[News] Coronavirus and the Politics of Disposability

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http://bostonreview.net/class-inequality-race-politics/shaun-ossei-owusu-coronavirus-and-politics-disposability?fbclid=IwAR1VephNgqUAXQb5cb3K9K2DcHJXNwYT0zmVrMe4wxxmFq9QrK3neSQO94M
Coronavirus
and the Politics of Disposability
Shaun Ossei-Owusu - April 8, 2020

COVID-19 is having a disproportionate effect among vulnerable populations.
When the dust settles, as in all U.S. disasters, there will be a tale to
tell of who mattered and who was sacrificed.

In the final chapter, “The Space Traders,” of his 1992 book *Faces at the
Bottom of the Well: The Persistence of Racism*
<https://www.basicbooks.com/titles/derrick-bell/faces-at-the-bottom-of-the-well/9781541645530/>,
Derrick Bell, Harvard Law School’s first tenured black professor, described
a fictive world eerily similar to the one we know today. Local and federal
governments ostensibly had no money. “Decades of conservative,
laissez-faire capitalism had emptied the coffers of all but a few of the
very rich,” the narrator says. Because of a host of poor choices, the
country “was struggling to survive like any third-world nation,” and
financial exigencies “curtailed all but the most necessary services.” The
parallels are acute: “the environment was in shambles, as reflected by the
fact that the sick and elderly had to wear special masks whenever they
ventured out-of-doors.”

Demographic data about COVID-19 deaths are beginning to bear out the
politics of disposability.

In the story, English-speaking extraterrestrial beings land on the shores
of New Jersey and offer to solve everything: gold to bail out companies,
chemicals to unpollute the environment. The country could have this deal
for one sweet price: “all the African Americans who lived in the United
States.” This was the central, controversial claim in Bell’s science
fiction: that white people would sell black people to aliens for the right
price. The story concludes with a successful trade. Twenty million black
men, women, and children are stripped to just one undergarment, lined up,
chained, and whisked away, like many of their ancestors’ centuries before.

Bell’s story lays bare the politics of disposability. But unlike the cosmos
of the Space Traders, the world of coronavirus is not simply black/white.
It is white and
<https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/03/30/coronavirus-cases-could-soar-blacks-latinos-and-native-americans/2917493001/>
non-white; poor and
<https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/coronavirus-will-supercharge-american-inequality/608419/>
not poor; essential and non-essential; white collar and
<https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/04/coronavirus-highlights-who-can-and-cant-work-from-home.html>
blue collar; Asian and
<https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/24/coronavirus-us-asian-americans-racism>
not Asian; undocumented and
<https://www.npr.org/2020/03/29/823438906/what-happens-if-undocumented-immigrants-get-infected-with-coronavirus>
citizen; able-bodied and
<https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-04-05/coronavirus-services-disabled-families-california>
sick; young and
<https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/people-at-higher-risk.html>
elderly; first-generation higher ed students and
<https://www.chronicle.com/article/When-Coronavirus-Closes/248228> their
wealthier counterparts; the free and
<https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/03/31/why-jails-are-so-important-in-the-fight-against-coronavirus>
imprisoned; celebrities with access to instant testing and
<https://sports.yahoo.com/nba-explains-why-its-players-have-access-to-coronavirus-tests-while-general-public-does-not-152251784.html>
plebeians; red states and
<https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/03/how-republicans-and-democrats-think-about-coronavirus/608395/>
blue states; and countless other binaries. From these overlapping
inequities we get a glimpse of who is disposable: the people who occupy the
wrong category. The scholar and cultural critic Henry Giroux analyzes
<https://www.crcpress.com/Stormy-Weather-Katrina-and-the-Politics-of-Disposability/Giroux/p/book/9781594513299>
this politics in his book *Against the Terror of Neoliberalism* (2008). “It
is a politics in which the unproductive (the poor, weak and racially
marginalized) are considered useless and therefore expendable,” he
writes—and “in which entire populations are considered disposable,
unnecessary burdens on state coffers, and consigned to fend for themselves.”

Tragically, demographic data about COVID-19 deaths are beginning to bear
this vision out. On Monday Kaisher Health News reported
<https://khn.org/morning-breakout/a-disproportionate-number-of-african-americans-are-dying-but-the-u-s-has-been-silent-on-race-data/>
that “A Disproportionate Number Of African-Americans Are Dying, But The
U.S. Has Been Silent On Race Data.” Seventy percent
<https://www.motherjones.com/coronavirus-updates/2020/04/70-percent-of-people-killed-in-chicago-by-the-coronavirus-are-black/>
of those who have died from coronavirus in Chicago are black. Last week saw
calls from a range of politicians
<https://www.boston.com/news/politics/2020/03/30/elizabeth-warren-ayanna-pressley-are-racial-data-coronavirus-tests>,
journalists
<https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/01/opinion/coronavirus-black-people.html>,
and scholars
<https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/stop-looking-away-race-covid-19-victims/609250/>
for more fine-grained data than has been made available thus far. But for
many observers, who was being impacted was the *first *question on their
mind. Beyond the latest numbers, we have other data points: history, what
is visible from news and experience, and media accounts. These are
imperfect, but they supply some information, and the implications are grim.

The people whose disposability is on widest display are those who work in
immediate-risk industries: the financially precarious service workers, the
health care workers tasked with “equity work.”

This is certainly *not* to say—as some multiracial groups of conspiracy
theorists
<https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2020/03/coronavirus-is-creating-fake-news-nightmarescape-social-media>
allege—that there is some sinister grandmaster plot afoot to harm
vulnerable populations. In Bell’s allegory intent can often be a sideshow,
if not an outright distraction. The truth is more banal: systemic social
inequalities have made some groups more vulnerable than others, and the
question of intent is irrelevant. As a criminal law professor, I teach my
students that intent matters, but in some instances
<https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/strict_liability> it does not. In this
context, malfeasance
<https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/03/30/coronavirus-stock-sales-senators-burr-inhofe-loeffler-feinstein/5086707002/>,
misguided policies
<https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/covid-ny-hospital-medicaid/>,
and indifference
<https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/15/fauci-coronavirus-young-people-130229>
suffice. Moreover, while government is the easy and most identifiable
culprit, popular complicity
<https://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-photos-people-ignoring-self-isolation-mandates-crowds-around-world-covid19-2020>
is at play here too, which makes this version of disposability different
from Bell’s telling.

The people whose disposability is on widest display are those who work in
immediate-risk industries. The financially precarious service workers
<https://www.brookings.edu/research/who-are-the-workers-already-impacted-by-the-covid-19-recession/>
out with the epidemiological wolves so the rest of society can buy
groceries. The health care workers plastered on the news, who labor in a
profession that tasks minority and women nurses, physician assistants, and
technicians with what sociologist Adia Harvey Wingfield calls “equity work
<https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520300347/flatlining>”: labor that makes
health institutions more available to marginalized groups. The homeless
population
<https://www.inquirer.com/health/coronavirus/philadelphia-coronavirus-covid-19-homeless-response-social-distancing-20200319.html>,
which was already noticeable in U.S. cities, but is now more conspicuous
because of their inability to shelter in place.

Then there are the undocumented agricultural workers
<https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-04-01/california-farmworkers-coronavirus>
in the west and southwest who can’t work on Zoom like their white-collar
counterparts and have now become more precious in a country that has
insisted on calling them illegal. There are Native Americans—some of whom
have been facing a long-standing water crisis
<https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/03/26/822037719/coronavirus-cases-spike-in-navajo-nation-where-water-service-is-often-scarce>—who
have uniquely
<https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2020/04/04/native-american-coronavirus/>
high rates of diseases that make COVID-19 more lethal. There the Asian
Americans who have been subject to hate crimes
<https://thehill.com/changing-america/respect/equality/490373-attacks-on-asian-americans-at-about-100-per-day-due-to>
since this virus surfaced in the U.S. And there are the residents in poorly
serviced public housing projects in places like Chicago
<https://www.propublica.org/article/coronavirus-chicago-housing-authority-residents>,
Baltimore
<https://baltimore.cbslocal.com/2020/04/01/coronavirus-douglass-homes-baltimore/>,
and my native South Bronx, where 2,000 public housing residents woke
<https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/ny-jackson-house-coronavirus-20200404-6bcrmzgscrd2tpiucbnmjutwle-story.html>
up to no water during an epidemic that requires vigilant hand washing.

Collective pronouns—the “we” and “our” and “us” of public discourse—are
dangerously comforting. They give the impression of equal susceptibility,
while celebrities and other prominent figures gain access to testing and
top-flight health care.

The recent history of other U.S. disasters is also telling. The Chicago
<https://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/443213in.html> Heatwave of
1995 killed more than 700 people, mostly poor and elderly, and necessitated
refrigerated trucks for dead corpses in ways that are similar to New York
now
<https://thehill.com/homenews/state-watch/490252-fema-sending-refrigerator-trucks-to-nyc-for-coronavirus-deaths>.
A decade later, Hurricane Katrina took the lives of more than 1,800 people
in Louisiana, many of whom were poor and could not leave their homes as
advised. Poor people in New York City face the same today: they do not have
the benefit of escaping to second homes
<https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexandrasternlicht/2020/03/29/as-wealthy-depart-for-second-homes-class-tensions-come-to-surface-in-coronavirus-crisis/#28b2ec68344d>
in Long Island and New England. And then there was Hurricane Maria, which
was a little more than eighteen months ago. That disaster, which killed
approximately 3,000 people in Puerto Rico, elicited similar criticisms of
the federal government’s slow response and accusations that the death count
was severely understated
<https://thehill.com/opinion/technology/490541-coronavirus-its-time-to-get-real-about-the-misleading-data>.
Jason Cortés has described
<https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10455752.2018.1505233>
President Trump’s paper-towel-throwing
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEe7_zgZbuI> spectacle during his visit to
Puerto Rico as “the American commander-in-chief [choosing] to toss
disposable paper to disposable people.”

On Palm Sunday, Surgeon General Jerome Adams gave an ominous warning
<https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/04/05/surgeon-general-jerome-adams-coronavirus-rivals-pearl-harbor-9-11/2950230001/>.
“This is going to be the hardest and the saddest week of most Americans’
lives, quite frankly,” he cautioned. “This is going to be our Pearl Harbor
moment, our 9/11 moment. Only, it’s not going to be localized, it’s going
to be happening all over the country. And I want America to understand
that.” But who exactly will be dispensed with? It certainly won’t be all of
us. Collective pronouns—the “we” and “our” and “us” of public discourse—are
dangerously comforting. They give the impression of equal susceptibility,
while celebrities and other prominent figures gain access to testing and
top-flight
<https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2020/03/19/nelson-schwartz-coronavirus-inequality>
health care. COVID-19 is not discriminatory as a biological matter, but
history and available accounts indicate that the epidemiological fallout
will be weighty and uneven.

During the debates about the Affordable Care Act, hysteria emerged around
government-run “death panels”: committees of doctors who would ration care
and decide who would receive treatment. This alarm ignored the long history
of rationing and unequal access to health care—the subject of Beatrix
Hoffman’s book *Rights and Rationing in the United States Since 1930*
<https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/H/bo12234049.html>
(2012)—but it echoes legitimate dismay about bureaucrats making decisions
about who lives and who dies. People with disabilities, racial minorities,
undocumented immigrants, prisoners, and the poor did not figure prominently
into the frenzy around death panels, but they have reason to be worried
now. The uninsured, elderly, and an ever-growing portion of the middle
class should be added to that list.

When the dust settles, as in all U.S. disasters, there will be at a tale to
tell of who mattered and who was sacrificed.

Social science data has already shown that African Americans are often
denigrated, disregarded, and disbelieved by medical professionals when they
claim they are in pain
<https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/how-we-fail-black-patients-pain>. Where
will they fit in the treatment queues? Can we rest assured that American
doctors will not take a cue from those in Italy
<https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/03/15/coronavirus-rationing-us/>,
who deprioritized the lives of coronavirus patients who are chronically
ill, disabled, or elderly? What about the Latinx folk who constitute
<https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2018/09/who-are-the-uninsured.html>
a third of uninsured people in the country? Bioethical scenarios usually
reserved for grad school seminars are likely to be actualized.

Rural whites have been relatively safe from the virus for now (but not its
economic
<https://www.wsj.com/articles/coronavirus-hits-already-frail-u-s-farm-economy-11584783001>
impact). Most live in the approximately 1,300 counties
<https://www.modernhealthcare.com/providers/counties-without-coronavirus-are-mostly-rural-poor>
that have no confirmed cases and where social distancing is ordinary. But
many of these counties are also medical deserts unequipped to handle this
virus. If COVID-19 creeps into these locales, as it has in Albany
<https://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-hotspot-albany-georgia-funderals-covid-19-cases-per-capita-2020-4>,
Georgia, will this group of people—many of whom perceive
<https://thenewpress.com/books/strangers-their-own-land> themselves to be
“strangers in their own land,” as the title of the sociologist Arlie
Hochshild’s 2018 book put it—be disregarded, too? And if the virus does not
make its way to rural America, what does that say about the disposability
of everyone else?

Bell’s “Space Traders” struck a nerve because it highlighted the
vulnerability of an entire class of people. The difference now is that the
people being sacrificed extends beyond African Americans, and
responsibility can be tethered not only to government but to the private
sector, the media, and the parts of the general public. The outcome of this
story is uncertain. But when the dust settles, as in all U.S. disasters,
there will be a tale to tell of who mattered and who was sacrificed.
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