Special Briefing: The Inherent Privilege of Social Distancing - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Special Briefing: The Inherent Privilege of Social Distancing

Special Briefing: The Inherent Privilege of Social Distancing

By Dan Peleschuk

A person crosses the street on March 27, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images)


Because this crisis affects everyone.

By Dan Peleschuk

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.


What’s happening? Fresh U.S. unemployment figures, indicating that 10 million Americans have lost their jobs in the last two weeks, reveal how economically crippling the coronavirus will be. But while it’s widely accepted that social distancing is the only way to save ourselves from the pandemic, not everyone can afford to do it. From the suburbs of the American Midwest to the slums of New Delhi and eastern Africa, the raft of restrictions authorities have ordered to stem the spread of COVID-19 are highlighting, and even exacerbating, socioeconomic divides.

Why does it matter? It’s a cruel conundrum: Living in often cramped quarters and suffering from a lack of resources, the poor are most susceptible to contracting the coronavirus. That’s why defeating the global spread of the illness might only be as successful as the individual efforts in cash-strapped or significantly impoverished communities around the world.

Unemployment Claims Soar As Coronavirus Wreaks Havoc On Economy

Jessie Morancy uses her computer to fill out the application for unemployment benefits after being laid off from her job at the Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport on March 27, 2020 in Hollywood, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)


Different, and not equal. Thursday’s figures, in which 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits during the preceding week alone, show how widely this crisis will cut. From the service industry to business consulting, across both blue collar and white collar worlds, nearly everyone seems poised to feel the pain. But not all will feel it equally. Consider New York’s subway system: Although ridership has plummeted 87 percent, laborers like nannies, nurses, and construction workers are still braving the tunnels and tracks to cling to jobs they can’t afford to lose. Even before the pandemic hit, fewer than two-thirds of American households had $400 saved up for a rainy day, according to Johns Hopkins University. Social distancing is hitting children too, since lower-income students without computers or high-speed internet at home are missing out on digital lessons.

Class struggle. Globally, India might be the clearest example of why social distancing is too costly. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s lockdown order late last month, with only several hours’ notice, left millions of migrant laborers jobless. Many hit the road back home on foot, openly flouting the measure. It exemplified how difficult “horizontal social distancing” can be in a country where nearly one-quarter of the population — much of which collects cash in an informal economy where work from home isn’t possible — lives in poverty. Many countries in Africa are suffering from the same problem. For example, look at the continent’s largest slum, in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi: Called Kibera, it’s home to nearly 190,000 people per square mile, where entire families live in shacks while latrines are shared among scores of dwellers.


A cyclist rides across the water remaining in the Reflecting Pool which has been drained for maintenance in Washington, D.C. on March 26, 2020. (Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Source Getty

Head space. Economic suffering aside, there’s a different kind of pain that’s harder to see. Whether it’s drawn from economic loss or fears over personal safety, experts say the pandemic could fuel a separate mental health crisis. A new poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 64 percent of Americans say they’ve taken a mental hit from it all — 19 percent of whom say it’s had a “major impact.” Meanwhile, a recent survey from the Pew Research Center shows that one-third of lower-income Americans are in a high psychological distress group, nearly double the rate of their upper-income counterparts. And while coming down with COVID-19 or losing a job might be the most obvious triggers, the effects will be spread more broadly. “For some people, a lack of social connectedness feels as impactful as not eating,” one psychiatrist told ScienceNews.


Why Social Distancing Won’t Work for Us, by OluTimehin Adegbeye in The Correspondent

“Lagos is one of the largest urban economies on the continent, and its informal sector is not only vibrant but also crucial to the city’s survival.”

How Social Distancing Became Social Justice, by C. Brandon Ogbunu in Wired

“Like Black Lives Matter and Me Too, the Flatten the Curve movement embodies intersectionality, as many … who shout it the loudest are not members of the subpopulations most effected [sic] by the issue.”


Senegal: Social Distancing, Handwashing Difficult Amid Poverty

“Before the outbreak, already people here were struggling with access to water and electricity.”

Watch on Al Jazeera English on YouTube:

Surviving an Unlivable Wage

“In contrast to the union jobs with good salaries and benefits once offered by manufacturers, take-home pay for those working for tips isn’t always guaranteed.”

Watch on CBS News on YouTube:


Familiar story. As it fights the coronavirus, South Africa — the world’s most unequal country — is coming to terms with an unfortunately familiar situation: Just like its AIDS epidemic did, experts say the current coronavirus outbreak is bound to hit the poor and marginalized with particular ferocity.

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