Americans everywhere are starting to panic about the recent outbreak of coronavirus, otherwise known as COVID-19. Families are hoarding food and other supplies. Companies are encouraging their employees to work for home. And people are wondering what life will be like should they actually need to self-quarantine.
The best way to stop transmission of the virus seems simple enough: Stay at home and get tested if you feel sick. But according to public health experts, both those things could prove especially difficult in low-income communities, where there are high numbers of families without health insurance and workers who can't so easily take off work. The U.S. economy, in particular, is not built for something like this.
"For a condition like coronavirus, where self-quarantining at home is a mainstay of containing the infection, financial and social barriers make it particularly hard for lower-income families," said Benjamin Sommers, a Harvard professor of health policy and economics.
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The problem for low-income communities starts with the U.S. healthcare system. In 2018, around 8.5 percent of Americans—or 27.5 million—were uninsured, which makes them less likely to seek medical care. Of that group, around one third of them had service jobs. Many of them only held a high school degree and were much more likely to live in poverty, according to the Census Bureau.
For many of these American workers, working from home is not an option, simply due to the nature of their jobs. It would be impossible to deliver food or drive for Uber or plumb a toilet from behind a computer screen in their pajamas. And many of the people who fall into this category do not have the ability to take multiple days off with pay even if they wanted to. In the U.S., about one fourth of private-sector workers do not get paid time off. That clocks in at 32 million people. Should many of them feel pressure to continue working when they shouldn't be interacting with the broader population, that could have an adverse effect on everyone in the country.
If the coronavirus continues to spread, the burden will be even harder for low-income parents. Carolyn Cannuscio, an associate professor of family medicine and community health at the University of Pennsylvania, said that parents may have to take off without compensation if their children contract the virus. "Who will care for the children when parents have to go to work?" Cannuscio asked.
"School closures, which have been effective control measures in flu outbreaks, also present formidable challenges for low-income, and especially single-adult, households," Cannuscio added. In Philadelphia, many low-income parents also rely on free breakfast and lunches that schools provide to their children, Cannuscio said. Replacing those meals would put even more of a financial burden on families.
Keeping away from people remains a key factor in stopping the spread of an infectious disease as well. Not only do lower-wage workers need to physically get to their jobs, but they have to do so on crowded public transportation, where they could potentially contract or spread the virus to others, elongating the crisis.
That's not ideal for any income bracket. The longer people walk around while they are sick, the longer the virus will persist. And while staying isolated indoors will certainly disrupt supply chains and slow down the economy, the faster people get better at home, the faster they'll be able to get back to work.
"This is a harsh reminder," Cannuscio said, "that we need to invest in science and public health, and that we need social policies to protect people every day, and not just during an emergency."
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