On Friday, the president of the United States informed the world that he contracted the coronavirus. Soon, medical staff and Trump himself outlined the extensive care he was receiving: around-the-clock physicians who were able to administer oxygen and the best experimental drugs currently unavailable to the public, not to mention a helicopter ride to a hospital where this VIP treatment would continue.
His diagnosis came after spending most of the pandemic flouting any cautionary measures against spread, holding massive indoor rallies despite warnings from the CDC, and refusing to consistently wear a mask, mocking those of us who faithfully wore them. Fortunately for him, the response to his actions have been met with an extremely high level of medical care. The rest of us who have been cautious and considerate haven’t been so fortunate.
Around mid-March, one of my family members got Covid-19. Much of my family works in the medical field in New York — from caring for patients in nursing homes to working as registered nurses in hospitals. At the height of the pandemic, when cases in the city were the highest in the nation, my family member told us on a phone call that they felt physically exhausted and had trouble breathing. They immediately went to the hospital, fearing Covid-19, and were told they weren’t “sick enough.” They were not given a test and were simply told to go home because the tests, beds, and space was reserved for those with more “severe symptoms.” So they went home.
As a front-line worker, it was very possible that they were in contact with an infected person. Out of a sense of responsibility, they called out of work and attempted to self-medicate with tea and rest. A couple of days later, their symptoms intensified. It became even more difficult to breathe and their chest pains were especially challenging at night.
Once again, we urged them to go back to the hospital. Again, they were told despite the escalations in symptoms, the hospital simply did not have enough tests to administer one to somebody who was not presenting with “severe and clear signs of Covid-19.” They returned home more emotionally broken than the previous time. It took a third attempt at a hospital, one that was located in a more affluent community, before my family member received a test. They tested positive and were told to quarantine for 14 days at home.
Last weekend, as Trump’s inner circle continued to test positive, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced he was experiencing “mild symptoms” and was checking himself into the hospital “out of an abundance of caution.” (Christie attended a September 26 White House event for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, with Trump and other Republican officials, that may have fueled spread of the virus.)
Based on this report, Christie — now a civilian, like my relative, yet not an essential worker, like my relative — had the privilege of being quickly tested and able to decide he should occupy a bed at a hospital. He had the luxury to make this decision as effortlessly as many of us decide between the option of which hotel to stay at for vacation.
Earlier treatment is a life-or-death situation. When my relative got sick, they had to watch the virus quickly spread through my family as they slowly recovered. Almost every family they came in contact with before they were tested became infected. None of my family members were admitted to the hospital despite each of them having a consistent temperature of about 103, some with a history of asthma, and extreme difficulty breathing. This in turn meant the significant others of said family members were also infected. It was a wild-spreading fire fueled by lack of privilege.
While the exact number of people hospitalized for Covid-19 is still unclear, according to self-reported data, people across the country indicated they were denied care at alarming rates. Seven months into the pandemic, I deduce this number would be even greater if we factored in the number of people who lack access to reliable transportation to get them to drive-thru testing centers and hospitals. Which makes it likely that thousands upon thousands of Americans suffered at home with all the symptoms of Covid-19 without an official diagnosis.
Fortunately, my relatives lived, but hundreds of thousands of other Americans did not. I get to tell the story of my family while they are all still alive. Others are sharing similar stories over Zoom funerals.
The impact of Covid-19 will be written about and dissected by historians for decades. However, perhaps the most important theme to note is that privilege dictates how we are all experiencing this pandemic. It’s a tale of two pandemics.
It’s well documented that Black people are dying of Covid-19 at 2.3 times the rate of white people. As of June, reports indicate that almost one-third of Black Americans know somebody who died of Covid-19. The disproportionate death rate isn’t exclusive to Black Americans, either. The impact of the disease has also devastated the Latino community and families living below the poverty line. Then there are the front-line workers, particularly those with lower-paying jobs, who have not had the privilege of working from home. Some families with even less income were forced to quit their jobs in order to educate their children when schools resorted to remote learning, contributing to the high rate of unemployment among especially women of marginalized groups.
Social inequality and the exorbitant income gap in this country were not created by Covid-19 — they were magnified. So while Trump is able to quarantine in his “map room,” many families in lower-income communities are trying to navigate the space of a one-bedroom apartment while they self-isolate.
Many will argue that no expense or treatment should be spared to keep the leader of the country alive. I understand that notion. However, it’s intellectually dishonest to ignore the fact that this administration not only failed to respond to the virus at the speed required, but it downplayed the pandemic’s severity multiple times during this crisis. All of this was done with the complete understanding that they themselves would receive the best health care this country could provide if they contracted it. It’s a despicable lack of empathy. Why should the lives of other Americans be valued any less?
Right now, the world is discussing Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis. Arguments are circular about what is and isn’t true about his health. Discussions continue about the fairness of the leader of the free world being treated with the best therapies his privilege can afford while so many American citizens were denied hospital care. Regardless of your political affiliations, or even your position on these discussions, one thing can’t be ignored: In America, the impact of this pandemic is predicated on your privilege.
Privilege, as well as negligence, is Trump declaring that a disease that killed more than 200,000 American citizens is something we shouldn’t be afraid of. My family, and millions like us, will tell a different story.
Shanita Hubbard is a former therapist, current adjunct sociology professor, and the author of the upcoming book Miseducating: A Woman’s Guide to Hip-Hop.