Liz Theoharis Pandemic

The First and Worst Hit by Pandemics of Every Sort

You could say metaphorically that the poor in America have long lived under pandemic conditions. In the last two-plus years, however, that metaphorical reality became all too literal.
“In America How Could This Happen?” Project by artist Suzanne Firstenberg, with each flag representing a COVID death, being installed on the grounds of the Washington Monument. [Victoria Pickering / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

By Liz Theoharis | TomDispatch

The 54th anniversary of the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., just passed. Dr. King was shot down while organizing low-wage sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. At that time, he was building the Poor People’s Campaign, an effort to organize America’s poor into a force to be reckoned with. In his opposition to the Vietnam War and his promotion of a campaign to lift the load of poverty, he suggested that racism, poverty, and militarism could only be dealt with by uniting millions of poor people to change the very structure of our national life.

More than half a century later, his message remains tragically relevant in our seemingly never-ending pandemic-ridden moment, still rife with racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. Indeed, today, 60% more Americans are living below the official poverty line; racialized laws to suppress their votes have been passed in dozens of states; and the longest war in our history, the 20-year disaster in Afghanistan, only ended late last year, while globally conflict and bloodshed still swirl around us.

You need only check out the conditions of life for the 140 million Americans who are poor or low income to recognize how relevant King’s message still is. Today, the poor live at the crossroads of injustice, hurt first and worst by the interlocking evils of climate change, militarism, and racism, as well as other forms of violence and inequality. With gas prices ever higherfood shortages on the rise, and a possible recession (or worse) looming, those who continue to suffer the most will be those most affected by whatever is to come.

A Poor People’s Pandemic

A new report about the disproportionate effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on poor communities has just been issued by the Poor People’s Campaign (which I co-chair with Reverend William Barber) and the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions NetworkThe Poor People’s Pandemic Report connects data about Covid-19 deaths at the county level with other demographic information to demonstrate that, during the pandemic so far, poor counties have experienced twice the number of deaths as higher-income ones — and up to five times the number at the height of various waves of the disease. It reveals that Covid-19 has, in fact, been a poor people’s pandemic, one that exposes the depth of the racism, poverty, and ecological devastation that preceded it in poverty-stricken communities. That should be shocking news, don’t you think? But throughout the pandemic, the story of its unequal impact has largely not been covered by the mainstream media.

Quite the opposite. Over the last two years, there have been countless stories about how Covid-19 was the great equalizer — how, unlike us, pandemics and plagues don’t discriminate. All too sadly, the new report shows clearly that, though a virus may not be able to discriminate, our society has in fact discriminated in the most virulent ways. Consider it an outright indictment of a society that allowed the deaths of almost 250,000 poor and low-income people in the year 2000 alone, two decades before the pandemic even hit our shores. It should be a wakeup call for a society that has become far too accustomed to death, at least when it’s poor people who are dying.

As Reverend Barber, who came up with the idea for the new report, explained, “The finding of this report reveals neglect and sometimes intentional decisions to not focus on the poor. There hasn’t been any systemic or systematic assessment of the impact of Covid-19 on the poor and low-income communities.” Indeed, to date, the government hasn’t even collected data on the impact of the pandemic based on income levels, leaving us to do the necessary detective work.

Importantly, the report’s findings can’t be explained by vaccine status alone. The disproportionate death rate among poor and low-income people is the result of a complex combination of factors, including work and life conditions that long predated the pandemic. For example, 22% of Native Americans, 20% of Hispanics, 11% of Blacks, 7.8% of Whites, and 7.2% of Asians didn’t have health insurance in 2019 just before the pandemic hit. Not surprisingly, perhaps, preexisting disparities in healthcare access, wealth distribution, and housing security yielded disastrous effects once it did so.

If you were to hold up a collective mirror to us, you would see a nation in which there were 87 million uninsured or underinsured people and 39 million workers who made less than a living wage before the pandemic struck. You would see a government that refused to either expand health care (even during the worst public-health crisis in generations) or raise wages for the very workers who can’t afford the essentials of life. You’re talking about a country in which, again before the pandemic arrived, 14 million families couldn’t afford to pay their water bills and more than half of our children lived in food-insecure homes. Is it any wonder that so many poor and low-income people suffered and died with the arrival of the virus?

Sacrifice Zones of the Poor

That toll from Covid-19 is, however, only one way to understand the recent impact of policy choices related to the poor. It was all too symbolically on target that immediately after releasing the Poor People’s Pandemic Report, the Poor People’s Campaign kicked off a Moral March on West Virginia that was to go from Harper’s Ferry to one of Democratic Senator Joe Manchin’s congressional offices in Martinsburg. Poor moms, former coal miners, labor organizers, and climate activists from West Virginia hiked 23 miles to call on “their” senator to begin actually addressing the needs of his constituents — to expand voting rights, raise the minimum wage to a living one, extend the Child Tax Credit, protect this planet, and invest in education, health care, and programs of social uplift.

In reality, by blocking the passage of even a watered-down Build Back Better bill in Congress, Manchin refused to legislate in the interest of the majority of his constituents, especially the 710,000 poor and low-income West Virginians. He has similarly blocked bills to restore and expand voting rights protections through the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

Meanwhile, by refusing to vote to end the filibuster in the Senate or enact a fairer taxation system, Manchin continues to ensure that policies benefiting millions of Americans and the planet writ large will once again be left at the side of the road. He’s repeatedly chosen to side with the greed of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest lobbying group in the country, and the fossil-fuel industry against the needs of the people. And such stances have been disastrous. Figures compiled by the Institute for Policy Studies last year showed that in West Virginia, the $3.5 trillion version of the Build Back Better bill would have created 17,290 new jobs, benefited 346,000 children by extending the expanded child tax credit, and allowed an additional 88,050 West Virginians to take paid leave each year.

To make matters worse, in the northern panhandle of West Virginia, there’s the Rockwool Ranson Plant, an insulation manufacturing factory set up in a poor community. Our Moral March made its way through Ranson. While there, we heard about a mother whose children go to a school just blocks from the plant, which is within two miles of four public schools that house 30% of the county’s student population (as well as several daycare centers). Scientists tested the blood levels of kids at North Jefferson Elementary School before the plant opened in 2021. Just a year later, there were already higher rates of asthma and toxins in their blood. Indeed, the very placement of that plant goes against the recommendations of the Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization (WHO), both of which assert that heavy industry should not be located near schools. (WHO has specifically stated that industrial plants shouldn’t be located within two miles of schools.)

We heard testimony from horse breeders who claimed they could no longer raise thoroughbreds because of the changing air quality and bee farmers who, after generations of family farming, said they can no longer make a living. Not surprisingly, it’s a poor community with a high percentage of Black residents. No public hearings were even held before the plant’s opening, which Senator Manchin attended. Still, local resistance to it has been strong and continues to grow.

The Vulnerable Suffer the Consequences

Such suffering and resistance are realities not just in the hills and hollows of West Virginia. At the very time when West Virginians were rallying against the Rockwool Ranson Plant, for example, protests broke out in New York City against Mayor Eric Adams’ crackdown on the unhoused, including police sweeps of homeless encampments.

No wonder we in the Poor People’s Campaign travelled from that Moral March on West Virginia directly to New York to hold a Moral March on Wall Street. And just as Joe Manchin has gotten away with attacks on the poor while styling himself a populist hero, so Eric Adams has insisted that the sweeps he ordered are what’s best for New Yorkers, including the unhoused. Yet the true depth of homelessness there betrays the cruel measures Adams is pursuing.

In a city that spends more than $2 billion a year on homelessness, roughly 47,000 people — more than 14,500 of them children — sleep in its homeless shelters each night. Rather than address the scourge of poverty and the homelessness that goes with it, Adams has chosen to destroy more than 200 homeless encampments, while all-too-symbolically cutting the city’s homelessness budget by one-fifth. Like Manchin, he’s pursuing an all-too-familiar path in twenty-first century America: punishing the poor for their poverty while further gentrifying the city as a playground for the rich.

This is not, however, happening without a fight from the unhoused, local grassroots organizations, and even some politicians. The majority of New York’s City Council, for instance, has denounced his encampment demolitions. In a letter of opposition, they pointed out that “these sweeps will not end homeless[ness]; they will only put people in further harm.”

Amid all of this, one comment by Adams stopped me in my tracks. While meeting with a group of clergy, he argued that the disciples of Christ would have supported his homeless encampment sweeps, saying, “I can’t help but to believe that, if Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were here today, they would be on the streets with me helping people get out of encampments.”

As a Christian preacher and biblical scholar, I should note that such a statement is not simply wrong or insensitive; it’s heretical. The Bible is clear that the rich and powerful are to blame for poverty, abuse, and injustice, not the poor themselves. And not surprisingly, throughout the ancient scriptures, those who hoard the wealth of the world also twist the words of the prophets to their own advantage at the expense of the poor and exploited.

But, as the story goes, just as Jesus was crucified and died, the tombs of the freedom fighters who came before him were opened and they were revived to continue the fight for justice. Hate and death, we are reminded, never have the last word.

Building Movements Not Monuments

Three years after Martin Luther King’s assassination, Carl Wendell Hines penned this poem about him entitled A Dead Man’s Dream:

“Now that he is safely dead let us praise him
Build monuments to his glory, sing hosannas to his name.
Dead men make such convenient heroes.
They cannot rise to challenge the images we would fashion
from their lives.
And besides,
it is easier to build monuments
than to make a better world.
So now that he is safely dead
We, with eased consciences, can teach our children that he
was a great man,
Knowing that the cause for which he lived is still a cause
And the dream for which he died is still a dream
A dead man’s dream.”

Jesus Christ was killed by the Roman Empire for building a movement of the abused and excluded, only to have his memory distorted by hateful and sacrilegious theologies throughout the ages. King was murdered as he fought poverty, racism, and militarism, only to later be quoted and canonized by those who despised him. Indeed, as Hines points out, it is far “easier to build monuments than to make a better world.” But as those in power like Joe Manchin and Eric Adams continue to find comfort in their (bad-faith) praise of prophets like Jesus and King, poor and dispossessed people in places like Ranson and New York continue to carry on the work of justice.

Yes, the organizing of the poor and dispossessed should be considered at least one antidote to the pandemics, literal and figurative, plaguing our society as we grieve for almost one million Americans dead of Covid-19 and more than six million people globally. Even if many of us don’t always either see or hear it, the leadership of those most affected by poverty and injustice is crucial to our future. They are what King once called “a new and unsettling force” capable of transforming “our complacent national life.”

Copyright 2022 Liz Theoharis

Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, she is the author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor and We Cry Justice: Reading the Bible with the Poor People’s Campaign. Follow her on Twitter at @liztheo.

16 comments

  1. This is written from a ‘British’ perspective. However the same ‘galvanising’ indoctrination requiring sustained poverty and cyclical wars also applies to the American construct. Because without poverty and war neither State *identity* can continue to exist in their own right – given that both are built on genocide and conquest…

    ‘It’s a top-down corporate-political propaganda construct designed to siphon-off the wealth created by the working masses throughout this island in order to engineer economic deprivation and induce mass depression, yet funnel the fruits of our labour, industry and ‘dignity’ to themselves with our patriotic poverty ‘permission’. And of course, to cyclically hand-over to them our most precious of resources – our children, especially our sons sent to perpetual wars.’

    ‘Patriotic Poverty MBE: A Volksgemeinschaft ‘State’ (2020) https://wp.me/p94Aj4-23q

    Feedback & questions welcome.

    Johnny McNeill
    #GaslightingGilligan (© 2017) 
    Twitter: @GasGilligan (*free download*)

  2. The US Empire which is run by the CIA and its military, fossil fuel, and pharmaceutical industrial complexes, among others continues unabated. The world’s corporate elites in the World Economic Forum, the International Monetary Fund, the UN and its World Health Organization and others are doing all they can to control sovereign nations with coups and wars which is happening in Ukraine, Yemen, Syria, and now in Pakistan. The Covid-19 plandemic which was manufactured in a lab somewhere made the so-called virus- a Corona virus that is similar to the flu with over a 99% recovery rate, more deadly. This all could have been controlled by proven early treatment methods like ivermectin and hydroxychloriquine but they were stopped by governments because then the Covid genetic-altering shots wouldn’t be authorized. The pharmaceutical industry is given complete liability for any injuries and deaths, and they have pocketed billions of dollars in the past 2 years alone. Doctors on the front lines, scientists and others have been censored, fired and their lives put in danger. The Empire controls the false narratives that the shots are safe and the release of untested, deadly genetic shots are causing millions of injuries including deaths worldwide are still not discussed in the US and other countries mainstream media. Now our pregnant women and children are being forced to take these experimental shots with devastating results. As you state, it’s people of color and the poor who suffer the most. With widespread censorship of anyone speaking out against the US Empire’s inhumane censorship and ramp up of totalitarian actions, including putting as many people on digital ID’s for further control of the peoples of the world, what’s coming next is far worse then what you stated here. Americans and others who believe their governments are still asleep from years of psychological conditioniong. If people don’t take to the streets to force these evil politicians and those who are bought by the corporations out of office, and the entire system changed to support the people and a healthy and loving environment, there will be massive internal and external wars, as the US Empire tries to survive. Empires never survive long but how many people will be injured and destroyed before they’re stopped?

    1. you ignorant cuss, ivermectin and hydroxychloriquine do nothing to fight a flu, or more correctly, the common cold, a corona virus

  3. Things will not change unless we change the economic system. It’s inherently unjust and causes inequality.

  4. Hm. If liberals notice poverty, it must mean it’s an election year. But 26 years into the Democrats’ war on the poor, what’s left to say?

  5. Essential workers who cannot afford essential services – what is wrong with this picture …

    Manchin – well named, what would a guy named Manchin care about folks who have no homes, nor food, nor healthcare … But make no mistake, he is a useful foil for a Party that makes promises it has no intention of keeping – if not him it would be some other Dem who would step up to do the dirty work of the Party …

  6. Again we bear witness to the one true, post-JFK role of the U.S. “Democratic” (sic) Party: providing abject service to the ChristoNazi Sturmabteilung – that is, to the so-called Republican Party – as its Fifth Column.

    Meanwhile our vast national majority remains forever imprisoned in USia’s Moron Nation, the invisibly fenced, Madison-Avenue-protected, murder-sustained Auschwitz Plantation run by our Masters, those creatures — whomever (or whatever) they might be — who have made the United States the de facto Nazi International; Planetary Public Enemy Number One; global headquarters of prideful ignorance, violent closed-mindedness and murderous bigotry; undisputed world champion in the Covid Deathrace.

    In this context, all the ecogenocidal horrors of Neoliberalism, the 100-percent-Nazified fulfillment of Capitalism, are revealed as (premeditated) atrocities.

    Thus it is hardly an aside to respectfully suggest that anyone who really wants to confront the bottomless evil that rules and defines the USian Empire should read two recent books: “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States,” (Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Beacon Press: 2014) and “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning,” (Timothy Snyder, Tim Duggan Books: 2015).

    As these two remarkably courageous historians unflinchingly make clear — all the more so when they are read in conjunction with an accurate translation of “Mein Kampf” — the USian Empire was indeed the prototype for Hitler’s Third Reich.

    Thus the U.S. was – and remains – the deadliest, most cunningly disguised concentration of infinite evil our species has yet contrived.

    Moreover, Mr. Snyder and Ms. Dunbar-Ortiz come closer than any historians I have yet read to admitting what I regard as the most hideous truth of our species’ entire 200-thousand-year-plus existence: that the USian Empire’s Nazi-minded weaponization of modern technology has made it literally omnipotent, and that it will retain this hitherto allegedly “divine” status until it exterminates our species and reduces our world back to a bug planet.

    Nor will it matter to the billions of dead whether this was done by methodically provoking thermonuclear apocalypse (as the Empire seems to be doing now in the Ukraine), or merely by continuing its knowingly apocalyptic intensification of terminal climate change.

    For most of my 82 years I believed organized labor would (again) force the U.S. (and eventually all human society) to undertake humanitarian progress, if not to embrace real socialism, then at least to restore something akin to the Keynesian ideology of the New Deal.

    But Nazi control of SCOTUS – now effectively permanent thanks to lifetime appointments – forever reduces any such notion to dementia.

    Not that it matters in any definitive sense; the endlessly repeated (and now entirely predictable) “Democratic” (sic) betrayals, all of them implicitly cloaked in the (ultimate) deception of “change we can believe in,” proved long before the Nazi takeover that any semblance of USian “democracy” was already dead — which is precisely why national voter participation began nose-diving decades ago.

    Yes, even the dumbed-down denizens of Moron Nation eventually learn not to bloody their heads by beating them against impregnable barriers.

    Thus U.S. election turnout would be plummeting even without the ChristoNazis’ thus-far-100-percent-effective effort to restore the electorate to its original, “no-fraudulent-voters” composition of property-owning certified Christian heterosexual white males only.

    So now with our pessimism irremediably confirmed by our Masters’ methodical undoing of every humanitarian goal our species has ever managed to achieve, we know for certain the Judaeo-Christian claim the universe is possessed of a “moral arc” that “bends toward justice” is among the most malignant of our species’ self-destructive Big Lies.

    That’s why so many of us who retain the ability for rational thought are abandoning our former belief in even the possibility of humanitarian change, which – undeniably – it now seems our Masters have stolen from us forever.

    As in the mid-1800s, what we therefore most desperately need is an entirely new program of collective strategy and cooperative tactics. But it appears our species has permanently exhausted its ability to produce any more such options. Thus, like the reactors at Chernobyl and Fukushima, we have gone terminal instead.

  7. While I agree with the author’s premise overall (the time-honored historical fact that the poor and powerless are always shat upon), she is frankly WRONG about Covid deaths.
    Globally the median age of Covid victims is well over 80:
    https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2006392117#fig01 An 80 year old is 1,000 to 10,000 fold more likely to die from SARS-CoV2 infection than an 8 year old. Most co-morbidities other than age only increase risk 1.3-1.6 fold (although obesity, diabetes, hypertention TOGETHER likely have synergistic risk, there are few if any studies quantifying such risk.)
    The US pretended that everyone was at risk from death from Covid to increase vaccination rates. It is now clear that Natural IMMUNITY from Covid infection is much stronger and longer-lasting than vaccine immunity, and based on the CDC’s estimates that 4-times as many Americans have been infected as recorded Covid cases ( cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/burden.html) and there have been 82.6 million recorded cases in the US (worldometers.info), pretty much every American (99%) have been infected.
    Most of the rest, particularly the most Vulnerable, have received the short-acting “leaky vaccines” (the CDC claims over 257 million Americans (82.3%) over age 5 have recived at least one jab.
    The US claims that our median age of Covid death is “only” 78 yo, but this probably reflects incompetence, poor, untimely access to health care, which is the most expensive but the worst in the industrialized world! And although the US promised to give poor countries methodology to make Covid vaccines available, we didn’t. Surprisingly most such poor countries seem to have fared as well or better than countries without the vaccines (the US has by far the most Covid deaths and is in the bottom 10% of Covid death rate at 3044 per million, along with mostly Eastern European coutries).

    1. To Michael,
      Natural immunity is better – that is if the disease doesn’t kill you and then of course there is long Covid …. so I get the idea of taking your own risk – and if the only risk you were taking is for your own life, have at it – but it is risking others as well …
      Look, I have my critique of the predominant vaccines as well – we need better ones, but I am a believer in vaccines ….

  8. A nearly perfect analysis; but for veering off into the partisan blame game.

    All elected officials-top to bottom- from BOTH parties are equally responsible for these failures. When will we face this truth?

  9. I am an Australian of modest means. Reading this makes me sad. That a nation like the USA, rich and powerful can deprive people of universal healthcare, a basic living wage and housing is just so immoral. Shame on the elite, the military industrial complex and most of all on your spineless government t s of both sides.

  10. The greatest health threat on earth is poverty. But don’t look to humanitarians and their henchmen who control economies from which they profit to address this cause of human suffering through real public health reform of food production and distribution, nutrition, sanitation, and other more egalitarian sharing of earth’s resources. No, these parasitical predators upon human resources, intent on feeding their wealth and power, always look for ways to get more if not all for themselves, devising PR schemes of reform and progress, from green revolutions to green new deals, as likely to address class rule’s system of abuse as John D. Rockefeller passing out dimes to the ‘less fortunate’.

    Unfortunately, such cheap charity just this side of contempt is not where their deceits stop. Our abusers come to us crying crocodile tears and extending helping hands while bizzness as usual conceals the weapons they’re carrying. Like ‘vaccination’…campaigns for which, led by the likes of Gates following the (family) footsteps of the Rockefeller clan, have been preying upon experimental subjects in ‘less fortunate’ nations of the ‘developing world’ throughout Africa and India. There the usual suspects of poor and racially colonized subjects at the peripheries of empire, distant and obscured from those living under occupation in the Homeland, are made the canaries in the coal mine which tell us that ruling class science of eugenics, following its final solution in WWII, simply went underground, under cover of such Orwellian euphemism as population control, bioethics, and vaccination. In short, humanitarianism.

    If people were following real science, banished to the margins of controlled public discourses, rather than dutifully repeating what they’ve been told by ruling class institutions, they’d have a better idea of how many of the world’s masses are being lined up to follow the canaries into the coal mines, untermenschen marched left-right, left-right by plandemic into showers for disinfection, or medical experimentation to reduce mutant posthumans to biodigital slavery. Evidence, however, seems of no avail for the hard-core covidians still repeating the lies as truth.

    The greatest threat to our health, of which poverty is an effect – by design – really comes from class rule, under which humans have suffered and struggled for at least the past five thousand years of so-called Civilization. In our Age of Enlightenment, kings have been replaced by capitalists and priests by scientists serving the ruling class with advanced technological means of power.

    As Marx observed, and as indicated by resistance movements from Luddites in early industrialism to Zapatistas in the neoliberal era of globalization, capital constantly revolutionizes itself, through crisis, by means of these forces in the machinery of production, which radically alter our social conditions of existence – by design, by reason of the class war of conquest and colonization the “masters of mankind” (Adam Smith) must wage to maintain power until final victory may be won. That’s what the psychopaths high atop the pyramid scheme of insanity of our technological barbarism are now going for.

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