NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, May 2nd, 2020

The Pandemic is Personal: David Johnson of NPI on rooming during a public health crisis

Edi­tor’s note: Wel­come to The Pan­dem­ic is Per­son­al, a new week­ly series that will focus on how the nov­el coro­n­avirus (SARS-CoV­‑2) is affect­ing the every­day lives of cit­i­zens through­out the Pacif­ic North­west. We hope to enlight­en you and reflect on what you and oth­ers are address­ing as this pan­dem­ic runs its course. If you have a sto­ry to tell, please feel free to con­tact us.

Kick­ing off this new series is our own David A. John­son, a for­mer jour­nal­ist from West Texas. David is cur­rent­ly a union research assis­tant for the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton. He’s lived in the Pacif­ic North­west since 2012 and joined the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute in July 2017 as NPI’s Lit­er­ary Advo­cate. 

“A lot of folks have it worse.”

This is not the most effec­tive mantra for cheer­ing some­one up, whether they’re hear­ing it from out­side their head or with­in.

When I had rota­tor cuff surgery last year, remem­ber­ing how for­tu­nate I was to have health insur­ance and a 401(k) to emp­ty out did­n’t pro­vide any­where near the relief that hydrocodone every eight hours did. My state of mind was more depen­dent on chang­ing my mate­r­i­al con­di­tions than my per­spec­tive on any­thing.

Now — near­ly by def­i­n­i­tion of the word — we’re all liv­ing in a pan­dem­ic.

But it’s not the same pan­dem­ic for all of us, because a lot of folks have it worse.

None of my friends or fam­i­ly have yet been sick­ened or died from COVID-19. Just recent­ly, though, I found out a close friend’s father-in-law final­ly suc­cumbed to the dis­ease. The ven­ti­la­tor did­n’t save him, and he got his good-byes from those clos­est to him via tele­con­fer­enc­ing while heav­i­ly sedat­ed.

He was eighty-one, and pri­or to this, he’d been healthy.

I’m still employed, work­ing a job that allows me to do it from home so I can earn my same liv­ing with­out hav­ing to put my own health direct­ly at risk.

One of my house­mates isn’t so for­tu­nate; they work in health­care, inter­act­ing with co-work­ers who inter­act with patients. My house­mate’s job involves test­ing COVID-19 sam­ples. They were get­ting fifty-eight to six­ty hours per week, but twice in the past month and a half, they’ve been laid low by some oth­er sick­ness and had to wait to test neg­a­tive to go back to work. Get­ting over­time is over now, though. Their clin­ic is out of mon­ey for it. A lot of folks have it worse.

My three oth­er house­mates are all unem­ployed.

Two work in food ser­vice, so they basi­cal­ly can’t work right now.

The third per­son was employed as a copy edi­tor on a con­tract that came up for renew­al in mid-April. What­ev­er the plans had been, it was­n’t a sur­prise when she did­n’t get the exten­sion. Her employ­er shut down the rest of the team, and her direct super­vi­sor said they’re try­ing to out­source the work to an Eng­lish speak­ing coun­try with low­er wages and labor stan­dards.

A lot of folks have it worse.

She gets unem­ploy­ment, but one of my two house­mates in food ser­vice isn’t eli­gi­ble to receive it. He quit his last job to get away from the work­ing con­di­tions there, and he was look­ing for a new one when the gov­er­nor start­ed shut­ting every­thing down. His part­ner, the oth­er food ser­vice work­er, had his own hours cut lead­ing up to being laid off entire­ly, but that meant he was eli­gi­ble for unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits. When he tried to file, the Employ­ment Secu­ri­ty Depart­ment web­site was still reject­ing peo­ple and told him he’d have to come to an in-per­son hear­ing to have it sort­ed out.

Obvi­ous­ly, that’s not the case, but it meant he did­n’t have enough for April rent as we’d planned. His dad still had a job at Microsoft and he was able to get help with rent and gro­ceries. A lot of peo­ple have it worse.

We’re not pay­ing rent this month.

Suspend rent signs on Capitol Hill

Sus­pend Rent signs in Seat­tle (Pho­to cour­tesy of Capi­tol Hill Seat­tle Blog)

There is a more orga­nized rent strike going on, but our par­tic­i­pa­tion is less an act of class sol­i­dar­i­ty than mate­r­i­al need.

I’m still employed, but I’m a mil­len­ni­al in my mid-thir­ties who grad­u­at­ed from col­lege straight into the Great Reces­sion and have bounced from job to job as they went bank­rupt, laid off staff for inter­na­tion­al con­sol­i­da­tion, or were union-bust­ed.  But I have been employed and have my first union job now. I grad­u­at­ed with­out debt, and the car I’ve had for fif­teen years still runs. Once it ful­ly breaks down, I won’t have the mon­ey to get a replace­ment, so it’ll be my last car, too.

We’re not pay­ing rent this month, as men­tioned, and in a lot of ways that’s a shame because up till now we’ve had a great rela­tion­ship with our land­lord.

He and his sis­ter live down­stairs. We’ve brought each oth­er mail and home-baked cook­ies. I dug the fire pit in the back­yard and bought the new pic­nic table.

In Octo­ber, it’ll be five years I’ve been here. We told him we can’t afford to keep pay­ing for shel­ter dur­ing this pan­dem­ic. He can’t evict us, but our lease is up in the sum­mer, and who knows how renew­ing it will go?

Maybe they’ll come after all of us with debt col­lec­tors when the pan­dem­ic ends. Maybe the hit to our rental his­to­ry will make it hard to find any new place.

Then I remem­ber that a lot of folks have it worse. Like my friend who’s been work­ing from home for more than two months and stuck in their apart­ment because they’re the sort of per­son with a com­pro­mised immune sys­tem and enough dis­abil­i­ties that should they get sick and need the hos­pi­tal, doc­tors might make the “tough deci­sion” to write them off as hav­ing too many comor­bidi­ties to devote scarce med­ical resources that might be used to save an abled per­son.

Of course, their fiance still goes in and out of the house because they work at a piz­za place on Capi­tol Hill, and peo­ple still want piz­za deliv­ered. With luck, the fiance won’t bring home a sick­ness. They need both incomes to keep that apart­ment because they’re still pay­ing off stu­dent loans at twen­ty-sev­en. But worst come to worst, their par­ents might be able to help them out.

A lot of folks have it worse.

An acquain­tance of mine found out she and her hus­band would­n’t be eli­gi­ble for the stim­u­lus. Ren­t’s com­ing and they have no income, but they do have an infant that needs gro­ceries and dia­pers. I sent her a hun­dred bucks we called a loan because I’m still employed, and a lot of folks have it worse.

Thou­sands of peo­ple in our area still live with­out per­ma­nent shel­ter.

Some can stay in their vehi­cles but oth­ers are com­plete­ly unshel­tered except for their tent or what’s makeshift. Between March 1st and March 17th, the city of Seat­tle did fif­teeen sweeps of home­less encamp­ments even with shel­ters already over­pop­u­lat­ed and unsafe. In the name of pub­lic safe­ty, peo­ple with­out homes are pushed even fur­ther to the mar­gins and the pan­dem­ic is wors­ened.

Hotel rooms sit emp­ty because no one wants to trav­el. Peo­ple too poor to afford per­ma­nent lodg­ing can’t afford hotel rooms. The prob­lem seems intractable under the com­bi­na­tion of cap­i­tal­ism and neolib­er­al­ism because they have no mon­ey and that’s how we val­ue their lives. But, again, a lot of peo­ple have it worse.

In jails and pris­ons, we have still have chil­dren, we have peo­ple arrest­ed but con­vict­ed of no crimes, and peo­ple duly con­vict­ed of heinous as well as arbi­trary crimes, all held hostage in places that put their lives at risk.

We could point out that jailed peo­ple bond out and jail­ers reg­u­lar­ly go back to their homes, there­fore this is a dan­ger to the com­mu­ni­ty.

But like with the unshel­tered, this is a log­ic that holds the incar­cer­at­ed out­side of our def­i­n­i­tion of com­mu­ni­ty. Pub­lic safe­ty should be mak­ing sure that a drug charge or rob­bery con­vic­tion aren’t death sen­tences. But we want the bad peo­ple to be pun­ished, and they’re all incar­cer­at­ed so very far out of sight.

So in many ways, I’m quite for­tu­nate. Com­pared to many of my peers, I’m real­ly quite well off. But I’d trade all of that aware­ness for a rent and mort­gage mora­to­ri­um; for the secu­ri­ty that if I am kicked out of my house or it burns in a grease fire, I won’t face bru­tal­i­ty if I have lie down out­side to rest; that I won’t have to fear death should police choose to send me to jail and cram me in a hold­ing cell with fel­lows of my sta­tion who are ill.

I keep remind­ing myself: A lot of peo­ple have it worse.

The frus­trat­ing thing is, there’s no rea­son any of us should have to.

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