Clearly, when people think who might be at high risk of complications from COVID-19, they do not think of me. Why would someone in their mid-thirties with no elders at home be worried about Coronavirus? Aside from the mounting evidence that younger people have had serious complications related to COVID-19, I meet not one but three CDC categories for “higher risk of severe illness”: 1) moderate to severe asthma, 2) being immunocompromised, and 3) a BMI over 40. The second of these has given me hard-earned experiences that were advantageous in preparing for this outbreak and requires little shift in my everyday life (other than family members being home all the time). However, I worry about the first the most given what we know about COVID-19 and the continued fatal shortage of ventilators—and, it is a direct result of the United States government prioritizing cost savings over the health and well-being of people.
Many people have respiratory vulnerabilities from environmental conditions that state regulations and mitigation could improve, but in my situation there was a calculated choice. When I was in fourth grade, my school in Florida closed after being labelled a “sick school.” Those of us effected by the closure knew at the time that the school district had built the new elementary school with swamp cooling, which had contributed to toxic mold and mildew growth, instead of the more expensive option of air conditioning. What I learned later is that the state government made many such decisions to cut costs on construction using a building code enacted after the 1970s oil embargo that compromised the health of its workers and citizens. Florida became the center of a “sick building” epidemic in the early 1990s, with over half of its schools impacted.
The news about my school was broadcast nationwide, and I watched with my dad and sister on a television at the children’s hospital where I had been admitted to ICU when my lungs shut down. What happened to me was never in the news—the stories focused on the closure and the supposedly minor symptoms caused by indoor air pollution. But my classroom had been one of the worst, leaving me with a lifetime of clinic and hospital visits for allergies, “reactive airway disease,” asthma, and bronchitis. While the government paid for school improvements, the financial costs of the public health emergency were largely privatized—my parents, friends, occasionally private clinical drug trials, and I have paid for the health equipment, medicine, and care that I have needed as a result of the state’s irresponsibility.
Now, the same scenario—the US government putting people’s health in jeopardy to cut costs—is on replay, but at a larger scale. As James Hamblin recently wrote in The Atlantic, the government has known such a pandemic could occur and elected not to commit the funding to sufficiently prepare, electing a risk-tolerant approach:
To save money and roll the dice, hoping that things wouldn’t get too bad…. For just one example, the federal government has invested only about $500 million annually in the strategic stockpile, maintaining about 12 million N95 masks and 16,600 ventilators. This is enough to equip an area hit by a localized disease outbreak, natural disaster, or terrorist attack. But it is nowhere near what could be necessary in a Disease X pandemic.
Moreover, it has become abundantly clear that municipal, state, and federal officials in the United States knew that COVID-19 was on the horizon and did too little, too late to save lives. As someone living with the long-term health effects of a government that prioritized economics over people, it feels as though “risk groups” naturalizes who should live and die, as if these were not political decisions.
What will it take to implement the sweeping changes necessary to care for everyone, especially those who are already marginalized and vulnerable? We can no longer march/roll en masse to advocate for the changes we need during COVID-19—including supporting health care systems, abolishing debts, stopping rent collection, directing resources to those who need it the most, releasing kids and adults in detention, and reducing barriers to accessing public resources. For far too long, the solutions have been privatized and emphasized individual responsibility for stemming the spread of COVID-19, such as hand washing and self-quarantine. While the spread may be slowing, the solutions are not working and exacerbate inequalities and vulnerabilities. Too many people struggle from day-to-day, too many have gotten sick, too many have died.
I am afraid that I might not survive COVID-19, even with all the precautions taken by myself and my family, neighbors, friends, and colleagues. If I die, my plan is to take a page out of the playbook of the activist organization AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power to draw attention to the Reagan administration’s fatal neglect of the AIDS epidemic. I want my body laid out on the lawn of the capitol in Washington, DC, for those in power to witness the destruction caused by their faulty decisions in embodied form—not just a number in a news report. And while I am still here, I will keep fighting to direct resources to those who need it the most. I hope you will as well, through whatever means possible.
Erin L. Durban is an assistant professor of anthropology and lead of the new Queer and Trans* Ecologies Interdisciplinary Initiative at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities. Their current project is called Plastic Futures: Transnational Engagements with Waste, Recycling, and Toxicity in the Americas.
Cite as: Durban, Erin L. 2020. “The Government’s Economic Decisions Made Me High-Risk for Coronavirus.” Anthropology News website, April 22, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1383