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Can coronavirus end American economic elitism?

| Monday, March 30, 2020

The weekly “big shop,” which is often the setting in which capitalism doles out its reward to hard-working consumers, has come to induce dread in shoppers in the age of coronavirus. Buying groceries is now an act motivated by a constant fear that encourages a sense of skepticism and distrust in those around us. “Is he too close to me?” “Does that person look sick?” Or worse: “Did I hear her cough?” Yesterday, as I stood at the checkout line reciting the mental mantra I have adopted for public interactions (Don’t touch your face. Don’t touch your face. Don’t touch your face), I met the cashier before me with sympathetic eyes as she rang me up, hoping she would recognize my gratitude for her being here when I wanted to be nowhere but at home, as far away from others as I can be. I caught myself associating a word reserved for those with the most dangerous jobs to this woman helping me buy groceries: hero.

This global pandemic has promoted service workers into the hero category. The often-overlooked roles which entail constant interaction with others — cashiers, transportation workers, nurses — are the roles which have become the most dangerous amidst the spread of COVID-19. On March 20, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York announced the essential services that will be exempt from the state’s executive order restricting in-office personnel functions on businesses throughout the state, effectively declaring which industries are necessary to ensure society does not collapse. Looking over this list, we are able to conjure a rough picture of the people who allow our lives to operate in what would otherwise be considered a “normal” fashion. In our current global situation, these people now assume the most dangerous positions in society. They stock our shelves, drive our subways, clean our streets — and risk their lives to do so.

The spotlight is finally being shone on those who keep the wheels turning in Trump’s white-collar America. In our country where hourly workers are often neglected, we can only hope that the America that comes out of the coronavirus pandemic is one that recognizes our country’s dependence on those who are essential to its functioning. Donald Trump appealed to these groups in his 2016 campaign by promising to restore economic prosperity to industrial blue-collar towns, most notably in the perennial swing-state of Pennsylvania. Yet with wages continuing to stagnate since the start of his term and a federal minimum wage that hasn’t budged in over 10 years, Americans are finding those promises left unfulfilled.

Prior to the outbreak of coronavirus, Republicans pointed to a historically low unemployment rate and increasing GDP as proof of American economic prosperity. Yet the flow of money into the United States has been concentrated at the top, and Americans in lower economic classes have been unable to siphon this “prosperity” into their own pockets. In effect, a rising tide has not raised all boats, but has left the smallest ones to drown.

While labor and hourly workers are perhaps those most heavily impacted by the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, they have gained social capital among those who rely on them, whether they know it or not. We can only hope that this is reflected beyond campaign promises and into policy. COVID-19 is the rallying point for blue-collar workers to come together and fight for their adequate representation in government. I am reminded here of Brad Pitt’s monologue in “Fight Club” directed at the police commissioner investigating his terrorist group: “The people you are after are the ones you depend on. We cook your meals. We haul your trash. We connect your calls. We drive your ambulances. We guard you while you sleep. Do not [mess] with us.”

Justin McLellan


March 24

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