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What America Can Learn

By: Sai Siddhaye

The United States of America is not prepared for this pandemic. The healthcare system, welfare system, and the belligerent American spirit are not strong enough to work under the strain the world is under right now. Much of the world is in isolation at the moment, which is effectively slowing the spread of the virus, but like the United States, many countries are not equipped for full lockdown. Other countries are not crumbling under pressure and have strategies to fight this crisis. This comes down to infrastructure as well as culture as a whole. 

Many of the countries that seem well-equipped for handling this virus have strong systems prepared, and this is most effective in countries that have dealt with epidemics before. Singapore–which was hit by the SARS epidemic in 2003–was extremely proactive in its response to COVID-19, banning travelers from high-risk places in January, weeks before other countries began to enforce travel bans. Testing is free, efficient, and abundant, and as of late April, Singapore has only reported 12 deaths. Similarly, Senegal–which dealt with the Ebola outbreak in 2014–has implemented large-scale rapid testing, which takes only 4 hours to diagnose patients. The Pasteur Institute, a prominent research lab in Senegal, is working on a test kit that will diagnose patients in 10 minutes. So far, Senegal has reported only 6 deaths nationwide. South Korea was  hit hard by the novel coronavirus, but, by utilizing fast and widespread testing, has been able to slow its spread efficiently. One huge common denominator here is the cultural response to this pandemic; not only do the people of these countries seem to be following the safety measures that have been implemented, but they also seem to understand why they are necessary. Past experience with epidemics undoubtedly plays a big role in this response, and being able to trust the government and scientists’ advice on this matter goes a long way in protecting oneself and others, which has a lot to do with the transparency shown by the government. 

However, this cultural response cannot be universally replicated. India, for example, issued a shelter-in-place order to slow the spread of the virus. But India’s enormous wealth disparity means that a universal preventative measure does not affect the working class and impoverished population the same way as it affects the wealthy population. India has about 100 million seasonal migrant workers who travel to urban areas to work and send money home to their rural families. However, since the lockdown in late March, these workers have been left wageless, unhoused, and in a dearth of sanitation facilities. This is dangerous enough in a place as densely populated as Mumbai or Delhi, for example, but the closure of public transit has left these millions of people with no means to return to their families. This has left many of these workers with no option but to walk all the way to their rural homes, which can be hundreds of miles in many cases. Though quarantine is undoubtedly an effective way of slowing the spread of coronavirus, countries with so much heterogeneity must ensure that there is a strong system that will protect the most vulnerable people as well as the privileged. 

The United States is, of course, one of these heterogeneous countries. The racial diversity in America is coupled with racial disparity, which is leaving BIPOC communities incredibly vulnerable. Though COVID-19 is being called the ‘Great Equalizer’, this label is of course incredibly false; wealth, able-bodiedness, and race matter a great deal in determining how much danger one will have to put themselves in in order to survive this pandemic. One of the hardest hit communities, as with most health crises, is the Black community. A long history of institutional racism–redlining, residential segregation, incarceration, the list goes on–has prevented Black people from having access to critical resources. The disproportionately large number of Black folks that live in food deserts means that many people need to travel several miles simply for groceries, and the huge amount of pre existing health conditions in Black communities, largely caused by weathering and environmental racism, means that they are especially vulnerable to this highly contagious virus.  Homeownership is a crucial resource that has been withheld from Black folks for centuries, which is still a very visible issue today. About 7% of the Black population in Milwaukee owns their home, compared to over 80% of the white population. Without this piece of generational wealth, sheltering-in-place becomes a more complicated issue. These layers of historical and contemporary racism mean that the federal government is at fault for the vulnerability of BIPOC communities, and therefore cannot adequately protect them from the new dangers of COVID-19 without major changes.

Because of the unique history behind the racial disparities we see in the United States, it is difficult to implement the same measures that other countries have done, but there are many things that we can learn from the different responses to the novel coronavirus worldwide. The first is that in order to protect its citizens from this pandemic, the federal and state governments need to put people’s lives above the economy. This means that UBI and universal healthcare, at the very least, are necessities, and a one-time stimulus package as a band-aid will not solve the problem. The second is that transparency is essential in order for progress to happen, and the government cannot be actively fighting the health officials who are trying to inform people. If accurate information about the spread of the virus, the severity of the outbreak, and how to protect oneself is not effectively distributed by government officials, then it will be difficult for Americans to trust that safety measures are adequate and necessary. Until the most vulnerable members of our communities are being protected, the underpreparedness of the United States will continue to cause the deaths of thousands of people.