The Portrayal of a Pandemic

Ross Laylock passed away of AIDS in January 1991. His partner, the artist Felix Gonzales-Torres, memorialized Ross with the piece Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.). The exhibit consists of a pile of 175 pounds of wrapped candy. The 175 pounds represent approximately the weight that Ross was when he first contracted HIV. Visitors can take a candy from the pile, and just as Ross’ afflicted body, the weight of the exhibit disappears little by little. If one observes the exhibition long enough, the spectator experiences the sense of impotence, of physical loss of a loved one, of loss of weight and volume when someone’s body is terminally ill.

Thirty years after Ross’ passing, we are amid a new pandemic, one that has taken more than three-hundred thousand Americans from their families, from their lovers. Just as with Gonzales-Torres’ piece, words cannot explain the pain many of us are experiencing at this time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected low-wage workers and people of color the most. While the coronavirus does not discriminate, our labor market does. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that African-Americans are 3.7 times more likely to be hospitalized and 2.9 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than a White Non-Hispanic. A Latinx person is 4.1 times more likely to be hospitalized and 2.9 more likely to die than a White Non-Hispanic person. An American Indian or Alaska Native person is 4.0 times more likely to be hospitalized and 2.6 times more likely to die from COVID19 than a White Non-Hispanic person. These statistics are not only sobering, they are also likely underestimated because of lack of access to health care and testing and lack of reporting. As much as the LGBTQ community carried the weight of the AIDS pandemic, communities of color bear the burden of the COVID19 pandemic. How did we get here?

So much pain was not unavoidable. Examples of countries that control the spread of the virus abound. There is no secret: mask-wearing, contact tracing, social distance, exposure surveillance, and widespread testing. Just like in America, not everybody happily complies with these guidelines, but people comply.

Just as Gonzales-Torres’ art explains the pain of a pandemic, economics explains the path to a pandemic. The difference across countries has been attributed to culture: to collectivism instead of individualism, for example, the Japanese jishuku. In turn, I argue that the difference is property rights: who implicitly or explicitly decides to wear or not a mask. The narrative in America even now is whether wearing masks is about individual freedom. By either not enforcing mask mandates or completely ignoring them, local governments have assigned the individual the property right to wear a mask.

Yet, the decision to wear a mask or not has social consequences. Those who do not wear a mask, who do not social distance, who ignore contract tracing alerts are not only increasing their own risk; they are also placing a larger risk on others. It is essential workers who carry the largest risk during the pandemic, yet little can they do. Economists define an externality as the effect of someone’s actions on another person’s welfare, either intended or unintended. Every person who refuses to follow guidelines and interacts with an essential worker is placing an externality on the worker. Every single interaction with another person, increases the risk of transmission. The more interactions, the higher the risk. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, ninety percent of workers without a college degree cannot work from home; Hispanic workers are forty percent less likely to work from home than Non-Hispanic workers; Black workers are twenty-five percent less likely to work from home. These risks are greatest among low-paid, people of color who cannot work from home.

On Tuesday, Congress approved the second CARES Act. There is much to like about this bill: expansion of SNAP benefits, recalculation of the Earned Income Tax Credit eligibility, money for schools and daycare centers. Yet, one thing is still missing: extra pay for essential workers. The bill ignores the people who have risked their lives to keep the economy from collapsing: from doctors and nurses to grocery store clerks. Who are these essential workers? People of color, Black and Hispanics are over-represented among them.

Gonzalez-Torres’ art allows us to understand, thirty years later, the pain from the AIDS pandemic. How will future generations humanize the pain of this pandemic? How will artists represent to our grandchildren the inequity of it: the hundreds of thousands dead, the gofundme fundraisers for those who left us too early, for those young enough that left widows and minor children? How will our memory appreciate that thousands of workers of color could not shelter at home, risking their lives as health care professionals, as grocery store clerks, staffing store counters, or working the fields? Will the artist capture that local governments did not enforce their pandemic guidelines, and that Congress did not compensate essential workers for the risk?

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