pew, have suffered a job loss or pay cut compared to 38 percent of whites.
Minority businesses have been particularly hard hit. Although advertised as saving small firms, even The Wall Street Journal admits that Washington’s stimulus plans have been “putting Wall Street ahead“ of competing Main Street businesses, with monies going to owners of luxury real estate, hedge funds and brokerages.
Small, often minority-run firms lack ties to banks or credit as much of their business is cash-based. Some small businesses, suggests Tracy Hernandez, CEO of LA Bizfed, also consider the lockdown’s terms fundamentally discriminatory. Clothing, hardware shoe stores, many operating for generations in working class areas, have been unable to open even as their larger competitors—Costco, Walmart, Target—remained open.
“There’s a general paranoia and people here are struggling,” observed Rudy Espinoza, executive director of the Leadership for Urban Renewal Network in East L.A. “Here, this is not about convenience—it’s about putting food on the table or paying the rent.”
Small business owners, were already reeling from competition from online competitors like Amazon and Wall Street-funded chains. Now, in the wake of COVID, most face what the Harvard Business Review calls “an existential threat.”
On average, notes a recent study, small businesses reported having reduced their active employment by 39 percent since January. The decline was particularly sharp in the Mid-Atlantic region (which includes New York City), where 54 percent of firms were closed and employment was down by 47 percent. In New York City, according to a new study from the Partnership for New York City, up to a third of small businesses are likely to never come back.
Nationwide a recent survey by the advocacy group Main Street America, suggests up to 7.5 million small businesses are likely to go out of business if the crisis lasts to the end of the year.
Particularly threatened are small businesses that focused largely on serving local residents. As funds were made available to better-funded, better-connected chain businesses, local taquerias, coffee shops and Asian joints have been left to struggle. If shut-downs last much longer, as many as three-quarters of independent restaurants simply won’t make it.
The public sector and those parts of the economy that operate by keystroke—knowledge workers in fields like media, finance, software, and accounting—have been far more insulated from the economic impact of the virus and the shutdowns. Despite a record of hugely wrong projections, often leading to something close to hysteria, those at the top of the clerisy, “the privileged stratum,” in the words of the French leftist analyst Christophe Guilluy, have seen the enhancement of their sense of their much vaunted “moral superiority,” enjoying a vast expansion of their ability to regulate people’s lives.
Yet ultimately the real winners, as in the Middle Ages, are not the clerics but the modern day aristocrats—most notably Wall Street and the big tech giants, most notably Amazon, which has expanded as people hunker down in their homes. In an era defined by “social distancing”, the tech companies and their financial backers have expanded their already rapidly growing stranglehold over both the stock market and the economy. The shift to remote work also has created an enormous market for applications like Slack, at one time the fastest growing business application on record, as well Google Hangouts, Facebook, Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
Meantime, and despite the tech companies happy talk about bringing people together and helping improve their conditions, a May poll from NORC at the University of Chicago found the lowest percentage of Americans saying they are very happy in nearly five decades. Just 14 percent say they are very happy today, down from 31 percent in 2018. Sadly neither Trumpism nor wokeism—each embracing their own brands of resentment—is likely to do much to meaningfully improve conditions.
Given his awful handling of the pandemic, Trump is likely to be blamed for the landscape of shuttered storefronts, empty bank accounts, and dashed aspirations. But no one should expect that the social divides, so accentuated by COVID, will be bridged under a Democratic administration. In contrast to progressives of the past—or to Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren—Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, with close ties to the California tech oligarchy, can be counted on both to advance their agenda, including allowing the importation of more cheap tech workers from abroad, and preserving big tech’s immunity from anti-trust and privacy actions.
Democrats, however, cannot rely only on the clear evidence of Trumpian incompetence and malfeasance to guarantee a November win. Indeed, recent calls by Biden and his medical adviser, Ezekiel Emmanuel, to extend lockdowns well into next year might concern both struggling small business owners and millions of now unemployed service workers, who may be less concerned about achieving total immunity than with getting their lives back together.
What America’s middle and working class need are policies that can help them to recover what has been lost, and even improve their conditions. Sadly right now neither party seems to have serious interest in such policies. Whether we see another four years of Trump, or a Democratic resurgence, for most Americans the sad social legacy of COVID will last, perhaps for decades to come.