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Tomgram: Liz Theoharis, Circling the Ruins

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

So here's a basic dose of President Trump: On April 14th, he met with a group of Covid-19 survivors in the cabinet room of the White House and, citing the "Spanish Flu" pandemic of 1918 in which, he claimed, 75 million to 100 million people died globally, he offered this bit of typical (and typically only semi-coherent) self-congratulation:

"But not since then have we seen anything like this. And we're winning our battle; we're winning our war. We're going to be doing -- announcing some very good things in the near future. The American public has been great -- you know, far greater than anybody would've thought. They had minimum numbers of 100,000 and I think we're going to beat that 100,000 deaths. Can you believe that? That was a minimum. And if we didn't practice what we practiced, and if they -- if we did it a different way -- because we had a maximum of 2.2 million people [who might die here]. Who knows even if that's right? But the way I look at it, if you cut in half, and cut it in half again, it's 500,000 or 600,000. That's what we lost in the Civil War. That's not acceptable. So, we couldn't have done it, you know, to bull through, as we call it. To bull through it. Just, like, treat like a flu. If we did that -- so we made the right moves. Now we have to get our country open again. You all know that."

Believe me, when you hear him say that, it sounds even more callous. After all, only 28,000 Americans had died by then (and that was undoubtedly an underestimate). So, be sure to high-five the president for keeping such deaths to a drop in the pandemic bucket -- to which he'd surely like to add the New York Times reporters who recently challenged his failure to respond to the threat of Covid-19 with reasonable speed. But of course, we're talking about the man who won't wear a face mask; whose daughter, with her husband and children, traveled from Washington to Trump National Golf Course in Bedminister, New Jersey, to celebrate Passover, flouting the federal coronavirus guidelines; and whose son-in-law's family real-estate company was still sending out eviction notices recently, even as it might, like the president's real-estate operation, receive windfall aid via Congress's $2.2 trillion coronavirus bailout package.

We're talking about the president whose clearest urge -- however unsatisfied (as yet) -- is to declare absolute power (to hell with the governors!), "adjourn" Congress so he can appoint anyone he cares to unopposed, and generally create the equivalent of informal martial law in this country before he tries to catastrophically "reopen" it. Of course, he's likely to be as successful at this as he's been at combatting the spread of Covid-19, but what the hell! At least, give him an A++ for effort!

In such a context, it's fitting that Reverend Liz Theoharis, co-chair with Reverend William Barber of the Poor People's Campaign and author of the book Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor, writes her first TomDispatch piece today. Her focus: what an American world that experienced a pandemic of inequality long before the present nightmare hit really looks like not from Trump down but from an increasingly discarded and endangered bottom up. It's a daunting view in the age of The Donald. Tom

Inequality and the Coronavirus
Or How to Destroy American Society From the Top Down
By Liz Theoharis

My mom contracted polio when she was 14. She survived and learned to walk again, but my life was deeply affected by that virus. Today, as our larger society attempts to self-distance and self-isolate, my family has texted about the polio quarantine my mom was put under: how my grandma fearfully checked my aunt's temperature every night because she shared a bedroom with my mom; how they had to put a sign on the front door of the house that read "quarantine" so that no one would visit.

Growing up with a polio survivor, I learned lessons about epidemics, sickness, disability, and inequality that have forever shaped my world. From a young age, I saw that all of us should be valued for our intrinsic worth as human beings; that there is no line between the supposedly deserving and the undeserving; that we should be loved for who we are, not what we do or how much money we have. My mom modeled for me what's possible when those most impacted by inequality and injustice dedicate their lives to protecting others from what hurts us all. She taught me that the dividing line between sickness and wellbeing loses its meaning in a society that doesn't care for everyone.

Here's the simple truth of twenty-first-century America: all of us live in a time and in an economic system that values our lives relative to our ability to produce profits for the rich or in the context of the wealth we possess. Our wellness is measured by our efficiency and -- a particular lesson in the age of the coronavirus -- our sickness, when considered at all, is seen as an indication of individual limitations or moral failures, rather than as a symptom of a sick society.

About 31 million people are today uninsured in America and 14 states have not even expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. The healthcare system is seemingly structured in defiance of the people it should serve, functioning as yet another way to maximize profits at the expense of millions. In this coronavirus moment, many more Americans are finally awakening to the bitter consequences, the damage, wrought when even a single person does not have access to the resources he or she needs to live decently or, for that matter, survive. With the spread of a pandemic, the cost to a nation that often treats collective care as, at best, an afterthought should become apparent. After all, more than 9,000 medical workers, many not adequately protected from the disease, have already contracted it.

For decades, both political parties have pushed the narrative that illness, homelessness, poverty, and inequality are minor aberrations in an otherwise healthy society. Even now, as the possibility of a potentially historic depression looms, assurances that the mechanics of our economy are fundamentally strong (and Covid-19 an unexpected fluke) remain commonplace. And yet, while that economy's productivity has indeed increased strikingly since the 1970s, the gains from it have gone to an increasingly small number of people (and corporations), while real wages have stagnated for the majority of workers. Don't be fooled. This crisis didn't start with the coronavirus: our collapsing oil and gas industry, for instance, points to an energy system that was already on the brink and a majority of economists agree that a manufacturing decline had actually begun in August 2019.

The Cost of Inequality

It should no longer be possible to ignore the structural crisis of poverty and inequality that has been eating away at American society over these last decades. Historic unemployment numbers in recent weeks only reveal how expendable the majority of workers are in a crunch. This is happening at a moment when it's ever clearer how many of the most "essential" tasks in our economy are done by the least well-paid workers. The ranks of the poor are widening at a startling clip, as many more of us are now experiencing what dire insecurity feels like in an economy built on non-unionized, low-wage work and part-time jobs.

In order to respond to such a crisis and the growing needs of millions, it's important to first acknowledge the deeper history of injustice and pain that brought us all here. In the last years of his life, Martin Luther King, Jr., put it well when he said that "the prescription for the cure rests with an accurate diagnosis of the disease." To develop a cure not just for this virus but for a nation with the deepest kind of inequality at its core, what's first needed (as with any disease) is an accurate diagnosis.

Today, more than 38 million people officially live below the federal poverty line and, in truth, that figure should have shocked the nation into action before the coronavirus even arrived here. No such luck and here's the real story anyway: the official measure of poverty, developed in 1964, doesn't even take into account household expenses like health care, child care, housing, and transportation, not to speak of other costs that have burgeoned in recent decades. The world has undergone profound economic transformations over the last 66 years and yet this out-of-date measure, based on three times a family's food budget, continues to shape policymaking at every level of government as well as the contours of the American political and moral imagination.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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