COVID-19. The buzzword of year 2020.
COVID-19 has overridden murmurs of discontent over the political polarization in the United States. COVID-19 has become the stepchild, the whipping boy, the black sheep of The American Dream.
COVID-19 is suddenly tied to the economy, to the lack of standardized health care for all, to a global conundrum lacking tangible solutions, to the environment, and to the future of America altered forever in the face of a catastrophe.
Much like a virus, economic inequality is hard to place, hard to track, and hard to pin down as to how it spreads or travels. We have ideas, concepts, and beliefs to the origins of wealth and social inequality, but those that hold them often hail from the opposing end of the privileged party.
As data and statistics pour in all over the country showing COVID-19 positive tests vs. COVID – 19 death rates, ranked by statistics like race, age and overall health, an underlying theme starts to be questioned in real time: does wealth inequality favor survival of those who can afford better health care in treatment of COVID-19?
Just scrolling through the headlines of KSL or Yahoo’s home page amidst the Coronavirus Pandemic, the split in wealth inequality is apparent. Among stories of people dying due to the virus or warehouse workers and grocery clerks risking infection while working for minimum or poverty level wages, I also see stories about Kim Kardashian’s hair being orange in the early 2000’s. Or how a (white and blonde) 23 year old is celebrating her birthday at home with a home styled pub crawl. Better yet, how about a billionaire self-isolating on his yacht?
None of these have anything to do with a worldwide pandemic robbing people of their most sacred gift: life, and the enjoyment of existence.
Should this gift not include joyous occasions and frivolous distractions from deep sorrows and pain? Is that not part of life’s beauty: the ability to choose our reality? Yes, if we are so deeply lucky to do so, either through temporary insanity or through the privileges of economic bounty.
How does capitalism create the opportunity for both escapism and deep denials of individual accountability to the experience of another’s reality? Capitalist values pretend to reward hard work. Capitalism pretends that competition is healthy, but it only publishes stories about winners in its system. It conveniently leaves out the perspective that while some endure back-breaking work and risk their lives to support themselves during a global pandemic, others drink at home with their families and wait for the “nuisance” to die out, enjoying a privilege they did not earn.
There is nothing healthy or fair about the exchange of hard work and its return on investment under our current capitalist policies, and the COVID-19 pandemic further highlights these inequalities.
The problem with capitalism is not that it exists. The problem with capitalism is with what it pretends to be. Capitalism was founded upon the idea that you invest to earn. However, after a simple look into the history of the United States, you’ll realize that in order to invest, something must first be owned. And in the growth of the United States, things became owned not through fair means but through what could be taken at the lowest price: people as slaves, land from the indigenous tribes, the wanton extraction of water and other resources, animals in cages, and so on.
Never did capitalism set out with fair rules and never has it adjusted them to become more fair. It has only grown through a process of divide and conquer, creating social stigma between those who have and those who have not, without ever confessing to the lie of our Nation: investments were not earned; they were taken or stolen. And that these actions of taking and stealing caused pain and trauma for generations of humanity and all those who live on through expressions of that ancestral suffering.
This atrocity is largely unrepresented in the way our nation fails to recognize or amend the ones who have long suffered, and who are still victimized by a system that profited from their trauma.
In Land: A New Paradigm for a Thriving World, author Martin Adams points out: “
A truly free market is a healthy component of any balanced society. Markets are free when human beings have equal opportunities to influence the production and trade of desirable goods and services. When people compete to produce goods or services, some are able to attain market control and set market prices due to favorable natural, social or political conditions: They attain a monopoly. The problem with monopolies, however, is that they enable those who have attained them to extract money from society without providing goods or services or corresponding value.”
Under the threat of COVID – 19 the streets of urban areas that once bustled with tourism or local entertainment are now shuttered to stop the spread of this highly contagious respiratory virus.
Restaurants that served hundreds of thousands per week are no longer serving food, and at least one mammal has taken note: rats. Reports of rats roaming the empty streets in search of their missing food sources are pouring in. Pest control companies are witnessing the rats fighting to the death, cannibalizing each other and their young as their food supply dwindles. In this chilling display of nature and competition (the same ingredients for our current human system), the words of French Revolutionist Jean-Jacques Rousseau haunt some: “Quand les pauvres n’auront plus rien à manger, ils mangeront les riches! ” (When the poor have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich!)
In terms of table scraps, the now revolting rats once enjoyed and survived off trickle-down economics. They were content to accept what was left behind in garbage bins and drains, never questioning if other rats had it better somewhere else.
But humans are not rats. We have more needs and are far more complex in our capacity for emotional reasoning, even (and perhaps especially) in the face of adversity. This gift of human rationalization can go either way – positive or negative – depending on what most of humanity feels is fair.
Historically, groups of humans have come together to fight other groups, establishments or ideas, either through peaceful means or battle, when awareness of social and civil injustices become large enough to influence mass social consciousness.
Economic inequality is not a new story; the social, environmental and spiritual ailments that accompany it have existed for quite some time. What is new to this story is that we are also living in world of rapidly increasing population, environmental chaos, greater division between rich and poor, and growing dissent over the way our country should be run and who or what should be provided to the citizens of America.
It seems clear that collectively we are reaching a tipping point in which people are growing restless and angry with economic inequality and the multiple branches which support the divide between socio-economic barriers (healthcare, politics, banks & stocks, land grabs, etc.)
People are feeling caged, just like the desperate rats. Individuals sense their power has been taken away and instinctively seek out others who feel the same. If you get enough people doing this, revolution occurs. In the aftermath of COVID-19 layoffs and a huge National Debt, what changes will be led by the people and for the people of this country, not relying on the politicians, corporations, and special interest groups we’ve long last faith in?
We cannot go backwards and fix the actions which created the systems of wealth inequality in America. It is scientifically impossible. It is economically unfeasible. Our institutions are so deeply ingrained in the lives of every American that to upend them would require a supernatural feat that would likely result in unprecedented chaos. So, all we can do is change. But how do we do that? How does our society, so entrenched in capitalist structures, start to turn the tide?
It starts with acknowledgement. We acknowledge what is working and what isn’t and the history behind how our country was built. It starts with honesty; admitting the trauma our nation has caused others as well as ourselves. It starts with holding space to do this and then communicating ways to heal the land, the economy, and each other.
We all want to live in comfort. But we must also possess the empathy to see beyond our immediate desires to see how much room is at the table. We must reframe what success and competition look like, and see if the existing “free market” strengthens or divides us. We must ask hard questions, like Is it fair to define the value of a human’s contribution by an hourly wage? Do those wages meet standards of living and risks associated with the career choice of each individual?
We must also ask how we will care for those who cannot work due to old age, disability or hardship. We must ask if “hard work” is justly rewarded or if privilege exists in our economic system. And if it’s the latter, we must ask what we are willing to do to adjust. Is wealth redistribution the answer to our problems, or do better solutions exist? We must ask how to move our society from a place of complacency into a space of justice. And we must do this while maintaining the potential for anyone to reap as much as they sow.
Finally, we must ask: How we will we reinvent ourselves, our businesses, our free market, and our social, environmental, and economic systems after COVID-19? May we take an honest inventory of our actions, holding ourselves accountable to impact change, and move forward with a newfound sense of courage.