Commentary, COVID-19

From college to the workplace, COVID-19 is exposing America’s class divisions

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In recent days Duke University announced mandatory testing for all students — the only major university in the state to do so. Duke is a fine school; some rank it 10th among American universities. It is also an expensive school, its 6,500 undergraduates pay more than $58,000 a year in tuition. Without a scholarship, only the rich and powerful can send their kids there.

Appalachian State University is also a fine school, with 20,000 students — much larger than Duke. It’s not really in the national rankings, but it is listed as 6th among southern regional colleges. And it is cheaper than Duke with an annual tuition of $7,409. Being more affordable, it has a diverse student body, ranging from students from moderately wealthy families to those from the lower middle class. By and large, though, they are not families that can afford a Duke tuition. And ASU, like UNC Chapel Hill and UNC Charlotte and the state’s other universities, is not carrying out the systematic testing of Duke. Probably too expensive.

In short, there’s a class difference between Duke and Appalachian State students, just as there’s a class difference between Duke and Appalachian State. And sadly, there’s a similar class difference at work across the nation during a pandemic that has already infected five million and killed at least 166,000 in the United States.

Maximum safety requires comprehensive systematic testing, and for that you go to Duke. If you can’t afford that, you go to one of the other fine schools in the state, cheaper than Duke and less safe.

This class difference among college students mirrors the class difference in America’s economy.

Many of the workers in the food processing industry are immigrants who often live paycheck to paycheck. They have to go to work because if the virus doesn’t kill them, hunger will. In April of this year, more than 900 workers at a Smithfield Foods facility in Sioux Falls, S.D., tested positive for the virus; at least two died.

Smithfield is owned by Hong Kong-based WH Group, the largest pork processor in the world. How many of the wealthy owners of Smithfield go to work every morning with hundreds of others risking the disease? Or, with their money, is it more likely they live safely isolated from the contaminated masses?

In North Carolina this May, the Tyson Foods chicken processing facility in Wilkes County tested its 2,200 workers, largely Latino immigrants, and 570 showed positive, a quarter of the workforce. As with Smithfield, these are poor working people living paycheck to paycheck who cannot afford to take a day off.

Tyson is owned by John Tyson, the billionaire grandson of John W. Tyson, founder of Tyson Foods. Unlike his workers, it is unlikely John Tyson has to go work every morning shoulder to shoulder with others who may carry the disease. His wealth provides a world in which the risk of contagion can be minimized, his wealth generated by the labor of his workforce who lack that luxury.

A similar dynamic is at work California’s central valley where agriculture is a mainstay of the economy and a low-wage, often immigrant workforce has suffered devastating losses from the virus. Researchers at the University of California, Merced found that the California counties with the most disadvantaged workers were among those most affected by the virus.

A recent article in The Guardian pointed out that one-fifth of the workers in the region fall below the poverty line, about the same percentage that depends on SNAP benefits. The undocumented among them, though, generally lack access to state and federal safety net programs. Agribusiness in California is wealthy and productive. Generally, its owners do not labor in the fields side by side with impoverished workers getting sick and dying from the virus. They do benefit though, from the profits produced by that work.

It is a long way from the California farm fields and Midwestern meatpacking facilities to Duke University, but together they hold a lesson. The coronavirus is neutral in that it follows the laws that science has provided us to understand reality. But its spread among the population is far from neutral. The wealthy and powerful and their children have a much greater opportunity to avoid the virus and the disease. The wealthy owners of companies require workers to work for them in order for their enterprises to be profitable, so opening the economy is of enormous benefit to them. And the less it costs to reopen, the greater the profits, at least in the short run.

But those headed back to work and to school cannot avoid the disease if protections are absent, and that’s where the virus mostly hits: working people and the poor. And the poor, as we know, are disproportionately women, immigrants and people of color. The reality of America is social class, so it’s not surprising that the reality of the coronavirus in America is social class.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. As  the common sense health practices at Duke demonstrate, when you spend a little more money, you can save lives. The lives of working people are worth saving.

Prof. Jeffrey Bortz teaches history at Appalachian State University.

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