Things Fall Apart: A Cautionary Tale of COVID-19

Disposable mask on top of dollar bills

(Credit: Canva)

Introduction

The COVID-19 crisis represents a failure of institutions. In this Op-Ed for Rwebel Rouser, we will critique those failings. For better readability, we have broken this into sections: Corporate, Government, and Healthcare. Click each link to navigate to each section.

Corporate

Last week, the New York Times was accused of union-busting. According to Morningstar Newspaper, “The National Labour Relations Board has accused the newspaper of undermining union activity and using scare tactics to deter workers from organizing collectively.”

This comes after the company announced it would honor three public holidays – Juneteenth, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and Veterans’ Day – only for non-union employees, the majority of whom are white, the article further states. 

Just days before MLK Day, a holiday to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was a staunch worker’s advocate, the New York Times Co. made this announcement. Really, this is an example of one of the many institutional failures of COVID-19.

From local governments failing to mandate masks or even test their constituents to the CDC adapting quarantine guidelines to satisfy corporate comrades, we have seen neglect on almost all levels. Going back to the opening example, the New York Times is both a contradiction and a testament to capitalism – even the “good ones” will still fail us.

Hamilton Nolan wrote for The Guardian: “Whether they happen at an Amazon warehouse or at the New York Times, [anti-union campaigns] are a demonstration of contempt for the idea that an employee may deserve to be treated as someone whose humanity is just as real as that of an employer.” Employee rights are a consistent point of contempt for Amazon. 

In early January, Amazon employees filed a class-action lawsuit against the corporate tech giant for allegedly collecting biometric data without consent and then selling this data to third-party vendors. 

Justia Law published court documents that show Amazon filed a motion to dismiss the case, but Illinois District Court Judge Mary M. Rowland denied the motion. Yet, this is not the only recent controversy facing the company.

Last December, they came under fire for allegedly letting two employees die. While Amazon denied these allegations in a statement to Mashable, more allegations are now surfacing about employee deaths. According to the Chicago Tribune, “Six people who had been working at an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville died following the Dec. 10 storm.”

Amanda Yeo wrote for Mashable, “Amazon has also been repeatedly criticized for the high rate and harsh severity of injuries in its warehouses, boasting a rate of serious injuries almost 80 percent higher than at other warehouses.”

As a former employee of Amazon, I can attest to these concerns. In 2020, I was hospitalized and diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. Amazon asked me to come into work the same day I was discharged, and because I didn’t, I was fired.

To some, Amazon has prioritized “profit over people’s safety.” In a tweet after the incident in Edwardsville, IL when six people died, The Intercept’s Ken Klippenstein tweeted, “Amazon executive sent “thoughts and prayers” to workers stuck in a company warehouse following tornado warnings. 6 are now confirmed dead.”

One Twitter user replied, “I think this has to be some higher-ups responsibly [sic] for choosing, once again, profit over people’s safety.” Amazon is not the only one accused of this. The government is as well.

Government

In late 2021, a Twitter user stated, “We had a small window to get COVID under control in this country, specifically. And we missed it because folks only cared about themselves. I will never let that go.” Another account replied, “We missed it because we have an inadequate government that is based on capitalism and puts profit over people.”

Corporate America’s return-to-work policies fit the latter assumption. 

Take the Center for Disease Control and Delta Airlines, for example. Previously, the quarantine period was ten days. Yet, after Delta Airlines CEO wrote a letter to Rochelle Walensky requesting a shorter quarantine period, she seems to have conceded.

When corporate interests dictate public health policy, we are headed down a path of no return. According to NPR, Walensky made this decision to keep society functioning. In other words, this means the wheels of the capitalist machine keep turning while people are literally losing their lives.

Sadly, the institutional failures are not limited to corporate America; it is from the government as a whole. At the onset of the pandemic, we had former President Donald Trump, meaning we were doomed from the start. Under Joe Biden, though, not much has materially changed. 

The Guardian reported, “Two years into this crisis and a year into Biden’s presidency, we seem to be even worse off than we were under Trump in the most lethal metric: more deaths are taking place under the Democrat than occurred under his predecessor.”

In addition to more deaths, the government ended daily testing, ended stimulus distribution, and have a lax response to the lack of accessibility to testing sites, all because the economy is booming. To that, I would say, at whose expense? A CNBC poll of bipartisan voters revealed that 60% of Americans disapproved of Joe Biden’s handling of the economy. 

crowd of protesters holding signs
Photo by Life Matters on Pexels.com

Moreover, 4.3 Million workers walked off from their jobs last August, according to NBC News. In an interview with NBC News, Zip Recruiter’s Julia Pollack suggested, “that a continued desire to avoid jobs with a lot of in-person contact could be driving some of the migration.”

Essential workers are not the only ones demanding less in-person contact.

Last Friday, CPS students staged a mass walkout to protest in-person learning. This was after a battle between the Chicago Teacher’s Union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot that advocates dubbed “Lori Lockout.” After the teacher’s union refused to work in person until they felt it was safe, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez and Mayor Lightfoot canceled classes for a week. Teachers had planned to work remotely but reported that they were locked out of their Google classrooms, Politico noted.

This lockout lasted three days until the teacher’s union conceded. Afterward, students staged a walkout, demanding safety. According to one educator, students were allowed in the classroom although they tested positive for COVID-19. Another educator said that four of her students tested positive for COVID, yet her job denied her reasonable accommodation for remote work.

As with the New York Times, the U.S. government, Amazon, and the CDC, this is yet another institutional failure. Yet, there is one institution I’ve yet to cover, and it might be the most important: healthcare.

Healthcare

“The cardinal sin of our health care system is that it puts profits over people and corporations over communities,” Public Citizen wrote in a report on how unprepared America was for COVID-19. One of the ways insurance companies put “profits over people” during the pandemic was through employer-provided healthcare. 

American citizens experienced mass layoffs during COVID-19, and they also experienced lapses in insurance coverage, since health insurance is tied to employment. ⅓ of COVID deaths were linked to a lack of health insurance, Public Citizen further reported. 

This was not the only income disparity exacerbated by the pandemic. There was also the issue of hospital costs. On average, Americans diagnosed with COVID who needed complex treatment, such as ICU admittance and ventilators, were charged over $300,000 for care.

Meanwhile, COVID patients who needed inpatient care but non-complex treatments (meaning they needed hospitalization but not ventilators or ICU admittance), were charged over $75,000, according to a Fair Health infographic.

The average American made around $51,000 in 2021 and the median wages were around $34,000. Even when data is adjusted for the allowed amount, there are still financial disparities. Yet, during this pandemic, hospitals seemed to focus on their bottom lines, which in turn could have hurt a lot of communities.

Our broken health care system, insufficient environmental protection, and widening income and wealth inequality, among other factors, COVID-19 further exacerbated those already poor health outcomes.

Public Citizen

Even before the pandemic, the healthcare system in America was flawed. A 2019 report revealed that ⅓ of Americans would avoid going to the doctor for fear of hospital costs, Public Citizen posited. Furthermore, POC communities face institutional racism, lack of funding for care, and other race-based disparities, which made them vulnerable during this pandemic.

Some entrepreneurs took advantage of this vulnerability.

Last week, Block Club Chicago reported that the Center for COVID Control was closing for a week. The Center, which was registered with the state of Illinois in December 2020 by Aleya Siyaj, has garnered an “F” rating with the Better Business Bureau. Additionally, they are currently under state investigation, the article states.

Siyaj’s husband Akbar Syed had his TikTok account taken down after reporters contacted him about videos he posted of luxury cars, which he alleged to have used “COVID money” to buy. The couple’s alleged actions, which include defrauding the Federal government, symbolize the healthcare sector’s dysfunctional response to COVID-19.

Unfortunately, the situation with Siyaj and Syed is one of several times corporate entities took advantage of public desperation and uncertainty. This desperation and uncertainty is especially present in communities of color who have long been ignored by the healthcare system.

Perhaps more horrifying than these potentially unethical business practices is the fact that a lot of these COVID testing centers sites up in POC neighborhoods, such as Chinatown, Bronzeville, Auburn Gresham, etc. It is no secret that Chicago is highly-segregated, as evidenced by Mayor Lightfoot raising the bridges to separate two sides of the city. 

Yet, it is not just physical segregation; it is also resource segregation. With official COVID testing sites being inaccessible to people without cars, this left an opportunity for poor Chicagoans to be taken advantage of. 

As a poor Black Chicagoan, I can attest to the frustration I felt when I was trying to get tested for COVID-19 after possible exposure and I had to travel far away from my home just to get tested at a facility I later found out might not be legitimate.

It does not stop with testing, though. 

There have been recent news reports stating that cloth masks are ineffective, and people would be safer with N95 masks. At first glance, these masks are also inaccessible to poor people. A 50-pack of disposable masks is $8.44 at Walmart, while a 10 pack of KN95 masks is $10.49 at Walgreens. 

Comparatively, that’s $0.17 per mask vs. $1 per mask. When purchasing in bulk, that adds up. Overall, healthcare is the leading institutional failure that has prolonged our fight with COVID-19. Conjoined with corporate greed and ineffective governing, we have a public health crisis on our hands that will have long-lasting effects.

Conclusion

So, how does this all tie together? 

Well, it starts with the government. They receive word in 2019 of an international health crisis, and they fail to act, opening the door for corporations, specifically healthcare corporations, to capitalize on social disruption. This creates the pandora’s box of pandemics: where people are risking their lives for bad jobs, where people are begging their government to protect them, where people are losing their lives needlessly. In a world of capitalism, things fall apart. ~ℝ

Author

  • Javanna is the editor of "Rwebel Magazine," the architect behind "Rwebel Radio," and the pioneering force of "Xscape." Through her words, Javanna hopes to inspire creativity, passion, and forward-thinking.

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