Inspired by the Council’s Rachel Tanur Memorial Prize for Visual Sociology, we ask prominent scholars to select a visual artifact of this time that will help future researchers understand the Covid-19 crisis. In this piece, danah boyd (founder, Data & Society and Member, SSRC Board of Directors) describes how the proliferation of “care packages” for essential workers are acts of kindness that obscure inequality and other ways the US has fallen short of being a “more perfect union.”
Many myths uphold the idea of “America” to its residents. If you dive headfirst into those myths, you’ll learn that the United States is the most advanced country in the world. Our hospitals are supposedly the best, which is why we permit them to be financialized in ways that ensure that millions of our own people can’t access health services. Anyone can supposedly lift themselves up by their bootstraps, which is why we accept that large swaths of essential workers can’t make a livable wage. And anyone can “make it,” which justifies our inability to require the wealthy to pay their fair share. When a crisis exposes the costs of unchecked capitalism, we “fix” it through charity. Food drives in schools socialize our children into thinking that the solution to poverty is canned goods.
Covid-19 has upended the lives of many, but certain conveniences haven’t stopped. Those who still have money in the bank and can hibernate at home can still have dinner, groceries, pharmacy items, or whatever the Everything Store carries delivered straight to their home. Somewhere in the American psyche, there’s still an awareness that their convenience is someone else’s problem. But it would be un-American to demand that such workers are compensated for their risk. After all, that would result in higher prices. Instead, we thank such workers with care packages meant to symbolically show our appreciation without actually ensuring that those workers and their families are safe.
Meanwhile, the public grows antsy. Young people think they are immune. Probusiness billionaires help fund movements to reopen the economy, ignoring the science and inciting people to protest in large groups and demand that people have a constitutional right to be free. As the slogan goes, a quarantine is restricting the movements of sick individuals; tyranny is restricting the movement of healthy people. The president, purportedly listening to “the people” (who are actually avatars for conservative billionaires), eggs them on to protest, spreading his own brand of conspiratorial thinking and home-brewed medical advice. No, drinking bleach will not cure the coronavirus.
The front line for medical workers looks different than for all other essential workers. Day in and day out, they try to keep those who are dying alive. They expose themselves to the virus at its most virulent with the focus of professionals. They are fired if they speak to the media. Wealthy hospitals are encouraging retirees and others to volunteer their services. The ERs are overloaded. The ambulance sirens don’t stop. Respiratory distress triggers silence. All that the medical professionals ask is that people stay home so that they can do their jobs and keep people alive.
But thinking of others is not a strength of the country that selfishly labels itself America, ignorant of the other countries that make up the Americas. We have lost track of our constitutional commitment to a more perfect union that ensures the common defense and general welfare. Instead, this country embraces the New Hampshire motto: Live Free or Die.