Coronavirus reveals fundamental truths

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In his recent State of the Union address, President Trump boasted how the US economy is experiencing unprecedented prosperity and unemployment rate is at a all-time low. But is there any substance to such bold statement?

I used to teach statistics to college students. Typically, my first lesson in a statistics course is to show students how easy it is to lie with statistics. In the recent economic report, it is important to note that we must look at the quality of the jobs in addition to the quantity. The Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program reported that 44% of U.S. workers between the ages of 18 and 64 are in jobs that pay median annual wages of $18,000. In other words, in this “prosperous” economy, almost half of the U.S. workers are in the ranks of the working poor. What good is it to have employment but the employment does not offer you a living wage?

Pearl Buck, a Nobel prize winner in literature who did missionary work in China, once remarked that “our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.” Similarly, in Catholic Social Teaching, it is commonly understood that a basic moral test of our society is how well the most vulnerable members of society are faring. As a statistician, I know that averages such as per capita GDP can be very misleading because such statistics are often biased upward by the presence of billionaires who make much more than the rest. The well-being of the most vulnerable people in a country, measured in terms of household income and access to quality education and healthcare, is a more reasonable metric for genuine prosperity.

Interestingly, the current coronavirus scare reveals the truth about the state of the US economy. Anand Giridharadas, a social commentator and an editor-at-large for Time magazine, recently tweeted this observation: “Coronavirus makes clear what has been true all along. Your health is as safe as that of the worst-insured, worst-cared-for person in your society.” Why is this? Isn’t the state of our health a matter of how wealthy we are and how much healthcare we can afford to purchase? Why should it depend on the most inferior healthcare the poor are getting? Why should our fate be tied to the very poor?

To understand this, we must go back to Economics 101 and to the fact that healthcare is not a common good, but a public good. The Wikipedia defines a public good as “a good that is both non-excludable and non-rivalrous, in that individuals cannot be excluded from use or could benefit from without paying for it, and where use by one individual does not reduce availability to others or the good can be used simultaneously by more than one person.” In the context of the coronavirus, a rich person cannot simply purchase high-quality healthcare for himself and not be affected by the sick people around him who have no access to healthcare. To the extent that many poor people cannot afford healthcare, contract the virus and don’t receive treatment, then the disease will probably spread to the rich people also. Money cannot buy us safety from the disease.

Based on the Brookings Institution report, almost half of our population belong to the working poor. The state of the US economy is that many workers hold temporary jobs without any healthcare coverage, paid sick days or retirement benefits from their employers. They also have little emergency funds as reserve. A recent survey found that 63% of Americans don’t have enough savings to cover a $500 emergency need. Most of these working poor belong to the service sector. They are the people we have close contact with day in and day out. They are the food servers, house cleaners, nannies, etc. Lauren Hough, another social commentator wrote the following:

“I don’t think people realize how many service industry workers will continue going to work, serving and cooking food, cleaning your houses, selling you respirators, with flu-like symptoms because they don’t have paid sick days.”

I know this situation very well. For many years before my own retirement, I worked as an adjunct professor and a substitute teacher. As such, the holidays meant nothing to me. The day I didn’t work is also the day I didn’t get paid. I literally had to worry about the possibility that the holidays that my students enjoyed would mean that I would not have enough money to pay my bills.

In a capitalist system, the working poor are often simply ignored. For a long time, they could be safely ignored without any serious consequences. But the threat of an approaching pandemic changed the situation. A big population of working poor without proper medical care has now become a public health hazard. The coronavirus is the grand equalizer — it threatens the rich and the poor alike.

In the Vimalakirti Sutra (a Mahayana Buddhist scripture), there is this saying, “Because the myriad sentient beings are sick, therefore I am sick.” In the context of public health and in climate change at least, we are all linked and we share a common fate. Money cannot buy us individual happiness or exemption. For many decades, selfishness has served the capitalists and the money class very well. But the coronavirus shocks us into recognizing the reality of our interconnectedness.

Perhaps there is some cosmic justice after all.

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