clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Cook County Jail inmates post messages in their window in Chicago on April 12.
Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

Filed under:

America’s Covid-19 hot spots shed a light on our moral failures

It’s no accident that prisons and meatpacking plants are hotbeds of Covid-19.

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

In 2010, the moral philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah made a list of practices that he believed people in the distant future will condemn our generation of humanity for, much as people in the 21st century almost universally condemn slavery or the denial of women’s suffrage.

His four candidates were the American prison system, which cages about 2.3 million Americans at any given time; the exploitation of animals in factory farms; the abandonment of America’s elderly (and the elderly of many rich countries) in nursing homes; and environmental degradation.

My friend Avi Zenilman, a journalist turned nurse, sent me Appiah’s piece a few weeks into the coronavirus pandemic, when Appiah’s list started to read like a premonition. Excluding the environment — climate change specifically, which has gotten a temporary respite as we do much less carbon emitting under quarantine — Appiah’s list doubles as a rundown of the most prominent and brutal vectors of Covid-19 in the US.

Coronavirus outbreaks have been reported at carceral facilities across the country, including pretrial detention centers like Rikers Island where most inmates have not yet been convicted of the offense with which they’re charged; one prison in Ohio reported that 78 percent of inmates tested positive. More humane states are releasing prisoners simply to avoid a medical catastrophe that feels inevitable if they stay caged.

The Tyson, Smithfield, and JBS meat production companies have shut down pork plants that collectively produce 15 percent of America’s pork due to coronavirus spread. Tyson’s CEO took out a full-page newspaper ad warning that the nation’s food supply is breaking down. That’s a ludicrous exaggeration (experts say the US isn’t about to run out of food), but it is true that the factory farming industry is particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 and poses a pandemic risk generally.

Nursing homes for both older people and those with disabilities are likewise seeing widespread coronavirus outbreaks. The Washington Post analyzed news reports and state data releases and found almost 1 in 10 nursing homes in the US have reported coronavirus cases. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that in the 23 states for which data exists, 27 percent of deaths from Covid-19 have occurred in nursing homes. In several states, like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, most deaths have occurred in nursing homes.

It’s not a coincidence that Covid-19 is foregrounding these institutions. This crisis has cast a spotlight on inequalities that have plagued American life for decades, and it is forcing us to look seriously at how we relate to one another. Social distancing has a way of clarifying social reality, and America’s social reality is one of haves and have-nots.

What nursing homes, prisons, and factory farms have in common

If I were more religious, I would say this feels like a biblical plague, a force beyond our control identifying our worst societal sins to get us to finally pay attention. But that would be incorrect, because in many ways the spread of this virus is within our control. That the coronavirus has ripped through the US via these vectors only underscores how complicit Americans have been in making ourselves more vulnerable to this disease.

What factory farms, prisons, and nursing homes have in common is that they’re warehousing efforts. They all involve placing people or animals into confined facilities where most of society doesn’t have to think too hard about them anymore. They are institutions optimized for neglect.

Few people would likely be able to eat a Chicken McNugget if each order came with a photo of the tortured chickens who were killed to fulfill that order; but because that torture takes place behind closed doors, confined to a few big facilities in rural areas and staffed by invisible low-wage workers, people are free to forget about the actual chickens and the working conditions there and eat their nuggets in peace. It’s no fluke that “ag gag” laws banning the dissemination of information about factory farms are one of the industry’s main lobbying priorities. Big corporations know perfectly well what would happen if people actually paid attention.

Prisons enable governments to take people civilian society doesn’t want to deal with anymore and stash them out of sight so that average citizens can forget about them. That enables truly horrendous conditions. Groups of prisoners in Washington, DC, and Texas are so desperate that they’ve sued for access to soap, cleaning supplies, and toilet paper amid the pandemic. “On at least one unit, a closet full of cleaning supplies and clean rags is present, but residents are told they will be punished if they attempt to access or use those supplies to clean the unit, their own cells, or their hands and bodies,” the DC lawsuit alleges.

These conditions are hardly new — a one-sheet-per-day rationing of toilet paper and a ban on showering more than once a week were among policies at Attica state prison in New York that sparked a 1971 prisoner takeover there. But this neglect is increasingly deadly in a pandemic.

Nursing homes are not necessarily an injustice, and there are plenty of valid reasons for families to place relatives there, or for residents to ask to be placed in homes. My family is no exception. But the same mechanisms through which nursing homes ease pressure on family caregivers make them places where widespread neglect is possible. Richard Mollot, an advocate for long-term care patients, notes that about one-third of Medicare beneficiaries admitted to nursing homes reported suffering some kind of harm within two weeks of entering the home.

“These are the short-term residents for whom homes are paid the most and who are typically most able to articulate their concerns if something is wrong,” Mollot writes. “Where does that leave a majority of residents who are there long-term, most of whom are older, frail and cognitively impaired?”

Warehousing leaves its victims vulnerable to Covid-19 through at least two mechanisms. First, it forces affected individuals into close proximity with one another — including those maintaining the warehouse, like factory farm workers or prison guards or nursing home attendants. It’s difficult to socially distance under those conditions.

But the second mechanism is subtler and arguably just as important. Warehousing fosters social inequality, and we know that social inequality kills.

Social inequality in a pandemic

Pandemics are times of scarcity. Tests are scarce, doctors and nurses are scarce, masks and gloves are scarce. And scarce goods tend to be distributed according to existing social inequalities, because those inequalities reflect varying levels of respect paid to various groups by governments, businesses, and other social decision-makers.

So it is with coronavirus. It’s fairly well-known at this point that Covid-19 has disproportionately affected black Americans. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that of Covid-19 patients for whom race is known, 30 percent are African American, more than double African Americans’ share of the overall population.

Unauthorized immigrants in detention, or working close-proximity jobs at farms and as delivery staff, or just existing in the US without access to most of the social safety net, are uniquely vulnerable too, and not just in the US but in many rich countries. Many report fear of seeking out health care because of the risk that their status will be uncovered.

We see the same inequalities with factory farms, nursing homes, and prisons. Incarcerated people, especially ones locked up for violent offenses, have long suffered from politicians’, and the public’s, conviction that their past deeds make them undeserving of help. That’s especially true now, with grave consequences for both them and their guards.

Nursing home patients are victims not just of density but of a broader societal disregard toward older people and those with disabilities. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick famously suggested that Americans 70 and older should be willing to die to get the economy back running again.

Meanwhile, the Covid-19 outbreaks at factory farms aren’t among their animals but among their workers and those at meatpacking facilities, who are disproportionately black, Latino, and/or immigrants. Warehousing hurts the people enlisted to do the warehousing, too. (And, it should be noted, even though the novel coronavirus didn’t originate in a factory farm, factory farms are a pretty big pandemic risk — if not this pandemic, it may well be the next one.)

None of this is an accident. Social inequality, as the political theorist Judith Shklar taught us, fosters cruelty. In unequal societies, where one group of individuals is privileged in power above others, that power differential creates the social estrangement necessary for the powerful to treat the less powerful with cruelty.

But social equality can remedy social cruelty. “If such social distances create the climate for cruelty, then a greater equality might be a remedy,” she wrote. “Even Machiavelli had known that one cannot rule one’s equals with cruelty, but only one’s inferior subjects.”

Covid-19 is not simply a natural disaster. It is a brutal reminder of the consequences of inequality Shklar identified. And it is a reminder that things can be different. The US can shrink its prisons. It can create housing laws, social supports, and other structures that enable older people to live with their families whenever possible. It can abolish factory farming, for both the animals’ and the workers’ sakes.

Pandemics are social phenomena, and addressing pandemics requires attacking social inequalities head-on.

Sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter and we’ll send you a roundup of ideas and solutions for tackling the world’s biggest challenges — and how to get better at doing good.

The Future Perfect 50

Christopher Fuchs is revolutionizing how we understand our quantum reality

The Future Perfect 50

Jerry Chow wants to make quantum computers you can actually count on

The Future Perfect 50

Gebisa Ejeta is finding lasting solutions to hunger

View all stories in Future Perfect