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General News    H3'ed 4/21/22

Tomgram: Liz Theoharis, Making Sense of a Poor People's Pandemic

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

You could say metaphorically that the poor in America have long lived under pandemic conditions. In the last two-plus years, however, that metaphorical reality became all too literal, as indicated in a recent pandemic report by the Poor People's Campaign of which TomDispatch regular Liz Theoharis is co-chair. "Preexisting disparities in healthcare access, wealth distribution, and housing insecurity," it notes, "yielded disastrous effects once the pandemic hit the U.S. Covid-19 compounded these gaps in access and delivery, creating a public health emergency that caused increased harm to populations based on their class, race, gender, geography, and ability."

That, it seems to me, tells you the world about this planet's wealthiest country, which also experienced the highest recorded number of Covid-19 deaths among well-to-do lands. Already almost a million Americans have died at this point - and undoubtedly many more than that simply went uncounted. As the Washington Post reported recently,

"Life expectancy in the United States, which declined dramatically in 2020 as the coronavirus slammed into the country, continued to go down in 2021, according to a new analysis that shows the United States faring worse during the pandemic than 19 other wealthy countries - and failing to see a life expectancy rebound despite the arrival of effective vaccines."

And of course, with Covid-19 cases once again on the rise across much of the country, while Congress and the White House seem incapable of even agreeing on new emergency aid to fight the disease, this pandemic is anything but over. In that context, you can count on one thing, as Theoharis makes all too clear today: the poor will end up suffering the most. They are indeed at the crossroads of a kind of hell on Earth in a country that should have and could have done better, but hasn't. Tom

The Poor at the Crossroads
The First and Worst Hit by Pandemics of Every Sort

By

The 54th anniversary of the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., just passed. Dr. King was shot down while organizing low-wage sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. At that time, he was building the Poor People's Campaign, an effort to organize America's poor into a force to be reckoned with. In his opposition to the Vietnam War and his promotion of a campaign to lift the load of poverty, he suggested that racism, poverty, and militarism could only be dealt with by uniting millions of poor people to change the very structure of our national life.

More than half a century later, his message remains tragically relevant in our seemingly never-ending pandemic-ridden moment, still rife with racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. Indeed, today, 60% more Americans are living below the official poverty line; racialized laws to suppress their votes have been passed in dozens of states; and the longest war in our history, the 20-year disaster in Afghanistan, only ended late last year, while globally conflict and bloodshed still swirl around us.

You need only check out the conditions of life for the 140 million Americans who are poor or low income to recognize how relevant King's message still is. Today, the poor live at the crossroads of injustice, hurt first and worst by the interlocking evils of climate change, militarism, and racism, as well as other forms of violence and inequality. With gas prices ever higher, food shortages on the rise, and a possible recession (or worse) looming, those who continue to suffer the most will be those most affected by whatever is to come.

A Poor People's Pandemic

A new report about the disproportionate effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on poor communities has just been issued by the Poor People's Campaign (which I co-chair with Reverend William Barber) and the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network. The Poor People's Pandemic Report connects data about Covid-19 deaths at the county level with other demographic information to demonstrate that, during the pandemic so far, poor counties have experienced twice the number of deaths as higher-income ones - and up to five times the number at the height of various waves of the disease. It reveals that Covid-19 has, in fact, been a poor people's pandemic, one that exposes the depth of the racism, poverty, and ecological devastation that preceded it in poverty-stricken communities. That should be shocking news, don't you think? But throughout the pandemic, the story of its unequal impact has largely not been covered by the mainstream media.

Quite the opposite. Over the last two years, there have been countless stories about how Covid-19 was the great equalizer - how, unlike us, pandemics and plagues don't discriminate. All too sadly, the new report shows clearly that, though a virus may not be able to discriminate, our society has in fact discriminated in the most virulent ways. Consider it an outright indictment of a society that allowed the deaths of almost 250,000 poor and low-income people in the year 2000 alone, two decades before the pandemic even hit our shores. It should be a wakeup call for a society that has become far too accustomed to death, at least when it's poor people who are dying.

As Reverend Barber, who came up with the idea for the new report, explained, "The finding of this report reveals neglect and sometimes intentional decisions to not focus on the poor. There hasn't been any systemic or systematic assessment of the impact of Covid-19 on the poor and low-income communities." Indeed, to date, the government hasn't even collected data on the impact of the pandemic based on income levels, leaving us to do the necessary detective work.

Importantly, the report's findings can't be explained by vaccine status alone. The disproportionate death rate among poor and low-income people is the result of a complex combination of factors, including work and life conditions that long predated the pandemic. For example, 22% of Native Americans, 20% of Hispanics, 11% of Blacks, 7.8% of Whites, and 7.2% of Asians didn't have health insurance in 2019 just before the pandemic hit. Not surprisingly, perhaps, preexisting disparities in healthcare access, wealth distribution, and housing security yielded disastrous effects once it did so.

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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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