There is one COVID-19, but there are two COVID-19 pandemics.
One is the pandemic I see discussed endlessly on Twitter and Facebook and in newspapers and on television. It’s the pandemic that’s being experienced by middle class Americans and white collar employees. They’re working from home, they’re (understandably) upset and emotional at the things they’ve lost and struggling to deal with the isolation and disruption of the current world.
When they’re frustrated about their circumstances, they might take to social media and post something about how people need to stay home, or do their part to slow the spread of the virus that has wreaked so much havoc on our country.
But there’s another pandemic, one that’s experienced by more people but covered and discussed significantly less. I was talking to a friend of mine who works at a grocery store last week and I asked her how the pandemic was going.
“What pandemic?” she said with a laugh.
She hasn’t gotten a single day off of work, or had the option to work from home. That’s reality for thousands of hourly employees in our city, for the people making and delivering food to those of us “stuck at home,” for those treating people in our hospitals, for the people scanning food at the grocery stores.
These people aren’t getting paid to sit behind their computer–they’re going to work the same as they did before the pandemic began, but with an increasingly higher risk of contracting the virus.
It’s a “two Americas” divide that I see both sides of. I’m a white collar worker, and my wife and I are managing the difficult challenges of being two parents working full time at home while our son is also attending school virtually. Every day is hard–but it’s hard in a middle class kind of way, with enough money in the bank and enough food in the fridge. It’s hard emotionally, not materially.
But I also grew up as the son of a single mom in a household well below the federal poverty line. If the pandemic had struck when I was in eighth grade, I would have been home watching my third-grade brother every day while our mom went to work. If she’d stayed home we wouldn’t have been able to eat. While at “school,” we would have been trying to run two livestream Zoom classes off the same district-issued mobile hotspot device, taking turns getting kicked off by lagging connection speeds.
That’s a reality many are living in today. With schools closed, children are being reminded by worried parents every morning that if an emergency happens, they’re supposed to go next door to get help from a trusted neighbor.
Middle class people are on Twitter asking for a lockdown to just get it over with. Hourly employees are staring at the reality of not being able to pay for food or rent if their employers get shut down again.
Because they can’t do their jobs remotely, they’re also more susceptible to the virus–and yet many North Long Beach and Westside families I know are praying we don’t go back into lockdown. The virus is a real threat, but anyone who’s been without food knows that hunger is scarier.
That’s why according to Pew Polling almost twice as many Americans are worried about the economy as are worried about contracting the virus. It’s not because they aren’t taking COVID-19 seriously or because they’re merely worried about their 401Ks–it’s because many of them are working class people who literally cannot survive another shutdown, especially with no additional stimulus money coming.
The problem is that the two sides of the divide don’t see each other–we’re too isolated by targeted editorial content and by social media bubbles. It’s created a world where the governor of this state feels perfectly comfortable sending his kids to private school while the public schools in his city remain closed, while working class people have to either miss work or leave their kids home alone. The governor is so isolated from the pain working class people are experiencing that he then feels comfortable going to a dinner party that’s in violation of his own state guidelines.
The problem is the pandemic is making that divide worse, too. I’ve heard from every high school coach I’ve talked to for the last six months that they’ve had players step away from their team because they’ve had to find work to help support their families.
The Los Angeles Unified School District released statistics last week that said that their poorest students are failing classes at rates never seen before–which shouldn’t come as a surprise given what we know about the significantly lower quality of internet in impoverished areas of Southern California, a utility now required in order to “attend” school.
In 1918 when schools closed due to the pandemic, students weren’t expected to still attend school, because there was no internet–that’s the world our poorest third of the city still basically lives in. The difference now is their students are expected to show up, despite the lack of high-speed internet that video streaming requires.
It’s difficult to force people to look at each other across this divide–it’s painful. People are scared, or embarrassed, or indignant about being worse off or about being better off than others in their community.
I asked the parent of a soccer player we covered last year to let me do a story about the choices she’s had to make leaving her kids at home while she went to work, and she declined for fear that Child Protective Services would see the article and punish her.
Her middle child’s only access to sports came through their local school, as they’re unable to afford a club program. They’re still able to train thanks to the Long Beach Unified School District’s offseason conditioning program, which has been a Godsend to our poorest kids. But they also log on to social media and see well-funded private club programs traveling out of state for full on competition in Arizona or Utah.
I’m going to do everything I can to focus my stories on employees more than businesses, on blue collar workers more than white collar workers as we enter the next stage of the pandemic. But there’s something you can do, too. It’s not much, but it’s important. While you’re at home ordering delivery, remember that the person delivering your food will go home to a house in the same city as you, but in a different world, experiencing a different pandemic.