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Tomgram: Rajan Menon, Homelessness in the Covid-19 Era

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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.

A century ago, on a less populated planet, a pandemic disease took out an estimated 50 million to 100 million people, 675,000 in the United States alone, leaving the casualties of World War I (some caused by that very virus) in the dust. It lasted two years, had a vicious second wave, and was then essentially tossed out of history. World War I was, of course, remembered, written about, memorialized, critiqued. The Great Depression was never forgotten. The "Spanish Flu" (which probably should have been the American flu, since it seems to have started in this country) devastated the planet, yet was essentially discarded from memory (at least until John Barry wrote his 2005 book, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, that understandably became a bestseller again recently).

I know this personally, as do so many people my age. After all, my parents lived through the Spanish flu, my father in Brooklyn, my mother in Chicago. They were then 11 or 12 years old, but in my youth, although they brought up and discussed both World War I and World War II, as well as the Great Depression, the Spanish Flu was never mentioned. Not once. And friends of my age have exactly the same memories (or lack of them). It remained essentially a blank in history until Covid-19 decided to offer us some kind of rerun of that devastating event. It's hard to imagine, as we live through it now, that the coronavirus could ever be similarly chucked out of history and memory, but who knows anymore?

In the meantime, as TomDispatch regular Rajan Menon suggests, the virus of 2020 (and undoubtedly beyond), if recalled at all, may be remembered quite differently by different groups of Americans since, as the New York Times also reported recently, using figures it had pried from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it's hit races and classes in a grimly differing fashion, especially one group of us who are seldom thought about or mentioned but whom Menon focuses on today: the homeless. Tom

How the Pandemic Hit Americans
Selective in Its Impact, the Virus Has Struck the Homeless Hard
By Rajan Menon

The novel SARS-CoV-2 has roared through the American landscape leaving physical, emotional, and economic devastation in its wake. By early July, known infections in this country exceeded three million, while deaths topped 135,000. Home to just over 4% of the global population, the United States accounts for more than a quarter of all fatalities from Covid-19, the disease produced by the coronavirus. Amid a recent surge of infections, especially across the Sun Belt, which Vice President Mike Pence typically denied was even occurring, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the daily total of infections had reached a record 60,000. Arizona's seven-day average alone approached that of the European Union, which has 60 times as many people.

Making matters much worse, the pandemic erupted during the presidency of Donald J. Trump, whose stratospheric self-absorption, ineptitude, denial of science, and callousness have reached heights even his most ferocious critics couldn't have imagined. His nostrums, including disinfectant, sunlight, and hydroxychloroquine, could be dismissed as comical if they weren't downright dangerous, encouraging possibly fatal experimentation, while breeding false hopes.

Public health safeguards that should have been initiated early on were neglected, above all testing and contact tracing. At the end of April, when President Trump first crowed that "we are the best in the world in testing," the U.S. ranked 22nd in tests per 1,000 people in the 36-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the club of the globe's wealthy states. Although testing nationwide had increased from 250,000 a day in early May to a current 571,574, that's still less than half the number needed to begin to lock down the virus.

By portraying mask-wearing as effete and elitist, even as those who come near him are tested, disparaging social distancing (recall his reckless rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and unmasked Fourth of July celebration at South Dakota's Mount Rushmore), and downplaying the danger of a second wave of infections, President Trump has been the problem, not the solution. It would be hard to imagine a less suitable helmsman to steer this country out of a public health catastrophe. His eternal spin, tweets, and fulminations about "fake news" can't obscure the obvious: his administration's management of the pandemic has been shambolic.

The Variability of Vulnerability

It's common to hear that we're all caught in the Covid-19 crisis, that we're all its victims. Having spread across the country, afflicting people of all backgrounds, it certainly qualifies as a national security crisis, a concept that, militarized for so long now, seems odd when applied to the pandemic. The coronavirus, of course, has neither tanks, nor missiles, nor roadside bombs, and that may help explain the government's abject failure to plan for and contain it.

Still, take a deeper look at Covid-19's destructive path and you'll see that it's been highly selective in the suffering it's caused and the lives it's taken. Adjusted for age, fatalities per 100,000 have been significantly higher for African Americans, Hispanic-Latinx, and Native Americans than for whites across all age groups, as detailed studies demonstrate: for Blacks, 3.6 times higher and for Hispanic-Latinx, 2.5 times. The disparity becomes even greater when the comparison is made by age groups. Ditto hospitalization rates: 40.1/100,000 for whites, 160.7 for Hispanic-Latinx, 178.1 for African Americans, and a whopping 221.2 for Native Americans.

In addition, places with the highest income inequality have had the highest death rates. New York State, which surpasses its counterparts in income disparity, has had a Covid-19 death rate 125 times that of Utah, which has the least inequality. In big metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, where the number of infections has been particularly high, the death rate has unsurprisingly been steepest in low-income communities. People living in such neighborhoods, most of them minorities, are significantly less likely to have health insurance or access to good healthcare services and far more likely to have underlying respiratory ailments including asthma, in part because the air in their communities tends to be more polluted. Poor people also have less chance of surviving Covid-19 because the quality of care in hospitals closely matches the wealth of the neighborhoods they're in.

National economic statistics help highlight Covid-19's uneven effects. Thirty-nine percent of those who have lost their jobs since March made less than $40,000 a year compared to 19% of those earning $100,000 or more. In addition, social distancing works for those whose jobs can be done from home, but bus drivers, cabbies, janitors, meatpackers, caregivers, hairdressers, farm workers, home health aides, and the like can't use Zoom to sever themselves from their workplaces. If you don't have to work on-site (and can afford grocery deliveries to your doorstep), you're undoubtedly on the upper rungs of the income ladder. Nearly 62% of those in the 75th income percentile managed to work from home compared to 9.2% of those in the 25th percentile. There are race-based differences as well: 37% of Asian Americans and 30% of whites can work from home versus 19.7% of African Americans and 16.2% of Hispanic-Latinx.

Then there's age. The CDC reports that 80% of those who died from Covid-19 in the United States were 65 or older. The disease has particularly ravaged the elderly in nursing homes (as well as the personnel staffing them), accounting for about 43% of countrywide deaths attributable to the virus.

The upshot: If you're old, poor, and African American or Hispanic-Latinx, your chances of infection are especially high and your odds of survival significantly lower. So, no, we aren't really all in this together, especially since not everybody can easily take elementary safety precautions, certainly not the two million Americans who don't even have running water at home and so can't regularly wash their hands, let alone the Navajo, 30% of whom must drive an hour or more to fetch water. Covid-19, anything but blind to color and class, has visibly hit the most vulnerable segments of American society most fiercely.

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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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