“Economic inequality” is an important but arid term. “Unequal suffering” speaks more directly to our humanity. The coronavirus pandemic and its consequences remind us that the two are inseparable. Some of us are enduring far more hurt than others.

I write this knowing I’m on the lucky end, so far at least: My wife and I have been able to keep working while so many others have not. We’re together when too many of our fellow citizens are isolated. We have a roof over our heads, which makes this moment much easier for us than for those who are homeless or live in cramped spaces.

It’s true that I have often argued for doing more to reduce inequality, so perhaps I’m falling into the trap of using the crisis to advance views held long before anyone had heard of covid-19. Nonetheless, there are times when dramatic new facts call for new conversations among those who have long disagreed.

Over 10 million Americans filed for unemployment in March. Here are some of their stories. (The Washington Post)

There is already evidence this is happening in the willingness of Republicans to acknowledge that government has an essential role to play in keeping our economy from collapsing. A particularly striking example was the recent Post op-ed by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) calling on Congress to “protect every single job in this country for the duration of this crisis.” But even his party’s most ardent free-marketeers have supported massive public spending. And Democrats who despise corporate welfare nonetheless voted to inject hundreds of billions of dollars into big corporations.

So there’s at least a chance we can think anew about the costs of racism, poverty, housing inequities and unequal access to health care. Maybe we can acknowledge how the privileged are protected from harm in a way that those whose jobs provide them with far less income and flexibility are not.

And some of our problems — the loneliness of elderly widows and widowers, the isolation of others who are unattached — are only partly about government and economics. We need to challenge deeply embedded habits, reach further outside of ourselves, and look to charitable and religious institutions for creative interventions.

The facts are plain, beginning with the long-standing racial disparities in health outcomes brought home by where the virus has been most devastating. As The Post reported, “counties that are majority-black have three times the rate of infections and almost six times the rate of deaths as counties where white residents are in the ­majority.”

These racial inequities are accompanied and reinforced by the injuries of class. “The new coronavirus,” Katie Honan wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “has struck hardest in working-class neighborhoods in New York City’s outer boroughs, city data shows, underlining how the pandemic has ravaged densely packed lower-income areas where social-distancing guidelines have proved difficult to implement.”

Even for those who stay healthy, physical distancing (the better term) imposes its highest costs on those at or closer to the bottom of the income distribution. My Brookings Institution colleagues Richard Reeves and Jonathan Rothwell underscored this with Gallup’s finding that in the bottom three income quintiles, just 35 to 42 percent have been able to work from home. For the upper middle class, the figure is 54 percent, and it’s 71 percent in the top quintile — those with earnings of $180,000 or more.

At a personal level, even before the crisis, the old were already feeling cut off. A paper in February from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine cited studies showing that “nearly one quarter of Americans aged 65 and older who live in community settings are socially isolated,” while 43 percent of adults 60 or older “report feeling lonely.” Can we not find ways for our generations to draw closer to one another?

But as an economic matter, the fallout from the pandemic will almost certainly be toughest on the young — those who have jobs and those entering the workforce when opportunities are evaporating. Studies of the United States and Britain by Cambridge University’s Institute for New Economic Thinking concluded that the downturn “is highly likely to increase inequality across the income distribution, between young and old, and between those on secure and insecure ­contracts.”

The scholars’ conclusion: “Preventing this shock from having permanent effects on the employment progression of the younger generation and the less-economically advantaged is of first-order policy importance.”

In its aftermath, a crisis can breed division spurred by self-protection and mistrust, or it can call forth a spirit of solidarity rooted in empathy and a shared sense of mission. Which will we choose?

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