I’m reminded of the story by the advice being given now about the spreading coronavirus. Maintain “social distancing” — stay at least three feet away from potentially contagious people. Avoid crowded places. Work from home. “Stay at home if you begin to feel unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headache and slight runny nose, until you recover,” advises the World Health Organization, and get checked by a physician as soon as possible.
This is inconvenient but possible for people with good jobs and good insurance. Many can work remotely from home, resupplying their fortresses with bottled water, food and toilet paper via delivery services — Amazon, Instacart and FreshDirect have reported spikes in business. Meals can be delivered by Postmates, Uber Eats or Grubhub rather than risking a crowded restaurant. Public transit can be avoided via Uber or Lyft. With enough money and technology, it’s possible to sequester yourself from the rest of the world almost as completely as Prospero and his thousand friends in their abbey — and still have most of the comforts of your pre-coronavirus life.
But what about the workers keeping all those people supplied with diapers and bottled water? It just isn’t possible for them to follow most of the advice about avoiding the novel coronavirus, aside from hand-washing. Uber may have advised its drivers to stay home if they have even a “mild illness” or a temperature above 100.4, but words mean nothing in this desperate economy.
Look at the built-in incentives for low-wage workers, and particularly for “gig economy” contract workers, and the scary fact is that the nature of their jobs will encourage them to keep working despite the risk of exposure to the virus — even if they are feeling sick themselves.
In the gig economy, and in an increasing slice of the service sector, companies use a loophole in employment law to claim their workers aren’t employees. Instead, they are classified as independent contractors — which implies they have the same control, freedom and negotiating power as self-employed plumbers or business consultants.
But gig economy workers bear little resemblance to high-end contractors who chose to trade the job security and safety net of being an employee for the bigger risks and bigger rewards of self-employment. Rather, they half-resemble them — gig economy workers generally shoulder most of the risks and costs of running a business, while the company retains most of the control and most of the rewards.
I’ll use Uber as an example — I once drove for it for a couple months to report a story, so I’m familiar with the specifics of how the company works. Slow day driving for Uber? You get paid only for the minutes you have a passenger in your car, so the time you wasted waiting around for your next ride would be your problem. Put 150,000 miles on your car in a single year and need a new engine? Your property, your problem. Making below minimum wage an hour after years of the company unilaterally cutting its rates? Your problem — if you don’t like it, you’re free to quit. The taxes involved with running a business? Your problem, because you’re technically classified as a small business. Health care? Your problem, good luck figuring out the exchanges. (Uber’s argument is that “drivers are independent contractors because, among other things, they can choose whether, when, and where to provide services on our platform, are free to provide services on our competitors’ platforms,” and, thus, are more like those self-employed plumbers or business consultants than bus drivers or pizza delivery guys.)
Now say you’re an Uber driver with an epidemic breaking out. You picked up a passenger who seemed sick the other day, and now you’ve come down with what feels like a minor cold. This actually happened to two Uber drivers in Mexico City who drove a coronavirus-infected tourist to and from the airport — Uber suspended the drivers and 240 other passengers who had ridden in their vehicles afterward and said it “sent them information about where to get health-care information.” Your rent is due next week, and you won’t have the money to pay it unless you go out and get some fares.
So what are you going to do? Stay home sick in the name of public health and risk your family getting evicted? Or, like you’ve done a thousand times before at jobs without paid sick leave, do you just go to work with what’s almost certainly just a cold?
Is that a real choice?
The motto of the modern American economy, and the “gig economy” in particular, might as well be “not our problem.”
It’s not Instacart’s problem if its workers will be frequenting the same crowded grocery stores that customers are too afraid to visit. It’s not Doordash’s problem if its delivery people don’t get paid sick leave or health insurance and, so, are less likely to stay home when sick or go get checked out by a doctor. It’s not Uber’s problem if drivers get exposed to the coronavirus by passengers, or that worker’s comp isn’t available for contractors who get sick or injured on the job. It’s not Amazon’s problem if its delivery drivers are in such bad financial shape that taking a couple of days off can mean the difference between paying the electric bill and not.
It’s not any of these companies’ problem that the incentives of the gig and low-wage economy come together to create perfect conditions for spreading an epidemic.
After six months behind the welded-shut gates, Prince Prospero finally throws an elaborate masquerade ball to raise morale. Guests arrive in their wildest costumes, involving “much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.” But despite the purposeful edginess, everyone’s appalled when someone shows up costumed as a victim of the Red Death, bloody and silent. It’s a joke too far. The prince is so offended, he confronts the figure with a dagger, intent on killing him. But the costume falls to the ground, empty; then, starting with Prince Prospero, all thousand revelers start falling to the plague. And in the end, Poe writes, “Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
That isn’t just a ghost story. It’s an immorality tale about the prosperous walling themselves and their resources off from the problems of the world, abandoning everyone else to their fate. When the rich and powerful can avoid any contact with serious societal problems — whether that’s a pandemic, underfunded public schools or our brutal, nonsensical health-care system — they have little investment in fixing things.
But more than that, “Masque” is about the futility of trying to hide from societal problems. Watching your doorbell camera to ensure the delivery driver’s gone before you open the door isn’t literally welding your gates shut. But no matter how many times you insist something isn’t your problem, it will find its way in sooner or later. And by the time it does, it’ll have metastasized into a much, much bigger problem.