Few ideas are more dear to Americans than the belief that they live in a society free of class, and nothing in modern times has done a better job of putting a lie to that myth than the COVID-19 pandemic.
America can now easily be divided into two classes: the cubicle class of white-collar workers who once occupied offices but are now working comfortably and safely from home, and the service class out of work or forced into duty as essential to meeting the needs of the cubicle class:
The janitors, building maintenance personnel and receptionists; the cooks and wait staff in the corner restaurant; the bartenders and servers at the after-work watering hole – most of them now out of work.
The invisible masses of farmers, food processors and factory workers who support the cubicle class – some of them now, too, out of work except for the “essential workers” in the meat, poultry, fish and other food processing businesses who have to work so that the cubicle-class doesn’t starve.
If you’re an employee of Tyson Foods, that’s a good thing in that you still have a job and paycheck. If you’re the family of 63-year-old Juan Manuel Juarez Alonzo of Sioux City, S.D., it’s a bad thing because he is now a headline:
“He had worked at the Tyson Foods plant in Dakota City as a production frontline worker for 24 years and was planning to retire this year,” KMEG News said. Alonzo was one of those who couldn’t work from home but was essential to the cubicle class, and so he became acceptable collateral damage.
A U.S. senator by the name of Barak Obama destined to one day become President of the United State told the 2004 Democrat National Convention, “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America – there’s the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too: We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States, and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.”
Much of that might well have been and might still be true given that the lines of political philosophy and race do get blurry and blended in the United States, but there remain two Americas:
A white-collar America, and a blue-collar America.
One sits behind desks and sets policy, and one works with its hands (or doesn’t) and is dictated to by that policy.
Dead for Stephen Colbert
You might think of Juan Manuel Juarez Alonzo as dead so talk show host Stephen Colbert can have his hamburger or his pork chop to stay well-fed while broadcasting from his home to show America – or at least white-collar America – how to endure the difficulty of being homebound by a pandemic.
Here, it should be noted that Alonzo’s age just happened to put him in the class of people most vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that drives COVID-19. This one fact about COVID-19 has been known for months, but a global study published by a group of doctors from Austria and Brazil Tuesday underlined it.
Globally, the group led by Vanessa di Lego from the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital at the University of Vienna reported, “younger populations (mean age less than 30 years) face a fatality rate of around 0.2 percent, whereas older populations (mean age greater than 40 years) face a fatality rate close to 0.9 percent….It
is clear that COVID-19 is not the main cause of death in younger populations, but has the potential to double the number of deaths in aging populations.”
This is particularly true for those over age 60 who skew that 0.9 percent death rate for the older of the two cohorts.
The study – titled “How many lives can be saved? A global view on the impact of testing,
herd immunity and demographics on COVID-19 fatality rates” – is sure to be somewhat controversial in that the di Lego and her colleagues dismissed some of the current pandemic panic in reporting they found fatality rates for COVID-19 “60 percent lower than the fatality rates that have been reported.”
But their study, like all others, highlighted the two-faced nature of this disease.
“We obtain that the average fatality rate exceeds 1 percent at age 60, 5 percent at age 80, and 10 percent at age 90,” they reported.
Writing in the New York Times more than a month ago, Dr. David Katz, the founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center at the aforementioned university, pointed this out and suggested a national policy aimed at protecting the elderly – people like Alonzo – and the vulnerable and putting everyone else back to work to avoid an economic meltdown.
Katz’s reward for offering this suggestion was to be attacked by the cubicle class.
“It was an extremely dangerous way of thinking, and I wish Dr. Katz would take that paper back and apologize for it because I think it provided a scientific underpinning for Donald Trump to say things like the cure is worse than the disease,” McNeil said.
“It essentially argued we should trade lives for his father’s 401K,” McNeil said, before declaring that models showed “we were on track to lose between 500,000 and 10 million people. That’s not something I want to sacrifice in order to bring the economy back in a big hurry. We have to think of ourselves in a situation now where we are not going to be able think about our 401ks or take retirement at a time we wanted to. We are going to have to think about getting enough calories perhaps for the next year.”
A card-carrying, desk-riding member of the cubicle class now reporting on policies developed by other members of the cubicle class, McNeil obviously gave no thought to how those calories arrive at his home in New York.
A commercial meat processing plant simply cannot function as a work-from-home business. Even if Tyson Food could figure out how to deliver all its beef to the homes of its workers so they could cut it up in the kitchen to be picked up by the delivery trucks in the evening, there is the big question of how to keep the product cool enough to preserve it and avoid contamination.
Some people in America have to work or everyone starves, and the working class now understands that most people have to work or their families go hungry.
Possibly nothing illustrates the divide between the service class and the cubicle class better than the media coverage of lockdown protests.
“Lockdown protesters don’t care about lives,” an opinion piece in the Washington Post headlined as if there are people out there who don’t care about lives, if only their own. Nobody is protesting lockdown because they want to die. People who want to die commit suicide and get it over with; they don’t gamble on a low-odds virus catching up to them.
“Last weekend, thousands gathered in Washington, Michigan, Texas, Maryland, and California to protest lockdown orders resulting from the coronavirus pandemic,” wrote“Some marched with rifles draped across their backs and handguns resting on their hips, while others shared conspiracy theories about Bill Gates and his involvement with the Covid-19 vaccine.
“Even in larger, less-rural cities in California, groups waved “Trump 2020” flags and marched the streets with signs that read, ‘No Liberty. No Life.’ And these protests only seem to be picking up steam: On Friday, thousands stormed the Wisconsin State Capitol, carrying flags and wearing Tea Party regalia.”
As with most “straight news” coverage, the reporting of Hoskin, focused on the rabble-rousers among the protesters as in Michigan, where some showed up at the state House armed, and how they appear to represent only a minority of Americans.
“New polls suggest 70 percent of Californians are comfortable with the state’s shelter-in-place order” is how a CBS San Fransisco story about protests there began. “The other 30 percent are now more worried about the economic impacts of that lockdown.
Reporting from Boise, Idaho, National Public Radio reporter Kirk Siegler viewed the protests as mainly the activity of a “right-wing” fringe.
San Fransisco reporter Wilson Walker did note the protest in that city “drew some people you might expect and some you might not.” He then quoted a school teacher and a nurse who were apparently classed among the latter.
Seigler’s view seemed even more in line with the opinions of the desk-bound journalistic mainstream.
“The mostly far-right protests we’ve seen across the rural Northwest so far, I’d say, have been pretty fringe,” he said in an interview. “I’ve been to two – one, a few dozen; another, a few hundred. It was bigger. But, you know, it’s safe to say that hundreds of thousands of people weren’t there and otherwise were staying at home and following the orders. You know, I do think the far right is trying to capitalize on – there is a growing sense of frustration you see in a rural state like this in some smaller towns, where people feel like this virus is still a city problem; it’s far away. And, you know, they may not know anyone directly affected yet or who’s sick.”
When is the last time a journalist mentioned how many people didn’t show up at a protest? Is there a protest in American history where the number of people who “weren’t there” didn’t far outnumber those who were there?
And why wouldn’t people in small towns where the virus isn’t a problem not be upset about a lockdown? Most of those people toil in the service-class in one form or another. They’re not sitting at their kitchen counters typing out news stories and lamenting the difficulties of the pandemic.
“I’ve been inspired again and again by Alaskans doing their work in these tough days – not just my own co-workers doing extraordinary work under challenging conditions, but our friends and neighbors all over Alaska,” wrote Anchorage Daily News editor David Hulen.
Working from home is not a “challenging condition,” or shouldn’t be, for journalists. In the early days of the now-defunct, online-only Alaska Dispatch, most of the reporting staff worked from home and loved it.
Journalists working from home might well be the model for the digital news organizations of the future. Why spend a lot of money on office space when people can work from their homes or from the field, which is where the news really takes place?
From a journalistic standpoint, the only problem with working from home in the moment is that it skews your vision of the problem. It’s easier to believe almost everyone can work from home and get paid.
Only the American economy isn’t built that way. Statisa, a website for those interested in data, calculates that 79.41 percent of U.S. jobs are in or connected to service industries.
Nowhere should that be more obvious than in Alaska where tourism is the state’s largest employer. All indications are the industry will be devastated by the fallout from SARS-CoV-2 in the months ahead. The Holland America and Princess cruise lines today announced they are canceling all sailings to the 49th state because of the pandemic panic.
It’s easy for those still employed – journalists like McNeil – to talk about how the country might need to stay locked down for a year because the loss of even one extra life is too much, but try telling that to the owners of your small, neighborhood Asian restaurant on the verge of going broke.
That such businesses would be sacrificed to try to stem a two-faced pandemic that poses a minor threat to much of the population, but is dangerous to older Americans and a comparative few compromised by other health conditions (obesity being big among them) seems a travesty.
That “fatality rate of around 0.2 percent” cited by Di Lego and colleagues for those less than 30 years old is near the death rate for the common flu. The Centers for Disease Control data would put the fatality rate for the worst year of the flu (2017-18) at just under 0.15 percent.
But as a 2004 study in the journal Epidemiology noted, the case fatality rate (CFR) for the common flu is hard to accurately calculate, as is the case for COVID-19 as well.
“…There is a problem in using confirmed cases as the denominator of CFR for influenza, given that most infections are mild and do not present for medical attention,” they wrote. “Because it is not feasible to diagnose all suspected cases with laboratory testing except at the very beginning of a pandemic, it is unrealistic that risk estimates based on confirmed cases can be consistently calculated and remain directly comparable over time, age groups, and location.”
This is especially true with COVID-19, which has been mainly killing old people with pre-existing health conditions that make them more susceptible to death from any infectious disease. No one knows how many of them might have died within the year anyway. The same has often been true of flu in the past.
The peer-reviewed study in Epidemiology “identified substantial variability by age, ranging from approximately one death per 100,000 symptomatic cases in children (CFR, 0.001 percent) to 1,000 deaths per 100,000 symptomatic cases in the elderly (CFR, 1 percent),” the same rate for those under 50 with COVID-19 in Italy, the world’s hardest-hit country on a per-capita basis.
Our World in Data reports an only slightly higher rate for that age class in China at 1.3 percent. The number falls to 0.5 percent in South Korea, and 0.4 percent in Spain, another hard hit-European country. Rates for younger age groups fall to 0.4 and lower in all those countries.
That’s a good thing given that Di Lego and her colleagues don’t think strategies to date are going to rid the world of SARS-CoV-2.
“….Widespread, social-distance measures and lockdowns, while restricting testing to symptomatic individuals…are effective to control the infection,” they wrote, “but have important socioeconomic, psychological and health consequences, and unless herd immunity considerably develops, most likely a second wave (or waves) of infection will arise as people slowly return to their activities.”
A vaccine seems some time away. “Most experts think a vaccine is likely to become available by mid-2021, about 12-18 months after the new virus, known officially as Sars-CoV-2, first emerged,” the BBC reported.
Miraculous medical breakthroughs are always possible, but they cannot be counted upon. Researchers have spent decades trying to develop a vaccine for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
When the HIV virus was first identified in 1984, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services expected to have a vaccine ready in two years. Thirty-six years later, there is still no vaccine.
The craziest part of all this in the U.S. today would appear to be that the anti-lockdown, generally blue-collar protesters usually thought of as the country’s less educated seem to have a better understanding of the true nature of the problem than the country’s deskbound, white-collar, well-educated cubicle class believing you can lock the country down for months without serious problems arising.