When confronted with the pandemic, we are anything but equals.
Robert Reich, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and a former U.S. secretary of labor, identified four social classes deeply but differently affected by the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The remotes, who work from home, endless hours, with their noses in the computer; the essentials, those with occupations that are indispensable to society (nurses, farmers, food processors, truck drivers, pharmacists, police, firefighters, the military), often vulnerable to the conditions in which they work; the unpaid, the laid off, the ones who have depleted their paid leave, but also unable to carry out their work (staff in the retail area, restaurants or in the hospitality industry), and the forgotten, those people for whom social distancing is an impossibility, because of the special circumstances in which they find themselves (detainees, those interned in refugee camps, homeless people, people in nursing homes).
Without claiming that the list he presents is exhaustive, Reich points out something easy to overlook for those of us who fall prey to the temptation of forming an image of society based on analysing only the people in our Facebook bubble:
There are many for whom the pandemic crisis involves much more than the anxiety of breaking routines.
It is true that the big picture is difficult to obtain now, when the crisis is still ongoing. But anyone can still have a broader understanding of what is happening by talking to people from various backgrounds and with various concerns, occupations and lifestyles. The interviews below can be seen as such a conversation — one that enriches our perspective with realities beyond what we typically see in our everyday life.
Alexandru – construction
Alexandru is a construction entrepreneur in France. At the beginning of the crisis, he sensed he would be affected, although the messages coming from politicians were optimistic and the construction sites he was running were going according to schedule. However, as the virus approached Western Europe, problems began to appear. “In March it had already become obvious. Even before the isolation decree, no supplier of materials could guarantee a delivery date. Because globalization makes states so economically connected, if one link is broken, all the others are affected.” Then, contracts for the next period became uncertain. “I had a client with an interior renovation who decided to postpone the work, because he preferred to wait and see how the situation would evolve. Certainly, the reason is primarily financial and only then health-oriented. People don’t know what will come next. This «after the health crisis» has an economical meaning for many. We still don’t know exactly how everything will turn out, and that makes everybody much more cautious. The crisis has taught us to be content with less. Those who will have to do a renovation, an urgent repair, will do it, but those who will not be under pressure will certainly prefer to wait.”
Alexandru is one of those who are already practicing for the economic revival. “Staying at home is a temporary solution. As long as the virus is between us, we must learn to live with it — to live as normally as it is possible in an abnormal situation. Economically, things will be different. We must not be pessimistic, but neither can we be incurable optimists. We will have to review our growth plans and adapt to what lies ahead.”
Alexandru remains optimistic: “As long as you trust God… I think we will get over it. We’ll be a little wrinkled at the other end of the crisis, but I think there will still be opportunities, and it is important to know how to take advantage of them. If you decide to look at it as a whole, you understand things better. If you just look at your microsystem and you don’t see beyond what affects you every day, you may not realize the causes and consequences. I’m curious what will come next… Hoping we’ll learn something. We’ll definitely have gained something too.”
Ovidiu – transportation
Ovidiu works as a truck driver in Germany and says that, due to his job, he did not feel restricted. He even says traffic was much lighter during this period and that “there were about two weeks in which 90% of the traffic on the road was only made up of trucks or minibuses, that it was people who had work to do”. For him, the effects of the pandemic were mostly economical. His salary fell by a third. However, an optimist by nature, Ovidiu says his expenses also decreased — largely because during this period he went shopping less often and only for essential foods. Over the next four months, his pay reduction is expected to lift a little, and he expects his paycheck to soon reach 87% of what he had previously earned. If he had no children, the best he could have expected would be 80% of his initial salary.
“This pandemic has had the effect of shutting down most production units. And, since Germany is an industrial country, we all felt it. Last week, the government announced that 10 million people had entered a reduced work schedule, as a bridge — that’s how they put it — a bridge over the economic abyss below us, the only bridge that can take us to a safe place after the pandemic. The state pays a lot for this bridge, but the price is much lower than the cost of an unemployment rate like the one facing America at this point.
I am one of the 10 million part-time employees. Which means that the company I work for contributes to my salary by the amount of hours I work (less than usual), and the state makes up the difference. After reducing the working hours, I am entitled to 67% of the salary on the workbook, no matter how many hours I work. Employees in the same situation, but without children, are entitled to 60% of salary.
Now, with this crisis, transport companies are out of contracts, their trucks unused, owners unable to pay their employees. Normally, they would need to close down the company. To file for bankruptcy and layoff their employees. So the German government introduced this system with a reduced work schedule, which also worked well during the crisis of 2008-2009. It saved the companies, and the people did not go into unemployment.”
Mihaela – retail
Mihaela is a commercial worker in Bucharest and, since the beginning of the lockdown, circumstances have not allowed her to protect herself as much as others could. Firstly because, although she reduced her working hours, her employer was late in ensuring the protection of her employees. “I did not feel safe at work: we were not provided with gloves, masks, disinfectants. It wasn’t until two weeks after the outbreak that they installed a plexiglass panel on the cashier counter.” Then, because a family problem had worsened right at the beginning of the quarantine period, Mihaela could not stay in the house.
Between her own home, her workplace — where she constantly comes into contact with customers — and her elderly mother’s house, Mihaela only has time to worry about children. “It’s worrying that they didn’t go to school, that they lost track of their subjects. My daughter has the national assessment in June. I am worried that from June 2, for two weeks, she might be called to school, in a class with 9 other classmates, to prepare for the assessment. It’s a good school, they will measure all kids for temperature and other symptoms, they will be forced to wear gloves and masks. But she could still get infected while riding the public bus to school. And, given that the incubation period is 14 days, I’m always thinking:«what if she’ll have a fever on the day of the exam?» On the one hand, there are many risks, but on the other hand, I would allow her to participate, because the online lessons are not very good. For example, I entered the girl’s room during a language class and I saw her online, looking for sneakers during class. The teacher had asked her something earlier, so my daughter knew her turn had passed and was no longer paying attention. Zoom lessons are not lessons. No matter how much a teacher wants to do something, students do not respond in the same way. That’s why I’d allow her to return to school for those two weeks.”
Irina – theater
Irina is an actress and she misses the stage. “Perhaps the hardest part is losing your passion. Artists are “vocational workers.” Sure, they try to make a living from it, but more than that, they often live by and for it. Depriving an actor of the opportunity to play decreases his vital force, in a way. Online opportunities are being tried, but (…) for many they cannot equate the energy exchange that takes place between those on stage and the audience.”
Although she says she can’t complain because she still has something to live on, no installments and no rent, Irina admits that, “financially, the fact that I lost all my collaborations had a huge impact — I gained more from collaborations than from the rather low salary I have from the theater university where I am employed.” But she also says that other colleagues, “independent actors who make a living only from the theater, contracts, courses, and have financial obligations, are really in a desperate situation, even with that help that was given for the independent (or will be given), because, as far as I know, it’s quite small.”
Alexandra – culture
Alexandra is an expert in cultural marketing, a position where the overall picture of the people who make up our cultural sector can be seen in bold, especially in the case of museums. “Some museums have switched to quite diverse and even quality online programs and exhibitions, and this — apparently — without additional investments. But there are also dramatic situations, generated by the reduction of expenses. There seems to be a great temptation to cut budgets in culture to cover new expenses. And the culmination is that there are people who say: “Very well, no one went to the museum anyway!”. But the activity of a museum is very complex. Conservation and restoration are difficult and can only be done in appropriate spaces, with very clear procedures that do not take the pandemic into account. Museographers are very busy (…) in addition to the exhibition and guide activities, they have all sorts of other responsibilities, which continue independently of visitors. So it is unjustified and abusive to be fired… ”
Mihaela M. – education
Mihaela M. is a history teacher working through the organization Teach for Romania, in several disadvantaged schools in the southern city of Giurgiu. Between two online meetings she conducts, she has no time for introductions in an interview, so she posits the saddest thing first: “Children without a connection device can’t join online classes, and there is nothing I can do to help them.” Her words turn into a societal x-ray. The teacher even tried to raise funds for her students. “Some do not even have a mobile phone. They could at least have tablets.” But she confesses that fundraising is very difficult: “I don’t think anyone has the financial strength to donate now. Or, if they do, the funds go to the health system, not to the schools.” If she were to convey something of the piece of reality she sees and lives, to those who had to lose only the routine of the trip to the office, mall and on vacation, Mihaela would tell them that “there are children who have nothing to eat because the food provided by the school was their only daily food. These kids are being sent to work if they do not go to school. Parents — especially those with seasonal jobs or those working on various construction sites — have lost their jobs and have nothing to put on their table.”
According to a global statistic, 90% of the world’s students are in quarantine, and the situation will affect poor students more than those with a good financial situation. Some say the pandemic is a result of inequality. And maybe they are right. This reminds us that inequality did not appear with the pandemic, even if now, in crisis, its colors are much clearer than a few weeks ago. That is why it is important that if we are in a more comfortable place on the spectrum of the impact of this crisis, we shouldn’t stop at gratitude for what we have, but keep our minds and hearts open to understand and respond to those who live the crisis and are affected by it differently than we do.
Some analysts expect (as an optimistic consequence of this experience) an increase in our willingness to pay more for public services, which would result in larger budgets and states being able to better ensure the protection of vulnerable employees, such as medical staff, pharmacists, public transport drivers and civil servants. With the corruption problems that many public systems face, such a solution seems, unfortunately, difficult to put in place. But what is just as urgent and useful is to do everything in our power not to forget the solidarity that made it possible for us to survive during the pandemic. Let us not forget at least the essentials, whose inactivity would cause us pure disability. Nor the ones we missed during this long lockdown. The ones we may not have seen as essential until now. Let’s not forget our after-thoughts.
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at ST Network and Semnele timpului.