The poverty pandemic
by Manal Nadeem
This piece was a Senior Runner Up of the Orwell Youth Prize 2020.
7th of June 2020. Saturday. The cars do not honk or hiss. The people do not weave through the streets. The city is wrapped in a shawl of silence. Meanwhile, my mind – or half of it – is directed toward the screen of my laptop. The other half is partaking in a frenzied estimation of the precise quantity of germs infecting said laptop. It occurs to me at this point that a fretful face-palm – (oh, the germs! Oh, these times!) – could prove fatal.
Outside, the streets sit silent. Every night, it is the same. Every night, like a replaying reel, the streets become silent films and I cannot remember what it is like to hear the cackle of a curb conversation slicing through the still night air and waltzing up to my house or to feel the summer sun tattooing itself on my skin or to inhale the deliciously communal clamour of parks and malls and school hallways where hundreds of humans pour and press into the same small space.
But these are only specks in a sea. Threads in a tapestry. This roof, this stocked fridge, that open air balcony: I see my privilege and I count it. Because we aren’t all really ‘in this together’, are we? A mushy, occasionally comforting motto, but likely untrue. Because the fabric of life has ruptured and it is leaking – but not onto all of us. While the pandemic spells a pause and interval for most – a break from the breakneck speed of ‘normal’ life – outside our windows, the machinations and mechanics of inequality are not on leave. They are not on hiatus. Outside our windows, they are churning and grinding in overdrive and, often, in conjunction: class intertwining with ethnicity interlacing with gender – and imploding all together. Domestic violence reports are climbing in number and atrocity. Delivery drivers are zipping through still, soundless streets to dwindling tips. Learning is migrating online with vital elements of the equation – laptops, printers, internet access – sorely missing. The basic capacity to isolate both safely and sanely is also circumscribed by class: working from home or working on the frontlines or not working; unaffordable housing or cramped, confined housing with zero outdoor space – there are few good options. And the homeless: as public life otherwise dwindles and dissipates like smoke, the homeless are being left quite literally out in the cold, their usual lifelines – soup kitchens (shuttered), shelters (overflowing), public bathrooms (infectious) – severed. The question is: how do the contours of COVID contraction – and the searing socioeconomic impact – align so neatly with class and race and gender? How do African Americans comprise 14% of the US population but a massive 41% of COVID-19 deaths? And across the Atlantic, how are Black and Asian ethnic groups twice as likely to die from COVID? Why the jarring intercontinental symmetry?
And these are countries that have numbers; the global South – so often an afterthought, a trifling footnote in the global imagination – may be late to the numbers table but it is easy to imagine that they will not bear any surprises. Anecdotally, a grimly familiar portrait is already unspooling: Pakistan and India and Brazil – the new epicentre of the pandemic – are home to some of the densest areas in the world. These sprawling slums are poles apart from the conditions necessary for safe social distancing: cheek-by-jowl dwellings, unsanitary conditions, lack of access to water and healthcare facilities. In both Pakistan and India, frenzied tabloids are also reporting the COVID cases of housekeepers in elite households (film elite, fashion elite). Said tabloids then go on to giddily report (and this is the real scoop, this is the climax they have really been arcing toward) that the elite employers of said housekeepers did not – thank God! – also contract the virus. Same house, same roof, different classes, different results. COVID really is class blind.
If this pandemic is showing us anything, it is that there is very little that is arbitrary or accidental about who gets soaked and who gets spared when a crisis – any crisis – crashes into our collective lives. This is not a case of random selection. This is – at least partly – systemic and structural. The poor and ethnic minorities across the world are taking the hardest hit because their lives – the discrimination, their poor healthcare access, their overrepresentation in high-risk professions and high-density, low sanitation areas – were already precarious pre-COVID. Now they’ve just also become potentially perilous too. If these impoverished conditions were cloned across classes and countries, they would yield similar results. If Hollywood were a hilltop slum, it would be a hotbed of infection too. Glaring wounds, left untended, fester in times of acute crisis.
There are things about the universe that are baffling and unknowable and beyond the conceit of control. COVID is a tailor-made contender for that category. But between the binaries of the Knowable and the Unknowable is a not so small area of the Doable: what we have done, what we can do. COVID is the culprit of our times – but it has not acted alone. We are its – witting or unwitting – colluders and co-conspirators. Our threadbare socioeconomic and moral fabric, our pre-COVID hierarchies of humanity, our class-based and race-based caste system have all braided together to aid and abet the disastrous fallout of this pandemic. Yes, the virus is hardest on those with pre-existing conditions – heart disease and diabetes and hypertension. But I would venture to argue that our ecosystem has rendered poverty a pre-existing condition almost akin to an affliction of the body in its lethality.
In looking to the pre-COVID normal, I think of a habit: safe and familiar, but freighted with fatal flaws. Orwell got it right: ‘Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.’ We have been marching in lockstep with the orthodoxy for so long that we can no longer remember life outside of it. We have been inhaling the orthodoxy like oxygen. We have been exercising it like a reflex – instinctive, intuitive. We cannot afford, once (and if) this is all over, to simply bounce back like self-righting dolls, smiles painted on. To reassert this old orthodoxy in the post-pandemic future would be to default on a defective model. It would be to shirk the effort and exertion of imagining better. It would be to perpetuate another pandemic – a poverty pandemic. Not just of material poverty but of moral poverty. But if the past offers no template for the future, the question becomes: what kind of a future do we want? What kind of a future is due? What kind of a future do we owe to those who will make it there – and those who won’t?
When the future arrives, let the rich overlords be dethroned. The means of their usurpation? Taxes. We cannot sit and wait for the steep gradients of their greed to voluntarily decline. When the future arrives, let this taxes accumulate and accrue and string and weave together to form a net. Let this safety net be the buffer that allows everyone else to breathe better. Let the future records show how many billions our beloved billionaires own and how many bills they crush behind closed doors, pounding them to a paste. When the future arrives, let the minimum wage be a liveable wage, higher than a poverty wage. Let survival be a birthright, not a tightrope walk. When the poor cannot pay with anything else, let us not ask them to pay with their lives.
When the future arrives, may our public officials be less crass, more class – less sentiment and speeches, more policy. Let corruption not be their creed. Let the job of justice not be outsourced to the chance charity of billionaires. May kids not have to downsize and deflate their dreams to fit into the straitjacket of reality. Let the future record show that there are no hierarchies of humanity. Let anti-racism be both common logic and law. May we have more accountability than apologies. May performative, placeholder posts be followed by policy.
But we already know this. None of this is new. All of this – class justice, anti-racism, equality – has already been laid out and enshrined and stitched into the fabric of history books, textbooks, story books, even holy books. The future we want is the future people of the past pined for too. Then why the stasis? Why the delay? Are we consigned to stagnancy? Are we like still, dirty waters – infested with inequality but lacking the currents of change? Is it possible for us to change? Is it really possible to reprogram the orthodoxy, reengineer the norms encoded in it? But then a tickle of optimism, a tide of hope, and I think: mutual aid. I think: handmade, homemade masks. I think: #WeGotOurBlock. I think: Basic incomes in Spain, Germany, even the US. The future has already arrived. It is here. It is pulsing with possibility. All we have to do is lift the pens and connect the dots.
This well written and insightful essay on poverty felt like a really cohesive piece, Kerry Hudson, Orwell Youth Prize Judge
Manal Nadeem is a senior Orwell Youth Prize 2020 Runner Up, responding to the theme ‘The Future We Want’.