Cities across the United States are finally taking steps to catch up to other countries’ attempts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, encouraging self-quarantine, social distancing, and remote work, as the virus rapidly spreads. One report shows the fatality rate of COVID-19 increases significantly—jumping from 0.2 percent to 18 percent—the older the patient is, making seniors the most vulnerable.
As always, the marginalized and vulnerable will bear the brunt of our—or rather, our government’s—failure to act.
As colleges go fully online, the wealthy retreat to their apocalyptic prepper bunkers, and a certain class of employees prepares to work from home, I’ve seen and heard people encouraging the seniors in their lives not to travel or attend big group events.
Meanwhile, I keep begging my grandmothers, who are seventy-two and seventy-five years old, to stop working. When I texted them, for probably the tenth time in two weeks, “I wish you’d stop going into work,” one texted me back, “I have this thing called ‘bills.’ ”
One is an accountant with no benefits, despite working at her company longer than I’ve been alive; the other is a teacher in a public school district that’s been struggling to close schools with asbestos for months, before they ever had to deal with coronavirus. That school district decided on March 13 to close due to COVID-19, after shutting down sixty-three schools for staffing shortages. Because my grandma is a long-term substitute teacher, she isn’t considered a full-time employee, so she won’t be paid for the time off.
Both of my grandmothers also help my mom parent my four younger siblings, juggling to get everyone to and from school, doctor appointments, and grocery runs.
People seem to assume that all seniors are retirees, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 64 percent of fifty-five- to sixty-four-year-olds and 24 percent of sixty-five- to seventy-four-year-olds were still in the labor force as of 2016. Nearly 10 percent of Americans seventy-five and older were still working.
The percentage of working seniors is only expected to grow. According to the National Council on Aging, one-third of senior households have no money left over each month or are in debt after meeting essential expenses.
The Washington Post recently surveyed retired seniors about whether they would cancel their vacations and dance nights for coronavirus, causing much ridicule on social media.
One tweet suggested that this was representative of a generational divide: selfish seniors, who are to blame for climate change and the Trump presidency, only care about their individual health, while young people are all teleworking and self-quarantining because they understand the impact they might have on others’ health.
It is egregious to suggest that we shouldn’t take this virus seriously if it disproportionately affects seniors, and that American seniors deserve to get sick because of their political stance or disbelief in climate change.
Not to be all #NotAllOldPeople, but my grandmas both vote for Democrats and text me regularly about the climate crisis. One of them is even a socialist! And, as In These Times reported, seniors in Chicago have been protesting for Medicare for All—a staple of another senior’s campaign—for months.
At the same time, I understand the instinct for generational resentment—though I will say, it seems it’s more based on class than age. But how can we condemn individuals for viewing seniors as disposable, when in many ways, that’s how they’re treated by our government?
Italy is suspending mortgage payments; South Korea curbed the spread of the virus with testing in about the same time it took America to test the Utah Jazz; meanwhile, my grandma can’t get paid sick leave during a pandemic, let alone retire. Neither of my grandmas is likely to be covered by the paid sick leave policy in the bill that passed the House last week and will soon go to the Senate.
Appropriately, Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, voted against paid sick leave in his home state, despite currently benefiting from paid sick leave while under quarantine for COVID-19. As of 2018, the population of Florida is more than 26 percent seniors.
The numbers of COVID-19’s anticipated spread across the nation are beyond troubling, with the CDC, in its worst-case scenario, predicting more than 240 million will contract the virus.
On March 13, Trump announced a national state of emergency by bringing out a “parade of executives” to shake hands and breathe into the same microphone (great social distancing). Trump’s song and dance for Wall Street serves as a good distraction from his actions, which include kicking 700,000 Americans off of food stamps for being unable to fulfill their work requirements—because of, you know, everything this article is about—and blocking states from expanding Medicaid. As always, the marginalized and vulnerable will bear the brunt of our—or rather, our government’s—failure to act.
We’re lucky. While my family does not come from generational wealth, we do have white privilege, a steady place to stay, our jobs, and each other. It’s much worse for people of color experiencing institutional racism from the health care system, LGBTQ people estranged from their families, gig economy workers, and the homeless.
Until we can comprehend how dehumanized we all are under this system as it’s been designed, we’ll keep stumbling into the inevitable.
In the meantime, I’ll keep asking my grandmas to stay home, knowing they can’t.