What the Coronavirus Pandemic Has Taught Us So Far: We Must Flatten the Curves of Inequality
Four national problems in search of solutions
A time of great opportunity if we act now
We are on the verge of one of the most teachable moments in modern American history, an opportunity which, if not appreciated for what it could be, may well become a precipice of missed opportunities.
We’ve been here before
I am old enough to have lived in times that tried the nation’s soul and resources to the Nth degree: polio, the Korean War, flu epidemics, above-ground nuclear testing, the Interstate Highway System, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War, three major assassinations, the Civil Rights movement, Kent State, Vietnam, Apollo 11, and 9–11.
I also had the benefit of first-person stories from my parents and grandparents of the 1918 Spanish Flu, the Roaring 20s, the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, and the New Deal.
Before you begin commenting that I’ve left out a few tipping points of American history, hold off. I know there are some omissions — glaring ones by other folk’s standards — but the point has already been made with my short list: We have demonstrated our ability — the national will — to rise to certain occasions in the midst of national stress and we also have a history of failing to learn from those moments. We also have a history of trying to forecast “the next thing” with varying degrees of success.
Our successes are many
I’ve seen and been a part of a well-run federal government reaction to disaster. As a federal employee, I was on the rapid response team at the Department of Education in the wake of Hurricane Andrew. Our team was on the ground two days after the hurricane had scraped much of South Florida clean.
Our goal was to help post-secondary education students — college and trade school students — recreate their financial documentation which had been blown to the winds (literally) and make them as whole as possible with respect to their student loan accounts.
I remember setting up our “office” with desks and folding chairs placed in the middle of a destroyed neighborhood and spending days working one-on-one with students who lined up in the middle of the disaster area.
I’ve also been a part of a long-range “what-if” planning session jointly run by several federal departments as part of war-gaming at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. The scenarios included a projection of what could happen if the United States was heavily involved in a war in the Middle East and had to respond to the outbreak of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula.
It was during that particular “game” that I learned more than I really wanted to know about the tenuous nature of military supply chains and the logistics nightmare of fighting two wars half-a-world apart.
But this is different
The coronavirus pandemic offers us a very different series of economic, logistical, education, and technological challenges that have the potential to serve as major lessons to learn and from which to grow.
Rather than go into deep discussions on each topic, though — that work is being done every single day, and written up by economists, education analysts, logicians, and technologists far above my pay grade — I just want to pose one overarching condition that combines the learning curves of the threats to our economy, education, logistics pipeline, and technology: the skewed curve of inequality.
“Exponential” is not an abstraction…it is part of our lives now
In just three months, the coronavirus has reminded all math-averse folks just what the word exponential means. It’s no longer an arcane, shrug-shoulder-dismissed and long-forgotten word from our high school algebra. It’s a real mathematical function that, once grasped, should scare the hell out of anyone working the numbers of infected coronavirus victims.
The coronavirus infection and mortality curves are exponential curves…rising faster and steeper with each cycle of counting. And we’ve just barely begun counting. We’ve got months of counting ahead of us.
Old curves illuminated by new facts
What we begin to see behind those nearly-vertical patient/mortality data points is the unequal distribution of victims of the collateral damage outside the hospital setting.
First: We have the economic victims, individuals and families unable to access funds for food, housing, maintenance. For them, the coronavirus represents the ultimate threat to their lack of savings — too many Americans are only $400 away from financial failure, and their abilities to fill their pantries, gas tanks or public transit fare cards are threatened by job losses, furloughs and the like now imposed on them by the pandemic. It is no surprise that they are one medical crisis away from disaster.
Despite the government’s rosy promise of $1,200 at some future date, American who are already on the edge don’t have any cushion to wait out Mnuchin’s vague timelines. And the big banks are little help to those who don’t have accounts or credit.
Those single mothers who were scraping by on minimum wage jobs and relying on what day-care they could afford are now on their own to try to balance job searches, unemployment office navigation, caring for one or more children at home, and hoping to God no one gets sick.
The administration’s and Congress’s massive money dump will not help undocumented workers or workers who, for whatever reason, do not have Social Security numbers, or who have not filed 2018 taxes. This will also affect countless seniors and far-rural citizens who have few local resources to guide them through the financial aid process. The virus’s effect on the gig economy has yet to play out, but it will be enormous.
It may be convenient for some people to shrug off the problems facing these categories of men and women (and their families) who will not qualify for a government check, but whether you like it or not, many of these people perform necessary work for the rest of us, or they live in the forgotten places the rest of us would not wish to visit. The economic cracks they will fall through are deep.
We must bend the financial needs curve toward those whose needs are only exceeded by their fears.
Education in crisis mode is not helping all who need it
Second: There are wonderful stories of school systems coming up with clever, innovative workarounds to keep lessons going for students who have access to home computers, personal laptops or other forms of virtual student-to-teacher connections.
But for every success story about how classes are continuing for some students, there are stories — some told, most untold — of K-12 students who either have no computers, no access to broadband or wi-fi, or whose parents have only one computer and that one device is being used for job hunting, resume writing, or work- from-home duties.
A 2018 report by the National Center for Education Statistics, cited “…the two main reasons children ages 3 to 18 lacked access to the Internet at home were that access was too expensive and that their family did not need it or was not interested in having it. Internet access being too expensive was more commonly the main barrier for children from low-income families and for children whose parents had low levels of educational attainment than for other children.”
The NCES report continued, “In addition, 5- to 17-year-old students’ access to fixed broadband service at home differed by geographic locale. A higher percentage of students in suburban areas had fixed broadband access at home than students in rural areas, with the largest difference noted for students in remote rural areas.
“Within locale types, there were additional gaps among students of different poverty levels and racial/ethnic groups. For example, in remote rural areas the percentages of students who had either no internet access or only dial-up access at home were higher for Black (41 percent) and Hispanic students (26 percent) than for White (13 percent) and Asian students (11 percent).
“In remote rural areas the percentages of students who had either no internet access or only dial-up access at home were higher for Black (41 percent) and Hispanic students (26 percent) than for White (13 percent) and Asian students (11 percent)”
The report concluded, “[Also] a lower percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch reported that they had a digital device in their home, or that they first used a computer prior to first grade, than their peers who were not eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.”
The statistic that 94 percent of children ages 3 to 18 had a computer at home and 61 percent of children ages 3 to 18 had internet access at home belies the reality that having a computer does not guarantee access to the tools students — and their parents — need to overcome social isolation.
There is no question that the valley of inequity is vast between students who have access to distance learning tools and students who, by dint of poverty, inadequate equipment, spotty or no signals, or rural locations lacking broadband entirely. The coronavirus distancing is not just about social separation of 6 feet; it is about the technological distancing between the haves and the have-nots in our state-sanctioned, locally run school systems.
The coronavirus distancing is not just about social separation of 6 feet; it is about the technological distancing between the haves and the have-nots in our state-sanctioned, locally run school systems.
There is plenty of blame to go around for this inexcusable state of affairs: the patchwork of local, state, and federal education guidelines is simply ridiculous. I know parents who are capable of home-schooling and who, because they have the resources and the luxury of being able to stay home without financial stress, are helping their children keep up with their lessons and stay in touch with their teachers.
But you know that is not true across the nation. And that inequity — children left out of the learning loop vs. children who are going to be okay — will have long-term education deficit effects once the coronavirus epidemic has done its physical and psychological damage to the country.
The standards and protocols that should be in place to allow one school district in Texas to work with a school district in Connecticut, for example, to share resources and problem solve distance learning roadblocks in times of crisis like this one, are simply non-existent. And the federal government, restrained to a large extent by the 10th Amendment which mandates an arms-length relationship between federal and state education planning, is virtually hamstrung when it comes to setting even emergency education standards.
Again, I have to say to those who will jump in here and rail against teachers’ unions or overarching, intrusive federal efforts, or some other proxy for blame, this is not the time to pad the crisis with political agendas. It does no good to wave a red flag at the train that has already gone off the tracks.
We must bend the curve favoring the education haves toward the education have-nots.
No one eats if the pipeline is empty
Third: The anxiety-forming images of empty logistics pipelines hits the poor harder than it hits those who can afford to stock up.
It hits underfunded and marginally-staffed hospitals and clinics harder than it does the big hospital systems (although the pressures are huge when you scale up the problem).
It hits the elderly who fear being left out of the supply chain of food and medicines and in-home health care.
It hits every critical-needs supplier — food transportation, fuel stocks, emergency equipment, first responders, soup kitchens and other NGOs and volunteer organization who are such a major player in keeping the social safety net in place for those most in need.
I’m lucky; too many are not
I know from personal experience how unsettling it was at the onset of the pandemic to wonder how or if my wife and I would get our groceries since we cannot go out due to our age and vulnerability to the virus. Our three adult children lectured us by phone, email, and social media to let our friends and neighbors help us.
We are fortunate to be financially sound and technologically prepared to afford web-shopping for quite a few of the things we need, and we have an incredibly compassionate and responsive neighbors who have shopped for our groceries and prescriptions on several occasions.
But not every older couple — or single older person — can be as sure of help as my wife and I and our close-knit and capable neighbors are. We should not be the exceptions…we should be the norm when it comes to confidence in the supply chain.
For too many Americans, an empty pipeline, or an uncertain delivery system is a real problem, and it can be frightening and life-threatening.
From that perspective, a perspective local, state, and federal governments need to respect, a questionable supply chain — from farm to grocery store, from pharmaceutical manufactures to the local pharmacy, from equipment manufactures to hospital ICUs, and so on — shakes the already-tremulous ground on which too many Americans have built their lives.
The failure of the pipeline to provide a timely and robust supply of medical equipment to every corner of the nation is almost criminal at the highest levels of government and industry. Of all things I’ve blamed Donald Trump for over the past three-and-a-half years, the inability of the medical equipment industry and other industries to quickly ramp up the production of medical supplies — from masks to ventilators — is not one of his failings.
Trump’s messaging about the need for such equipment has too many dimensions of fault to describe here, but even so, the medical equipment industry, and the agencies within the federal and state governments have enjoyed years of opportunities to prepare for this pandemic and they failed by almost every measure — the prime measure being the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans.
We must bend the immediate-need vs. production/delivery curve away from just-in-time to ready-at-all-times.
The best technology belongs to everyone
Fourth: There is a technology distribution disparity in America that should be disturbing in its scope. It shows itself in the unforgivable absence of broadband connectivity available to the nation’s most vulnerable populations.
According to the Pew Research Center, “Today, roughly three-quarters of American adults have broadband internet service at home.” The report continues, “As is true of internet adoption more broadly, home broadband adoption varies across demographic groups. Racial minorities, older adults, rural residents, and those with lower levels of education and income are less likely to have broadband service at home.”
“Racial minorities, older adults, rural residents, and those with lower levels of education and income are less likely to have broadband service at home.”
It is no wonder that the impact of the coronavirus quarantines falls hardest on that part of our population that can least withstand the arid sands of technology deserts that exist all across the country.
If you aren’t startled by that…if you think it’s okay for a nation which should be a technology leader but which in reality appears incapable of assuring every citizen a seat in front of a screen connected to the world at large, then you need to do some serious research.
How can government leaders, medical policy makers, health-care information outlets, and community services staffs expect to get a timely, coherent, cohesive message out to all citizens if a significant portion of the population cannot even receive the message?
I realize the concepts of “coherent and cohesive” are not exactly hallmarks of the national leadership messaging in this, or any other crisis, but we should at least give every citizen a chance to consider what information there is to be shared. To date, we are failing millions of Americans by keeping them off the information grid.
We must bend the access-for-the-majority information curve toward access for all, regardless of demographic, economic, or geographic differences.
Now is the time to face the facts
To sum up: The exponential rise in coronavirus mortality and morbidity curves will eventually flatten out and begin a slow decent over the coming months, perhaps to be followed by a resurgence in the fall. We will be out of the Covid-19 shadow only after a reliable vaccine is available and distributed.
In the virus’s wake, we will still be faced with four areas of deficiency highlighted by, but not explained by, the virus:
1. A persistent condition of economic near-failure for individuals and families unable to access funds for food, housing, and maintenance in the midst of national crises.
2. A stubborn inequity between students who have access to distance learning tools and students who, by dint of poverty, inadequate equipment, spotty or no signals, or rural locations lacking broadband entirely.
3. An empty or stuttering product pipeline coupled with an uncertain delivery system which is frightening and life-threatening.
4. A technology/information distribution disparity in America that deprives the most vulnerable citizens of critical fact-based data with which to make decisions.
I suggest that each of these conditions can be illustrated by graphs that demonstrate the increasing disparities between those who are able to survive coronavirus-like crises, and those who either struggle to stay above the crises waters, or who will overcome by them. It is incumbent on policymakers and strategic planners in virtually every sector of American life to bend those curves toward those who are at constant risk of being left behind, if they are not already forgotten.
Time to bend the curves
- We must bend the financial needs curve toward those whose needs are only exceeded by their fears;
- We must bend the curve favoring the education haves toward the education have-nots;
- We must bend the immediate-need vs. production/delivery curve away from just-in-time and toward ready-at-all-times; and
- We must bend the access-for-the-majority information curve toward access for all, regardless of demographic, economic, or geographic differences
These are only four of myriad problems that must be addressed by local, state, and national leadership in partnership with businesses large and small and innovators and entrepreneurs who are no longer outliers but whose skills and imaginations must be tapped on a regular, wholly inclusive basis.
I don’t profess to have detailed answers even to the four issues I posed here. It would be foolish of me to think I have answers to any of the more pressing issues facing the nation. But, as a concerned citizen, with some experience in government and over 70 years of living America’s recent history, I have learned that we are quite capable of amazing feats of ingenuity and compassion as long as we have the will to take great risks and do not penalize those who fail on their first, second, or even third attempts.
A tipping point between past practices or future solutions
We are at one of those tipping points in our nation’s history where great risks in out-of-the-box thought and the execution of unconventional ideas are needed…are imperative. We have seen the real time effects of exponential curves; we have seen, to be blunt, what happens when a virus goes “viral.”
Let us now bend our energies to the task of bending the curves of inequality that heretofore have defined our differences in ways no great nation should accept. Doing so may not prevent the next coronavirus from appearing on our doorstep, but it may go a long way to keeping it from entering our collective house.