By MICHELLE GOLDBERG
A Washington Post article on May 17 described people in a posh suburb of Atlanta celebrating liberation from coronavirus lockdown. “I went to the antique mall yesterday on Highway 9 and it was just like — it was like freedom,” said a woman getting a pedicure.
“Yeah, I’m going to do the laser and the filler,” said a woman at a wine bar, looking forward to cosmetic dermatology. “When you start seeing where the cases are coming from and the demographics — I’m not worried,” said a man lounging in a plaza.
Only one person was quoted expressing trepidation: a masked clerk in a shoe store. “I live an hour away and was driving in this morning, only me on the road, and I was thinking, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’” she said.
CLASS STRUGGLE, OR POLITICS?
Lately some commentators have suggested that the coronavirus lockdowns pit an affluent professional class comfortable staying home indefinitely against a working class more willing to take risks to do their jobs.
Writing in The Post, Fareed Zakaria tried to make sense of the partisan split over coronavirus restrictions, describing a “class divide” with pro-lockdown experts on one side and those who work with their hands on the other.
On Fox News, Steve Hilton decried a “37 percent work from home elite” punishing “real people” trying to earn a living. In a column titled “Scenes From the Class Struggle in Lockdown,” The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan wrote: “Here’s a generalization based on a lifetime of experience and observation. The working-class people who are pushing back have had harder lives than those now determining their fate.”
The assumptions underlying this generalization, however, are not based on even a cursory look at actual data.
In a recent Washington Post/Ipsos survey, 74 percent of respondents agreed that the “U.S. should keep trying to slow the spread of the coronavirus, even if that means keeping many businesses closed.” Agreement was slightly higher — 79 percent — among respondents who’d been laid off or furloughed.
Researchers at the University of Chicago have been tracking the impact of coronavirus on a representative sample of American households. They’ve found that when it comes to judging policies on the coronavirus, “politics is the overwhelming force dividing Americans,” and that “how households have been economically impacted by the Covid crisis so far” plays only a minimal role.
POLARIZING THE RESPONSE
Donald Trump and his allies have polarized the response to the coronavirus, turning defiance of public health directives into a mark of right-wing identity. Because a significant chunk of Trump’s base is made up of whites without a college degree, there are naturally many such people among the lockdown protesters.
But it’s a mistake to treat the growing ideological divide over when and how to reopen the country as a matter of class rather than partisanship. The push for a faster reopening, even in places where coronavirus cases are growing, has significant elite support. And many of those who face exposure as they’re ordered back to work are rightly angry and terrified.
LIBERATION TO SOME,
COMPULSION TO OTHERS
Because here’s the thing about reopening: It’s liberation to some, but compulsion to others. If your employer reopens but you don’t feel safe going to work, you can’t continue to collect unemployment benefits.
In The Texas Tribune, a waitress in Odessa spoke of her fear when she was called back to work at a restaurant that hadn’t put adequate social distancing measures in place. “It scared me, so I left,” she said. “Then I had to remember that if I do quit, I would have to lose my unemployment.”
Meatpacking workers have been sickened with coronavirus at wildly disproportionate rates, and all over the country there have been protests outside of meatpacking plants demanding that they be temporarily closed, sometimes by the workers’ own children. Perhaps because those demonstrators have been unarmed, they’ve received far less coverage than those opposed to lockdown orders.
SURGE IN LABOR ACTIVISM
Indeed, across America there’s been a surge in Labor activism as people made to work in unsafe conditions stage strikes, walkouts and sickouts. “It sounds corny, but we’re moving towards a worker rebellion,” Ron Herrera, president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, told The Los Angeles Times.
Meanwhile, financial elites are eager for everyone else to resume powering the economy. “‘People Will Die. People Do Die.’ Wall Street Has Had Enough of the Lockdown,” was the headline on a recent Vanity Fair article. It cited a banker calling for “broad legal indemnification for employers against claims related to the virus” so that employees can’t sue if their workplace exposes them to illness. Here we see the real coronavirus class divide.
In some ways I can relate to the exultant Georgians who’ve decided to deny the danger of coronavirus. I too hate life under lockdown, and I yearn for some social distance from my children; every day I scan the news for information about whether schools will reopen in the fall. I’d love a pedicure, or a drink with a friend. And I know that plenty of people desperate to escape these grim new limits on our lives have far more urgent needs: to save a business or support their families.
But when it comes to the coronavirus, willingness to ignore public health authorities isn’t a sign of flinty working-class realism. Often it’s the ultimate mark of privilege.
(Michelle Goldberg is an Opinion columnist for the New York Times and the author of several books about politics, religion and women’s rights. She was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2018 for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues. You can find her on Twitter @michelleinbklyn.)