The Covid-19 Experience

The Experience of Privileged and Disadvantaged US Populations During Covid-19

Group: Khandaker Momataz ’22 & Arianne Smith ’22

Drawing from a set of journalistic cartoons, graffiti, photographs, and artwork, this project contrasts the experiences of disadvantaged and privileged U.S. populations during COVID-19. Through an analysis of these representations we explore the dilemma of prioritizing economy vs. public health.

What does Covid-19 reveal?

As the number of unemployed Americans grows by over 30 million (accounting for nearly one-fifth of the labor force) in a six-week period due to layoffs and stay-at-home mandates, there is uncertainty and fear surrounding the future of the economy. There is increasing urgency from many groups to end the quarantine and reopen the economy. Millions of disadvantaged groups are unable to pay their bills and are now reliant on unemployment benefits to sustain themselves. However, while the economy is suffering, marginalized communities continue to feel the devastating impact of coronavirus in every facet of their lives. Family dynamics are disrupted as coronavirus has been shown to disproportionately affect minority groups such as African Americans and Latinos due to their lack of access to healthcare and higher risk of preexisting conditions that compromise the ability to recover from the virus. Moreover, prolonged quarantine has taken a toll on mental health, leading to higher rates of suicide, child abuse, substance abuse, and domestic violence. As pressure for reopening the economy grows, and states such as New York develop plans for reopening, state governments must decide whether they are willing to risk public health. The debate surrounding reopening is very complicated, often highlighting how structural violence has exacerbated social markers of difference and leads to unfavorable circumstances for the marginalized in both sides (quarantine vs. restarting the economy). Although, it is important to note that these issues are heavily intertwined. The following artwork will examine the difficulties of this issue.

Ingram Pinn / Financial Times 

As politicians push for lifting lockdown order in order to prevent a massive economic collapse, thousands have been protesting in support of anti-lockdown across the country. Many gun-toting, confederate flag-waving protesters have argued that coronavirus is not as dangerous as it is portrayed and that quarantine has violated their right to freedom and liberty, as well as their financial need to go back to work. On both sides of the lockdown debate, many concerned with their private wealth focus on the economic aspects of the ongoing situation and fail to consider how marginalized groups are significantly disadvantaged in both scenarios. Preestablished political, economic, and social structures create complicated situations for the disadvantaged in both scenarios. While the general economic wellbeing of the country might rise due to increased income and consumer spending in the event of restarting the economy, the risk of contracting coronavirus is still significant, disproportionately affecting low-income minorities, with their rate of exposure and critical illness being much higher. However, these are also the same groups that suffer economic hardship as they are laid off and lose employment due to inability to work from home for various reasons.

This cartoon at the top of the page created by Ingram Pinn illustrates the tension between two perspectives. On the right dock, there is a group of working-class who struggle to hold on to the mask that protects them. However, the mask is gravitating towards the opposing dock, which is presumably the more privileged businessmen who are concerned with going back to work given their suits and suitcases. In doing so, they are effectively erasing measures that are meant to protect at-risk groups from contracting the virus. In both sides, the essential workers and healthcare workers must support the wellbeing of all people regardless. Furthermore, the number and varying directions of the airplanes and boats conveys the chaos between the debate over reopening the economy vs upholding social distancing stay-at-home regulations.

In the current state of Covid-19, the more fortunate demographic stands to benefit both from whether the government chooses to reopen the economy or uphold social distancing stay-at-home regulations. The more privileged demographic currently stands in a position where its people have the greatest access to resources, have the greatest value in financial assets and overall have less immunocompromising diseases.

There is no need to sugarcoat the situation really. Sugarcoating really only avoids addressing the issues of inequality and structural violence that Covid-19 has emphasized in our social institutions. The demographic of privilege to which I am referring is the White American population. Throughout US history, there has been a significant wealth gap between White Americans and minority groups like Black, Latino and Native Americans. Kimberly Amadeo, in  “Racial Wealth Gap in the United States: Is There a Way to Close It and Fill the Divide,” notes that “Between 1983 and 2013, white households saw their wealth increased by 14%. But during the same period, black household wealth declined 75%. Median Hispanic household wealth declined 50%.” The gap in wealth between races and ethnic background in the US continues to widen and subsequently the inequality in access to resources follows a similar trend.

For this reason, therefore, it is no surprise that the majority of White Americans who have clearly benefitted from their greater access to resources and wealth, find themselves mostly worry-free in light of Covid-19 and thus some are more inclined to remain in quarantine. This is not to say that people within this demographic of majority privilege, haven’t been affected by Covid-19. My earlier statements are meant to only highlight the fact the  majority of within the White American demographic are less likely to contract and die from Covid-19 as a result of their greater access to resources including greater financial assets, the best medical treatment money can buy and reliable personal protective equipment (PPE) when compared to those in minority populations comprising mostly of working class people.  Possession of greater financial assets makes its more likely that families within the White American demographic can be sustained with savings from residual income, for example, during this pandemic allowing them a greater opportunity to not only purchase basic necessities to survive this pandemic such as PPE like N-95 masks. Taking it as step further, also shows that having access to reliable and efficient medical treatment, decreases the likelihood that members of this White American population have immunocompromising diseases that would have gone untreated. Therefore during this pandemic, the majority of White Americans would have a greater likelihood of recovering from Covid-19,  as any of their immunocompromising ailments would have already been addressed and thus not exacerbate their Covid-19 symptoms. This contrasts with less fortunate demographics with less access to resources and thus a greater likelihood of contracting and dying from Covid-19.

Image by John D’oh

The image above by John D’oh perfectly frames the state of the majority of the privileged US population comprising mainly of the White American demographic. At the very top of the picture are the words “Coronavirus…there is no need to shit yourself”. This statement expresses the worry-free state of mind of the privileged family in the photo, representing the privileged American population, and the blatant indifference towards the struggles of non-privileged minority groups. The family pictured is shown wearing clothes not exposing bare skin, wearing masks and carrying high-quality tissue paper. This family unit is very clearly protected from the coronavirus as they have the resources to do so- reminiscent of the majority of the privileged US population comprising mainly of the White American demographic. As a result of this greater access to resources and subsequent protection from the coronavirus, the family in the photo appears worry free and at peace, not only evident in the quoted statement in the photo, but also in the body language of the child. The state of the family is similar to that of privilege America.

Social markers of difference like privilege and access to resources draw the lines determining how demographics are affected by Covid-19. Disease does not discriminate and so cannot decide who ought to contract it, but inequality within our existing social institutions dictate how population groups experience disease i.e. which demographic finds itself most affected by Covid-19 and other public health concerns. With the majority of the privileged seemingly worry-free and mostly unaffected/ unfazed by Covid-19 due to their greater access to resources, one can understand why some don’t have a heavy inclination to reopen the economy. People in such a position, may want to reopen the economy but are in a position where they don’t need to reopen the economy to be financially stable.

Image by Ingram Pinn 

The image above by Ingram Pinn where Trump is depicted constructing a wall around himself and essential workers are seen cleaning the surrounding space, serves as another representation of the state of the privileged. Both Pinn and D’oh’s photos provide context in understanding the majority inclination of privileged Americans to remain in quarantine in accordance with social distancing stay-at-home orders. In Pinn’s photo Trump serves as a representation of privileged White America that is mostly concerned with protecting itself while those of the working class, though protected, still put themselves in harm’s way in an effort to create a safe and healthy space for others. D’oh’s photo elucidates the general notion of indifference to the struggles of essential workers and less privileged minority groups and the selfish concern for personal endeavors of the more fortunate White American demographic that Pinn’s photo also highlights.

Graffiti Work by London-based unknown artist

This graffiti work done by an unknown London-based artist depicts also that majority notion within the privileged demographic: one of indifference towards those who are suffering as a result of Covid-19, which unsurprisingly predominantly comprises minority group members. Patrick, the pink starfish, represents those in today’s society that are more concerned with their own selfish needs. Patrick’s is seemingly enthusiastic that he has tissue paper yet he appears literally blinded (by the mask) by his access to resources which prevent him from seeing the struggles of those who suffer in lieu of Covid-19. Patrick wears a mask while SpongeBob, one who is actually sick and needs to wear a mask, wears none. This can be interpreted as the privileged experiencing blissful ignorance towards the struggles of the more disadvantaged who suffer greatly from Covid-19. A notion reminiscent of John D’oh photo.

This blissful ignorance is likely a reason for why one in such a privileged position with access to the best resources may see no need to reopen the economy. As discussed earlier, some in less fortunate demographics that the more privileged demographic is indifferent towards, are pushing for the economy to be reopened and the stay- at- home order to be lifted. These less fortunate people are more likely to have lost jobs and/or medical insurance, have low value financial assets and so strongly desire for the stay at home order to be lifted simply so that they can work. One may say that this is selfish for they are prioritizing their personal wealth over public health. However,  unlike the more privileged White American demographic, these less fortunate people of minority groups are less likely to have had enough savings to buy the necessities to survive the entire duration of this global pandemic, are once again more likely to not only contract the disease and also die from it. These compounded disadvantages reek of structural violence. The desire of the less fortunate to reopen the economy therefore seems more highly motivated by a need for survival to overcome this structural violence.

It seems the less fortunate populations are more concerned about their survival, however those of the privileged that are mostly worry-free in light of Covid-19, push to reopen the economy, as they’re more concerned about their personal wealth instead. Unlike D’oh and Pinn’s photo, this graffiti work highlights a different position in the privileged American population.  In the graffiti, Mr. Krabs, the red crab, represents this other standing of the privileged in reopening the economy. Mr. Krabs who represents the privileged American population prioritizes its financial gains over their health. This is, once again, due to its greater access to resources which makes this demographic less likely to contract the coronavirus. Additionally, this privileged group of predominantly White Americans are also less likely to die from Covid-19 for their economic standing has propelled them to a position in which the best medical treatment and facilities are more easily accessible.  Therefore, while the push for reopening the economy by less fortunate populations seem more so motivated by a need for survival, those of more privileged experiences seem to be pushing the reopening of the economy due to their want of financial gain.

Shaun King, Personal Instagram Account
Shaun King, Personal Instagram Account

Our discussion thus far has addressed how the predominantly White American privileged demographic of the US seeks to benefit from the reopening of the economy and their likely experiences thus far that have propelled them to take either stance in the debate. This discussion would be incomplete if we choose to ignore the likely experiences of the less privileged demographic, that have come under more pressure during Covid-19, as a result of the effects of structural violence and apparent racism. Both photographs on the left have been circulating on social media as many people are outraged at the contrasting response of law enforcement, and by extension the government, towards the breaking of social distancing measures by different racial/ ethnic groups. The two photos illustrate social gathering in NYC parks that violate state-wide mandates requiring the use of masks in public and prohibiting gatherings of any size. Both the absence of law enforcement in the first photograph and the presence of law enforcement officers distributing PPE resources (masks),  in the second photograph,  to a predominantly white crowd indicates the government’s indifference towards and even approval of this potentially dangerous behavior. These images highlight a level of privilege experienced by white, high-income populations while minority groups participating in similar behavior have been met with aggressive responses from law enforcement. Just two miles away, parks in communities with predominantly disadvantaged minority groups are sites with greater policing though there exists significantly less gatherings and disobedience of social distancing laws. Persons of minority groups that are seen violating social mandates receive fines and experience unwarranted police brutality.

This artwork has examined many aspects of the controversy surrounding reopening the economy. The debate has highlighted the issue of structural violence that affects disadvantaged communities. Further, it exemplifies implicit and explicit social markers of difference that separate the privileged from the disadvantaged and contribute their ongoing struggle. The Ingram Pinn journalistic cartoons are meant to exemplify the privileged pull towards restarting the economy, and how this gravitation loses sight of the needs and safety of the disadvantaged. The depiction of Trump as a representation of the privileged shows the indifference to marginalized communities that are most affected by both quarantine and reentry. Moreover the London graffiti further highlights this indifference as the mask, which must protect the at-risk groups, blinds the privileged (who benefit from greater access to resources) from seeing and understanding the reality of the situation. Rather, the privilege remain concerned with their needs and desires without regard for others. This has indeed contributed to widespread and prolonged shortages, as well as price-gouging. Because of the ignorance, or even refusal, to understand how COVID-19 has impacted minority groups, many of the privilege see no harm in participating in dangerous behavior such as violating social distancing measures. As we see in the final two photographs, this behavior is rewarded or ignored. However, when it comes the less-privileged groups, they experienced undeserving suspicion and aggression. All of the artwork has brought to light the drastically different experiences of the privileged and the disadvantaged during this tumultuous time.