Second-class Citizenship in COVID Times

by Salome Dermati,

The coronavirus pandemic is no joke. The global death toll has alarmingly surpassed half a million, whereas more than 9 million people have been infected. However, experts warn that the real numbers are far grimmer. Notwithstanding the colossal political, economic, and social impact, little attention has been paid to issues of inequality. The current public health crisis is showcasing already existing conditions of systemic discrimination worldwide. “Old-school racism” against the usual minorities, for instance, refugees and asylum seekers, African-Americans in the US or the Roma people in Eastern Europe, has resurfaced and redefined itself – not to mention the populist, and worryingly racist, phrasing of public figures, most prominently US President Donald Trump, who introduced terms such as “China virus” and “Kung flu”.

At the same time, two other groups remain at the center of the pandemic: the elderly and prisoners. Whether in care homes, principally in the UK and Sweden, or in private accommodation, people over the age of 65 have experienced higher rates of infection or have died, mainly in the European Mediterranean countries, China, and the US. Meanwhile, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 2 million people were imprisoned in 2018, the highest percentage per capita in the world. Today, nearly 10,000 incarcerated people have died due to Covid-19.

Both populations have been consciously neglected, solely viewed as “not worthy” of the extra effort, money, time, or care, even though they present a greater risk of infection, and even death. They face fewer socioeconomic opportunities. Besides, prisoners already enjoy limited legal and civil rights. Hence, how did we come to the conclusion that they should be the noble subjects to be sacrificed for the “greater good”? And, who is to blame for their dehumanization?

The new SARS-CoV-2 virus has been proven to affect more severely individuals with a weaker immune system or related pre-existing conditions, as well as weight problems. Concerning the elderly, two fundamental questions are raised when trying to justify and normalize their higher fatality rate. On the one hand, it is widely accepted that, although older people have less “time” to live, there is not much left to live for. The notion that aging is accompanied by apathy, monotony, and dullness has been embedded in our consciousness, especially in Western societies, where the culminating point of one’s life is expected between the ages of 25 and 40. This is when you get to travel, study, work, fall in love, experiment, and generally do all the careless and exciting things you are afraid you will not be able to do later in life. We consider the elderly to be fully accomplished and satisfied personalities that are merely waiting for their final hour to come. But we have to remind ourselves that this is not the case. Even if we do feel tired or in pain at 50, 60, 70 or 80, who has the right to decide how our days will evolve or when it is time to depart?

A second postulation is rarely articulated, yet is subconsciously and systemically approved. There is no need to pretend that Capitalism does not control our reality. We have given our consent, rather indirectly and unwillingly, to its principles and structures. According to this system, the elderly are not productive, because they do not work anymore but receive pensions; thus, they are a nuisance. They burden the budget of the nation-state and every hard-working individual who tries to make ends meet. In this context, it is easier to admit that “it is us versus them” or that “it is better them than us”. Once again, it goes without saying that we should not need to pose the question of “what if it were your parents or grandparents” when we are talking about human lives and losses.

The next population that is heavily affected by the coronavirus, and the subsequent measures imposed with a view to constraining its spread, concerns people held in either jails or prisons. The first term refers to facilities designed for inmates awaiting trial or serving a short sentence, whereas the latter for long-term incarceration. That this community is at higher risk does not only signify their debilitating physical capacity to combat the disease but also implies that they do not have the same access to medical treatment. Even more so, they are de facto excluded from the privilege to decide where and if they want to quarantine, let alone abstain from any form of mandatory work or aggregation inside the establishment.

Conditions are already difficult for any such person confined. The majority is deprived of their dignity and basic human rights. They encounter physical and emotional violence, racism, anxiety, and social exclusion. However, the reality is far worse for those belonging to an ethnic, religious or sexual minority. African-Americans in the US, immigrants, or trans people worldwide are disproportionately afflicted by Covid-19, whether they are incarcerated or not. These people share another striking similarity; economic inequality, underlining the themes of classism and systemic disparity, reinforced in the context of the pandemic. The notion of the “immunity of the rich” has become prevalent because it highlights the everyday injustice in terms of accessibility and level of treatment.

Two arguments are generally presented in order to legitimize the “sacrifice” of inmates. Firstly, labeling someone as a “criminal” is perceived as adequate to dehumanize, depreciate, and be biased towards them. The idea that “they must have done something wrong and therefore deserve punishment” is extended to condone lower standards of treatment. In addition, stereotypical images of prisons and jails depict a strictly and actively enclosed space that is impenetrable by outsiders, therefore safeguarded from the virus and of no social concern. Nevertheless, this understanding has been debunked on account of visitors and staff being able to enter and leave the facility. Once the coronavirus invaded this “bubble,” it was already too late. Inmates, primarily in the US, began to share videos so as to raise awareness and express their honest concerns on the poor handling of the situation. It remains uncertain whether those in charge are listening, yet demand for immediate action is urgent.

Reflecting on the recent turn of events, it is reasonable to worry about our own state and opportunities, as well as the future. If there is one lesson to be learned from the flood of images and videos from Italy or Spain in March, it should be that we are in this together. There is a great necessity to turn to one another and look at the bigger picture. The elderly and incarcerated people deserve their fair share of respect, recognition, and consideration. What is more, it should be deduced that the current threats are not only an American nightmare but rather global pathogenesis; a “timeless plague”. Racism and inequality will continue to exist even after a vaccine is found when the race towards its acquisition will not be on equal terms. These two populations will once again find themselves at the end of the line, while everyone else hurries to block anything or anyone that gets in their way. Will it be really worth it, though?

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