We’re not really all in this together.
The world’s reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic has affected different people differently.
But we’re not all in the same boat — at least not all in the same class. Broadly, people fall into one of three groups: The Essentials, The Halted and The (Seemingly) Unaffected.
The Essentials are those who must continue working, in their physical places of work, typically now with new conditions that make their jobs more stressful, more dangerous, more difficult or take longer hours. The front line medical workers who are tending to the sick in the areas that have many cases are the ones facing the most extreme demands upon them. There are also though the delivery people, cashiers, clerks, and others like them who worry about getting sick or going back to their families and getting them sick. These people are facing much more pressure and stress due to their jobs. The longer this goes on, the more they will suffer from stress related conditions. In some cases they have been offered some more money for doing their jobs, but this is not “life-changing” money we’re talking about and it does nothing to relieve the stresses just mentioned. They are becoming exhausted.
Next up are The Halted — all the people who have lost their jobs, had their jobs suspended, had their ability to earn income suspended and are ordered to stay at home (sometimes not so politely as that either). These people are confined to their homes except for conducting essential tasks — basically buying food and medicine. Beyond the ranks of the now unemployed and furloughed are also all the salespeople who rely on commissions for their income, all the business owners of non-essential businesses shut down by the emergency, and all kinds of people who made money independently from the regular functioning of the economy but who now cannot. These people are now struggling to make existing payments and the prospects look worse as time goes on. While many of these people hope to return to work sometime soon, the reality is that demand for everything is down and so is the willingness to spend and it will only be the lucky ones who find employment returns immediately and to the same level as before. They are becoming impatient.
Last are the most fortunate ones, who I call The Seemingly Unaffected. These are the people who get to work from home now at full salary, or whose jobs continue but haven’t been affected much by the stresses faced by the Essentials. There’s a large group of these people. As far as I’m aware, governments have not cut staff, even if work is diminished, and so their employees (who are not in the Essentials bucket) continue to get paid while working from home. There are the office workers whose companies are doing fine and who have been spared layoffs. There are those doing essential work, but which had little interaction with others before anyways, so not much has changed. These people have the luxury of being able to be patient and keep their energy at normal levels.
As you can see, each of these groups has a very different perspective on the situation: The Essentials are at risk of burnout, the Halted facing financial ruin while being isolated, and the Unaffected are weathering it all relatively comfortably.
It’s nobody’s fault as to what group they are in. There’s nothing wicked about finding oneself as a member of the Unaffected. Although it is wise to have some awareness and sympathy for the position of the others and to not gloat. (I recently had a conversation with an Unaffected person who said something to the effect of “My company assists with identity verification for unemployment claims, so things are great, plus I don’t have to drive to meetings anymore!”.)
I worry that there is a clash brewing as the interests and needs of these groups is not terribly well aligned.
For someone who doesn’t know how they’ll buy food, the reaction to being told to “stay the fuck at home” can hardly be anything short of rage. And more polite statements of “be patient” are actually no better when it comes alleviating their concerns.
For someone exhausted by the conditions of their work, they face nothing short of breaking down. I went through a McDonald’s drive-through today and the people I saw through the window, masked and wearing gloves, were working at a much faster pace than what I’d ever seen before at a McDonalds, and they wished me a “good morning” even though it was late afternoon.
These two groups, the Essentials and The Halted, need relief, and soon.
As for the third group, I worry that they have been lulled into a comfort that is in for a rude awakening soon too. They are after all, only Seemingly Unaffected. They’re not in the immediate blast radius of the pandemic’s effects on our society, but there is no escaping its consequences. As supply chains thin out, as money stops flowing, as the impact of millions of people now without spending capacity all work their way through the economy, there will be economic consequences for these people too that cannot be avoided. If there are shortages of certain foods, these people will also feel them. Their patience comes from not recognizing the emergency around them that is quickly working its way to their doorsteps too. In this sense, although we don’t realize it, we actually are all in this together.
None of us has the luxury of time. But not all of us realize it. In particular, the politicians and their advisors, all of whom are Unaffected (i.e. drawing their full salaries, working in isolation from others, not exposed to the sick or to income hits) think that they can take their time in slowly turning things back on and that this is the optimal and correct approach. Of course, they have the (seeming) luxury of a paycheque. And they have been working towards a singular goal — keeping the medical system from becoming overwhelmed, which would lead to excess deaths.
However, this singular focus is misplaced. First, it neglects to consider all the other aspects of the damage being wrought by the economic shutdown. Second, now that we are well into the quarantine, it is clear that those models that indicated the health system would be overwhelmed, were wrong. Where I live (and where I monitor the data closely), in Ontario, Canada, we added lots of extra ICU beds — none have been needed yet. (And I’ve read many stories from across the continent of extra beds being made available, but not used). Ontario’s fatality count by the end of April was forecast to be at best 3,000 and at worst 15,000. The actual number of deaths was 1,121 and over 900 of those were residents of Long Term Care Retirement Facilities. For locking down the entire province and creating millions of unemployed people, just over 200 people died outside of those Long Term Care Facilities (that sadly weren’t identified as being as high a priority as hindsight now shows us they should have been).
There is in light of the first fact, not as urgent a need to protect the now expanded and underutilized health care system. And in light of the second fact, there is an actual urgent need to start letting the Halted return to work and to provide some stress relief to the Essentials. This recognition that the situation now is not what we thought it was back in March is what is essential to minimizing the harm of the pandemic. Politicians, their advisors and other policymakers and influencers need to recognize this and adapt — immediately. Because this is what is urgent.