Not all is equal with coronavirus

As I hunker down in my house, protected from COVID-19, I know that there are those without homes who expose themselves to coronavirus everyday.

I stuff my refrigerator with groceries to limit venturing out, but know too many can’t afford to stockpile food. Friends have ventured into low-income neighborhoods to find hand sanitizer, meat and toilet paper, where people don’t have the means to hoard. Shelves were bare closer to home.

I work safely from my dining room table, but know there are others who must report to hourly wage jobs, some with no sick leave, that put them in harm’s way of contracting a deadly virus, and bringing it home to their families. They can’t afford not to go to work.

The coronavirus pandemic is exposing the steep wealth gaps in this country that have always existed, but too many people found easy to ignore when unemployment was low and the stock market booming. There were always kids who got their main meals from school and college students barely surviving. Now, these inequalities are hitting us smack in the face.

Sure people had jobs, but how well did those jobs pay when people are struggling with rent just a couple of weeks into the pandemic? One lost paycheck and they can’t cover all their expenses. A survey last summer by Bankrate found that nearly three in 10, or 28%, of U.S. adults have no emergency savings, and only one in four have enough money squirreled away to cover three months of expenses. We are now starting to see the consequences of living paycheck to paycheck, something many people don’t have a choice but to do.

Across the country more than 3 million people applied for jobless benefits the week ending March 21, and that number will continue to grow. How many of them will be able to make that money, which is just part of their normal income, stretch far enough to pay for basic necessities?

And that gig economy that supposedly gave people such flexibility and freedom? The other side of that story is that many people were also forced into these gigs as second jobs to make ends meet. As people are laid off, working for the likes of Uber, DoorDash and Instacart are now primary sources of income that likely don’t cover the bills.

The white collar professionals are not the ones keeping the country churning right now. It is the janitors, grocery clerks, delivery people and health care workers taking care of the sick and homebound. They are putting their lives at risk so that rest of us aren’t woefully inconvenienced. Many work with no protective gear and with hope and mercy that they won’t contract the deadly respiratory virus. And if they do, that they won’t be one of the ones to die. COVID-19 is killing young and old, healthy and ill.

Already there are stories of Amazon warehouse workers and postal employees who have contracted the virus — and many others who are scared they will be next.

It is up to the rest of us to have compassion for those who are putting their lives at risk and act accordingly. Stay home. It’s not that hard. I for one am not leaving the house unless absolutely necessary. I try to order groceries online ahead of time and pick them up so I don’t have to go in the store. We must all practice selflessness and put human lives before our own comfort levels.

Stir crazy is the way I feel most days, but I try not to whine too much and make myself feel better with walks outside with my husband. After all, we have it better than a lot of people.

No one knows how long this pandemic will last, or how much more damage it will inflict on the economy and further expose wealth inequalities.

If we learn anything when we get to the other side of this pandemic, may it be that we take better care of the country’s most vulnerable. We cannot continue to be a place where the haves and have nots live such disparately different lives.

Andrea K. McDaniels is the Baltimore Sun’s deputy editorial page editor.