Two Pandemics in the White House

Frankie Cordoba | Unsplash

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, you’ve certainly heard the news that President Trump, along with several high-profile White House staffers and Republican Senators, has been infected with COVID-19.

What you probably haven’t heard about are the ordinary working folks in Trump’s orbit that have also been infected with the virus. At least two members of the White House housekeeping staff have tested positive in recent days, along with several reporters and a military aide tasked with protecting the President. Now, after Trump returned home from Walter Reed hospital last night and made a show of ripping off his mask and encouraging people to not take the lethal virus seriously, he is again putting hundreds of workers at risk.

These diagnoses painfully illustrate how two completely different pandemics will play out in the White House – one for the wealthy and powerful, and the other for everyone else. It’s also the perfect metaphor for the vast inequality infecting every aspect of American life.

President Trump and the rest of his administration have shown a reckless disregard for human life – including their own – for months by continually ignoring CDC guidelines about social distancing and mask wearing. Reports have swirled in recent days about a workplace culture where staffers refused masks and congregated freely as a sign of deference to the President, so it seems obvious that these folks have largely brought the virus upon themselves. But in acknowledging that reality, we can’t ignore that the White House’s careless actions don’t just bring harm upon partisans and politicos.

Hundreds of people work in the White House every day. Chefs, cleaners, gardeners, servers, aides, guards, and other completely non-political working-class professionals have served for years – sometimes decades – under multiple Presidential administrations. Like millions of workers who have been forced back to work during this pandemic, they have no say in how their employer responds to situations like the Coronavirus that could put them at risk, no way to protect themselves other than what their employer decides to do, and no way to work from home. They are no different from restaurant workers and nurses and janitors and grocery store clerks that are all experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic from a place of far greater vulnerability than corporate leaders and millionaires like Donald Trump.

President Trump got a private helicopter flight to Walter Reed hospital on Friday, where he received some of the best medical care in the world in a private suite. His doctors put him on several antiviral treatments, including a few experimental ones, that are expensive and unavailable to the population at large. He received all of this on the taxpayers’ dime in his capacity as President – and as we know from the bombshell report on Trump’s taxes last week, that means that he himself only paid about $750 for the immense privilege.

The two sick White House housekeepers – along with the millions of other working class folks who have already or soon will get infected with the virus – will simply not have access to that level of care or comfort. What’s worse, all those workers will pay far more in taxes and healthcare costs than the President for worse care. Many of the White House staffers share a trait with other frontline workers in that they are disproportionately older people of color, putting them in a high-risk category for the most severe effects of COVID-19.

This is the starkest example of our nation’s monstrous inequality in action, and a devastating case of how that inequality harms real human lives. Inequality is not just a difference in wealth or income, but an intricate system that dictates the choices that are available to the poor while giving all our nation’s opportunities and abundance to the rich even when they don’t pay their fair share.

Even in cases like this one, where the wealthy and powerful are the source of the problem, they are never going to be the ones who will bear the brunt of the consequences. That’s as true for COVID-19 as it is for climate change, for stock market crashes, and for our nation’s rigged tax code. Money can buy you everything except fairness, and we think our country is long overdue to change that.

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