Now, in what seems like the blink of an eye, all that is gone. More than 20 million people lost their jobs in April alone, sending unemployment to 14.7 percent — the highest level since FDR was president. The novel coronavirus would have tanked the economy no matter who was in office. But Trump’s ineptitude has made the crisis far worse than it needed to be.
Now it’s no longer a matter of the rich accumulating wealth faster than the poor. The rich are holding on to most of what they have (April was the best month for U.S. stock markets since 1987), while many of the less well-off lose everything. And I do mean everything: It’s not just jobs, homes and health insurance that are being lost but, in all too many cases, lives as well. America’s worst-in-the-world coronavirus death toll falls disproportionately on those who can’t telecommute and can’t escape to country homes.
The American Public Media Research Lab calculates that African Americans, who constitute 13 percent of the population, make up 27 percent of known covid-19 deaths in Washington, D.C., and the 39 states that have released data broken down by race. Latinos have also been disproportionately affected. In California, Latinos are 39.8 percent of the population and 51.2 percent of covid-19 cases. Native Americans have also been hit hard, along with other marginalized communities such as prisoners, nursing-home residents and meatpacking workers. Congress has not ignored the plight of the afflicted, but even stimulus bills totaling nearly $3 trillion have not kept pace with the suffering.
If Trump cares about the unequal impact of the coronavirus, he gives no sign of it. Asked in March whether it was right for celebrities to get coronavirus tests before the general population, he shrugged: “Perhaps that’s been the story of life.”
Trump keeps claiming that anyone who wants one can get a test — but that’s true only in the White House. Trump urges the country to open up while the White House locks down. He has mandated that meatpacking plants stay open and offered liability protections to their well-connected owners while slighting health and safety protections for their workers. His trade adviser, Peter Navarro, disparages news coverage of staggering unemployment as a “pity party.” In the middle of a pandemic, Trump even doubles down on taking away health coverage: He said last week, “We want to terminate health care under Obamacare.”
Does Trump remember his vow to help the “forgotten men and women”? It sure doesn’t seem like it. The Trumps act like cartoon plutocrats straight out of a Thomas Nast drawing. When the plague began, the first lady updated us on the new White House tennis pavilion and Ivanka Trump suggested that we pass the time by camping out in the living room — as if working parents didn’t have a care in the world. Let them eat s’mores!
Ivanka’s husband, Jared Kushner, has inserted himself into the relief process and given preference for protective equipment to “V.I.P.” requests from political allies. Trump himself has made no secret of his belief that only governors who kowtow to him deserve federal help. (“They have to treat us well.”) Thus red states are given preference for aid. Now Trump resists bailing out states whose revenues have cratered by falsely claiming that “they’re run by Democrats in every case” — as if states run by Democrats weren’t part of America, too.
All this is perfectly in keeping with an administration that shows little concern for equality under the law. Trump’s attorney general, William P. Barr, grants special favors to presidential cronies such as Roger Stone and Michael Flynn while lambasting reformist prosecutors for supposedly not being tough enough on ordinary criminals.
I have always believed that equality of opportunity is more important than equality of outcome. But I cannot ignore the horrors revealed by the coronavirus. No one can. We have become two nations — one sick, one healthy — separate and unequal.
The current crisis should give renewed impetus to ideas such as raising taxes on the wealthy (especially eliminating special-interest tax breaks) and expanding health-insurance coverage and paid sick leave. If we are ever to recover — really recover — from our current afflictions, we will need to address the corrosive inequality that has been exposed and exacerbated by the coronavirus.