Donney Rose: On the Fragility of Wellness, the History of Compromised Labor and the Callousness of Capitalism

The North Star has dropped its paywall during this COVID-19 crisis so that pertinent information and analysis is available to everyone during this time. This is only possible because of the generous support of our members. We rely on these funds to pay our staff to continue to provide high-quality content. If you are able to support, we invite you to do so here.

The Fragility of Wellness

Let’s start with an unflattering and likely unpopular opinion: a cultural inheritance gifted to pretty much all Americans is the myth of invincibility, and it is one of the first heirlooms we claim ownership of the minute we begin breathing. We hear our history narrated through a heroic lens that usually gives deference to the indomitable strength of the American spirit. The re-tellings tend to minimize the vulnerabilities we have endured because to lean into moments of uncertainty, fear and fragility is to soften the ideology of the unbreakable American will. It is common to hear stories that detail the gory, carnage and casualties tallied in times of hardship.

In a nation that exists in a perpetual state of internal and external war, death, injury and material loss are but a consequential sacrifice to be able to boast about grit and courage. Because in ‘Merica, people die but the wheels of productivity and innovation keep turning and the notion of American strength never waivers. And because this cast iron resilience is such a stamp of authentication to American identity, both leaders and citizens now find themselves at a crossroad debating over the risk of economic catastrophe vs. the risk of an uptick in coronavirus infections, as conversations around releasing the country from the isolated mandates of COVID-19 draw closer to the summer are becoming more prevalent.

Here’s what we know: at the time of this writing, there is no vaccine available for the treatment of the coronavirus. Scientists and medical experts are not reporting significant changes that indicate a sharp decline in transmission of the virus and the head of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) forewarned that any reduction in new virus activity can considerably worsen come winter when COVID-19 is coupled with the seasonal flu. But depending on where citizens or leaders fall along partisan lines, it gives an indication of their individual beliefs of what should happen in the coming weeks. My personal take: this should not at all be about allegiance to either side of the political binary, it should simply be about what science tells us. In my mind, if the country is not in the position to effectively combat the continuing spread of the virus, no level of government should force citizens to return to work.

If we are being honest, we can admit the primary reason certain citizens are protesting for the economy to reopen is the financial anxiety they are currently experiencing. Millions of folks are unemployed and thousands of jobs have become obsolete. I empathize deeply with the agony and disruption that comes from this new normal. What I also glean from the identities of the majority of those protesting is that virtually all of them (tragically) believe in the expertise of a president who is largely driven by ego and corporate interests more than public health. This is evident in the fact that he wanted to put his signature on that “participation certificate” of a stimulus check. The one-time offering that pales in comparison to the relief provided to our neighbors to the north. But assessing Trump’s ulterior motives behind expediting a return to commerce is writing of its own, and before I derail my own writing, let me pivot to a secondary yet key reason I think many are protesting, which is a general lack of empathy for folks who are susceptible to being gravely impacted by the virus.

The term ableism is defined as “a form of discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities or who are perceived to have disabilities.” People who have racist, homophobic or xenophobic beliefs often cringe at being referred to as racist, homophobic or xenophobic because there is specific social or economic capital that can be lost when one of those labels is bestowed on a bigot. Having ableist ideals? Not so much. In fact, it is one of the few prejudicial identities that can damn near be practiced by any ethnicity, gender or orientation. At a recent rally in Nashville, a protestor held up a sign that read “SACRIFICE THE WEAK, REOPEN TN '', and that my friends is peak ableism. It is also the logic of an individual who believes they are incapable of experiencing any decline in their own health.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 50 to 129 million non-elderly Americans (19-50%) have some type of pre-existing health condition, many of which are conditions that sufferers are not born with nor genetically predisposed to. So, when we see laborers siding with public officials that are lukewarm about protecting public health, we are witnessing people who have bought into the idea that saving the economy is of higher value than saving their own lives. These people carry a presumption of invincibility that suggests they will never become “the weak” at any point in their work life, which mathematically does not align with health statistics. Unpacking the concept of “the weak” is important here because the coronavirus is not a respecter of able-bodied or “healthy” presentation. There are people who were not experiencing pre-existing conditions that succumbed to this virus because they were simply unable to ward off the damage it caused their bodies. Forcing vulnerable communities to reenter the workforce is not weeding out “the weak” from the virile, it is endangering citizens and consequently weakening an already compromised economy. I mean, who can work when the majority of a city or town becomes affected by an outbreak? How many dead folks can a company get to work anything other than an actual graveyard shift? And who does “the weak” really consist of when both essential and non-essential laborers are vying for space in hospital beds or an even distribution of ventilators?

The History of a Compromised Workforce

During this time of social distancing, I recently completed the first season of #blackAF, the Netflix ‘mockumentary’ based on the life of “black•ish,” “Mixed•ish,” and “Grown•ish” creator, Kenya Barris. The running gag in the intro of each episode is that in some way, shape or fashion, the content of the episode will somehow connect to slavery. And though the production of the season was completed prior to this period of isolation, the running gag about the everyday misfortunes of Black Americans somehow being connected to the institution of slavery is culturally relevant to this period of the pandemic. First, let’s examine the cultural argument made by many Black folks on social media with respect to what studies have revealed about the ethnic disparities in Coronavirus patients; which is an argument that suggests now that the numbers have shown a disproportionate amount of Black people dying from the virus, the federal governments and local governments (primarily in red states) are ready to reopen for business.

Before moving any further, let’s concede to a truth that should be irrefutable: the foundation for American capitalism was erected from chattel slavery, and from that peculiar institution came a system of labor that has been adapted in a less blatantly brutal form. For centuries, unpaid labor of displaced Africans shaped America into a global superpower by producing an innumerable amount of goods for export in the commodified trade industry. Cotton alone was the most widely traded resource and considered the oil of its time in reference to its value and functionality. Enslaved Africans toiled beneath merciless suns, amidst unfavorable weather conditions and in spite of injuries sustained. If a slave was able to be bandaged or get temporary rest on account of sickness, they were expected to immediately return to servitude as soon as they showed any sign of recovery. If death fell upon them, their loved ones were not granted any type of leave of absence to grieve. Their bodies were buried on a segregated plot of land and their family members were to keep the wheels of a cruel economy turning.

When we consider the frontline workforce of Americans who have largely been in the crosshairs of contact with the coronavirus, data tells us that those laborers are primarily Black. Per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ current populations survey, Black workers are more likely to be employed in essential services than white workers (37.7% to 26.9%) and there is an even wider margin of difference in the healthcare industry as Black workers are about 50% more likely to work in the healthcare and social assistance industry and 40% more likely to work in hospitals, compared with white workers. Per statistics attributed to Buzzfeed, New York City has an essential workforce of Black, Hispanic, and Asian people that make up more than 70% of the city’s essential workers, including transit, childcare, health care, cleaning service, and postal employees. More than 40% of the city’s transit workers are Black. However, in addition to putting their lives at risk to fulfill essential job duties, Black workers have simultaneously endured a significant amount of job loss or reduction in hours in comparison to their white counterparts (45% to 31%) during the pandemic.

So, to put it plainly, Black laborers are either facing perilous conditions in order to keep their jobs or falling on financial hardships from being more disposable than their white counterparts. You could say that modern-day Black workers are being paid for their labor and therefore cannot be compared to slaves, but if we factor the ongoing fight for fair wages, the national income gap between Black and white families and the immense wealth of corporate owners juxtaposed to the labor force that keeps their doors open, there is a striking similarity between the inequity that built American capitalism and the inequity that sustains it.

The Callousness of Capitalism

There’s this open secret that has been a driving factor of socioeconomic divide, classism, racism and opportunity gaps since the inception of American capitalism. A reveal that the uber wealthy and one-percenters of this nation have been whispering with a megaphone. You wanna hear it? Here it goes: Capitalism does not and has not ever actually cared what identity box we check off.

The beneficiaries of generational wealth have always known that social constructs, such as race, gender and orientation could be used as a means to have the working class fight for jobs they would never do. They also knew that if they promoted a myth of scarcity and compartmentalized opportunities based on identity, we would slaughter each other for whatever crumbs they dropped. Right now hundreds of Amazon employees are currently protesting their employer. Why? Because Amazon has not provided them with adequate protective equipment or distancing measures but Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, who is worth $140.5 billion, is refusing the idea of mass-testing for employees. And it’s not like he could not easily pay whatever expenses necessary to ensure all of his employees are tested so that HE CAN CONTINUE MAKING MONEY OF THEIR LABOR. The thing about being richer than more than the bottom half of American families is, he cannot retain that degree of wealth by being overly humane generous to those who earn labor for him.

He can be philanthropic for the public. He can set up charitable funds, endowments and pool together resources to distribute and attach his name to. But it is antithetical to the nature of capitalism for him to even clumsily pivot towards something equitable with the same workforce that swells his bank account. If any of us were privy to all of the tax incentives major corporations receive when local governments allow them to set up shop in exchange for the promise of good jobs, we would find out just how many of our leaders are willing to place commerce ahead of public health and tell us it’s in the best interest of our community.

Occasionally, there will be opposition from principled leaders that will boldly prioritize the well-being of their people over corporate commitments to economic growth in a deprived area, but those kinds of leaders are one in a million. For those of us who want to see this virus completely eradicated before moving forward, we will have to contend with a growing disdain from corporations tired of issuing unemployment checks and members of their workforce who have been programmed to believe that their liberties are being trampled on. When capitalism is at its most insidious, it is convincing those who work hardest on its behalf that the machine cannot survive without the blood, sweat, tears, more blood, heart and soul of their labor.