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Essential-But-Dispensable: Inequality, Politics and the View of the Pandemic in New York

BLOG - 27 April 2020

One of us lived in Cairo for eight years, managing a university through the upheavals of the Arab spring; usually a Manhattan resident, she is sheltering in place outside New York City. The other is working from home in his apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens. This is how the pandemic looks to us. 

New Yorkers like to think the city is the whole world in miniature, and the adjoining Jackson Heights and Elmhurst neighborhoods of Queens bear this out. More than 167 languages are spoken in a community that embodies the immigrant industriousness, amicable multiculturalism and charming idiosyncrasy that remain powerful parts of New York City’s enduring appeal, despite (or perhaps because) so much of the rest of the city has surrendered to the sterile blandness of corporate branding and rapid gentrification. At the center of the overlapping South American, South Asian and East Asian populations of Northern Queens and amidst their countless independent small businesses, restaurants, community and religious centers sits Elmhurst Hospital. A global ground zero for the spiraling pandemic and the various flavors of devastation it had wrought, Elmhurst Hospital has earned the tragic distinction of being "the epicenter of the epicenter." 

What does this pandemic look like from here? 

The first striking feature of the pandemic is that while it is said that disease does not discriminate, that claim is manifestly untrue. In New York, Black and Hispanic Americans and new immigrants from around the world are getting sick and dying at about twice the rate of the white American population. This is presumably because Blacks, Hispanics and migrants are more likely to be poor, to live in food deserts, be uninsured, get no routine medical care. Indeed, they are more likely to be underserved in every respect, and therefore to have pre-existing health conditions that make them both more prone to getting the infection and less likely to get effective treatment. 

It is also, however, because of the definition and distribution of what is "essential." University professors and arts professionals, like the authors of this essay, like to think of themselves as indispensable, as do bankers, hedge fund managers, real estate developers, airline pilots, lawyers, and policy analysts at think tanks. Yet when universities in Cairo closed during the protests against the Mubarak regime in 2011 and non-essential personnel were told to stay away from campus, the custodians, maintenance crews, security guards and medical staff were all required to report for work. They were among the lowest paid employees, and the most essential to the survival of the universities. 

So it seems to be with an entire country; certainly these compounding risk factors apply to the hardest-hit neighborhoods of New York. As we write, thousands of people across New York are operating buses, driving ambulances, providing nursing care, cleaning and policing streets, delivering food, staffing pharmacies, and ensuring that the country does not collapse in the face of the staggering consequences of a national quarantine. Those people are typically the lowest pay grades of society, those already most vulnerable to disease, and in important ways the most essential to our collective survival. 

This is inequality at its most brutal. COVID-19 not only discriminates, it reveals deep social cleavages that are ordinarily difficult to see from the windowed offices of New York skyscrapers.

This is inequality at its most brutal. COVID-19 not only discriminates, it reveals deep social cleavages that are ordinarily difficult to see from the windowed offices of New York skyscrapers. After all, the woman who cleans that office works at night, all but invisible to the financer, the attorney, the industrialist, the policymaker who enjoys its panoramic view. They are now working from home, fairly securely employed, working out scenarios for ensuring business continuity; she still takes two buses and a subway to work, hoping against hope that she is neither fired from her job nor exposed to the virus. A vast underclass, already suffering from the side effects of chronic precarity, now see their bitter reality aggravated and more nakedly exposed: their labor is essential but their health, safety and their very lives are disposable.

And in between, are the millions—27 million at last count—of people who have lost their jobs (and, because this is the United States, their employer-provided health insurance). The plans and ambitions of millions of real estate agents, retail clerks, store managers, construction workers, school aides, florists, hairdressers, architects, assembly line workers, actors, tour guides, restaurant waiters and hotel workers have been completely upended. They cannot pay their rent or make their mortgage payments, they have no health insurance, their suddenly unschooled children may go without food. Without warning, the aspiration to middle class comfort is beyond them. While it is not clear whether the recent spate of anti-quarantine protests on the steps of state capitols are genuine expressions of popular will or choreographed right-wing agitprop, there are certainly millions of Americans who, seeing their socioeconomic security evaporate overnight and expecting little support from their own government, have turned an anxious eye to "reopening the economy" in spite of the manifest risks.

As Anthony Cordesman once remarked of the states of the Middle East, the people of the United States "seem to have no greater enemy than their own government." The mismanagement of the crisis by the federal government has been widely chronicled; more worrisome is the extent to which increasing numbers of reports suggest Americans believe it is more than simple ineptitude. A recent report about federal government interference in deliveries of medical equipment procured by state and local governments concluded darkly that: "In the absence of an explanation, it is hard to come to any conclusion other than that this is simply mafia government, exerting control for the sake of control, not in spite of but because of the crisis-led demand, and squeezing the American people, as they die in hospital beds and attend — with inadequate protection — to the sick and scared."

In the Middle East governments grew more beholden to international patrons, entangled in global supply chains and trade treaties, and correspondingly less responsive to their domestic populations. In the process, they increasingly relied, as Rami Khouri recently put it "on their main political constituents, leading them to retreat from their responsibility to serve all citizens." The Arab uprisings revealed not only accumulated rage on the part of neglected and resentful citizens but also deep cleavages produced by decades of governments that were more accountable to narrow domestic cliques than to the citizenry. A decade after the Arab spring, the Middle East is strewn with the shards of broken states. Actors as varied as tribes and gun runners, oil companies and religious sects, private equity investors and, sometimes, the remnants of the state elites themselves, try to salvage an advantage, perhaps even profit, from the region’s apparently permanent state of emergency. Any remnants of fidelity to institutions like the rule of law, formal procedure, meritocratic criteria -the bases of what the protestors called "bread, freedom, dignity and social justice"- have been swept away, superseded by states of emergency, in which the exception becomes the rule. 

Could this happen here?  

The state of emergency is already declared. Actors such as pharmaceutical companies, airline manufacturers accused of neglecting safety regulations, large manufacturers and construction firms with relatively low job losses, have all lobbied successfully for special subsidies and tax breaks. The fortune of Amazon CEO and entrepreneur, Jeff Bezos, has increased by $24 billion since the outbreak of the pandemic. Amazon saw aroughly 20% increase over the last four months to $138 billion while its essential-but-dispensable warehouse workers who attempted to organize in protest at the lack of worker protections, were disparaged as "not smart" and their actions as "immoral and unacceptable" by Amazon’s corporate leadership. The Amazon subsidiary Whole Foods secretly deployed state of the art surveillance algorithms to predict and suppress union organizing activity before it began, suggesting they knew that their own essential-but-dispensable workforce, having requested hazard pay and workplace safety reforms, might be less than satisfied by a $2.00/hour raise and a new workplace uniform that brands them each a "hero."

Like its Middle Eastern counterparts, the United States federal government has responded to the interrelated public health and economic catastrophes caused by COVID-19 by making them issues of national security. It has declared an open-ended "war" on an "invisible enemy" (one can only hope the war on COVID-19 will fare better than the wars on poverty, drugs, or terrorism), and used the wartime footing to crack down on privacy and civil liberties while rewarding clients and cronies. An analysis by the Joint Committee on Taxation concluded that a staggering 80% of the relief funds in the multitrillion dollar CARES Act accrued to just 43,000 individual taxpayers earning more than $1,000,000 annually, delivering an average windfall of $1,600,000.

The United States has declared an open-ended "war" on an "invisible enemy", and used the wartime footing to crack down on privacy and civil liberties while rewarding clients and cronies.

Meanwhile, controversy rages over whether the poor—the essential-but-dispensable residents of COVID-ravaged Queens—might be disincentivized from working by more generous unemployment benefits or a one-time, $1,200 stimulus check. The cost to the American taxpayer of this upward transfer of wealth is greater than the CARES Act provided for all hospitals in the United States, as well as all state and local governments.

The challenge to democracy in a world of neo-liberal, semi-sovereign states is determining who counts, and how they should be counted. In the Middle East, there was never much of a pretense that citizenship mattered, as governments favored their clienteles, cronies and kin. However, the erosion of liberal notions of citizenship, the decline of formal equality—the one-man, one-vote formula—may be accelerated elsewhere, including the United States, by the policy responses to the COVID-19 (including quite literally in the case of voting, as an unchecked pandemic presents itself as a readymade voter suppression strategy, as well as in the decennial census that is underway in the United States now).

Increasingly, politics is shaped by efforts to define opposition out of the political community altogether through contempt. This is a longstanding practice in the Middle East: Libyan ruler Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi, for example, was famous for his derisive characterization of his opposition. They were, over the decades, drug addicts, "stray dogs," "rats" and "cockroaches," "germs, rats and scumbags," and "not Libyans." The Trump administration has followed suit, using the pandemic to discredit and belittle his adversaries. In late March, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prevented adoption of a joint statement by the Group of Seven foreign ministers by requiring that they call the pandemic the "Wuhan virus" — a label China predictably rejected. Anti-Asian sentiment simultaneously rose in the United States. But domestic critics were also targets of Trump’s contemptuous language: on March 28, he tweeted of Michigan, "your Governor, Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer is way in over her ahead, she doesn’t have a clue…". He also accused the governor of New York, of "political weaponization by people like you and your brother, Fredo!", using an insulting nickname for Governor Andrew Cuomo’s brother, Chris, a CNN News analyst. 

Who will define "America"? And what of those who are not included?

The pandemic makes it urgent that we address who will count and how will they be counted in the twenty-first century. Do only the rich, the white, the native-born matter? Who will define "America"? And what of those who are not included? Will they be confined to camps, like the millions of unwanted migrants and displaced persons in the Middle East?

We return once more to Elmhurst, a 545-bed public hospital in Queens which struggled for weeks to make do with a few dozen ventilators, as patients died inside the emergency room awaiting a bed. A refrigerated truck has been stationed outside to hold the bodies of the dead, so overburdened is the morgue. Sirens wail 24/7. The doctors called it an apocalypse.

On Saturday, March 7, two weeks before the Governor of New York State issued the quarantine order that divided the population into essential or non-essential workers by sending all the non-essentials home, the monthly Indonesian Food Bazaar was held at St. James Episcopal Church, a stone’s throw from Elmhurst Hospital. The church dates to 1735 and is the oldest surviving Anglican building in New York City. That such a pedigreed venue regularly draws hundreds of visitors from up and down the East Coast to celebrate the cuisine of a country nearly ten thousand miles away is quintessentially Queens. 

The proprietors of the food stalls are semi-professionals—they don’t own brick and mortar establishments or operate commercial kitchens; at most, some offer catering services. Their work for this event results in throngs of dedicated regulars and delighted newcomers and, until now, generated supplemental income. It is precisely these people who will not be counted, the informal economy of New York, small entrepreneurs neglected by their own government as millions of dollars are doled out to major chains like Shake Shack, the workers who are most likely to be either out of a job entirely or forced out onto the front lines of the pandemic as essential workers. In recent days, the bazaar organizers turned their attention to providing hot meals to nearby Elmhurst Hospital, but as the socio-economic impact of the pandemic consumes the community it served, the bazaar is one of countless enterprises, in equal measure sources of revenue and symbols of generosity and fellowship, that are now endangered. 

What is the fundamental appeal of Queens, a densely-packed and—by the standards of rural Yemen or urban Cairo or even suburban New York—expensive locale that has made it such a magnet for immigrants and strivers of every stripe? It is the promise and the hope that it engenders: that a vibrant community can offer a new home far from home, that economic opportunities are there for those with the gumption to take them, that diverse urban density nurtures a combination of creativity and collaboration that powers the world’s most influential culture industries

As the public health apocalypse rages around them, are the benefits that outweigh the drawbacks for those who make Queens their home being extinguished? Are communities splintering and siloing inside tiny apartments as block after block of steel roll gates cover defunct storefronts, an indifferent government permitting an air of promise to be replaced by ambient menace? For the essential-but-dispensable, it may feel like there is precious little to hope for. That loss of hope, that worry that "bread, social justice, freedom and dignity" were slipping rapidly out of reach, fueled upheaval across the Middle East; what will happen here? 

 

Copyright: STEPHANIE KEITH / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

 

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