If You're At Home And You're Safe, You Need To Recognize Your Privilege

by Clint Edwards
Originally Published: 
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To be real, I’m pretty fortunate right now. I have family in the home, so I’m not alone. I have a job that could be moved online, and I live in a rural area with very few cases of COVID-19. I almost never leave the house outside of visiting the store and walking my dog. I’m going bonkers, but I’m safe, and so is my family.

What I described above should sound similar to a lot of middle- and upper-class folks who already worked at a desk before states began to ask people to stay home and curb the spread of COVID-19. But the fact is, staying home is a luxury right now. According to a recent article in The New York Times, wealthier folks are more likely to be able to adhere to a stay at home order because they have more job security, and because many jobs that are deemed essential are performed by low-paid workers.

I’m not going to say that this surprises me, because it doesn’t. Just reading the list of essential jobs put out by each state, it’s pretty easy to piece together who is expected to leave their homes during this pandemic. Rules vary between states, but essential workers generally include those in health care and public safety roles, which tend to include a middle or upper class paycheck along with health care. But the remainder of the list isn’t compensated nearly as well: caregivers, delivery drivers, grocery clerks, and construction workers. Hardware stores and takeout restaurants also remain open and staffed. All of these workers are able to stay on the job, and if they do not show up to work, they are unable to collect unemployment because of their “essential” status.

According to the Times, people in all income groups are limiting their movements more than they did before the crisis. However, wealthier people are staying home the most, especially during the work week. Not only that, but in nearly every state, they began doing so before struggling families, giving them a head start on social distancing (and staying safe) as the virus spread.

This is all according to the location analysis company Cuebiq, which tracks about 15 million cellphone users nationwide daily. Now, I must say it is kind of creepy to think that there is a company out there tracking the movements of 15 million people based on the phones in their pockets. But putting that aside, it is fascinating to see how movement has changed due to the COVID-19 stay at home order, and how richer areas of the nation are moving a lot less than poorer areas.

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According to the Cuebiq data, the wealthiest people — those in the top ten percent of income — have limited their movement more than those in the bottom ten percent of the same metro areas. “People want to talk about this virus as an equal opportunity pathogen, but it’s really not,” Dr. Ashwin Vasan, a doctor and public health professor at Columbia University said to the Times. “It’s going right to the fissures in our society.”

To compound this issue, most essential employers, hospitals included, are struggling to obtain protective equipment for their workers. A recent example was Kroger, one of the largest US grocery store chains. According to CNN Business, “Kroger wanted to give masks to store workers to help keep them safe against the coronavirus. But it ran into a challenge getting them from a supplier: The Italian government needed them for its health care workers.”

In this particular situation, Italy, which has the highest number of deaths in the world from the pandemic, was given priority over Kroger by the supplier. A very similar tug of war over basic protective equipment such as gloves and masks is being played out all over the world, leaving essential workers taking buses and subways into work, interacting with the public, and then coming home to a low income neighborhood, all without personal protective equipment.

The people who are the most underinsured, placing themselves the most at risk by going out into the world to perform what has been deemed as an essential function, usually live in close proximity to each other because of affordable housing. They must go out or risk losing their jobs, something they cannot afford to do.

The reality is, during this pandemic, the upper and middle class are protecting themselves at the risk of the economically disadvantaged — making not only staying at home a luxury, but also generating pockets of elevated COVID-19 risk in lower income neighborhoods. None of this is going to change anytime soon, and I think that reality should give everyone working safely from home right now some serious pause.

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