The campus was empty. Sprawling green lawns and wide sidewalks stood silent on what should have been a normal Friday afternoon at the University of Washington. The word on everyone’s mind was something unseen—coronavirus. With each passing moment, COVID-19 spreads like a wildfire. Pictures from New York City look like something out of a nuclear holocaust. While the world is no stranger to mass plagues and epidemics, the sheer global scope of the virus has everyone nervous. Even millennials’ self-deprecating tweets about the chance of cheap travel and the risk of death have gone down in correlation to the seriousness of the disease. BYU, like most universities in the US, has gone fully online. If you have been to the grocery store in the last month and been unable to buy toilet paper, you might be aware of the cost of plagues. But what about the other array of costs connected to COVID-19?
“Man with coronavirus skips self-isolation to go to work” one March headline read . This is surely not an uncommon story, as those who cannot afford to stay home from work have tried to press on. In the United States, “a quarter of employees have no access to paid sick leave and only scattered states and cities offer sickness benefits… One study found that, in epidemics, guaranteed sick pay cuts the spread of flu in America by 40%”
. The US government will shoulder a $2 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, and has already started distributing stimulus checks of $1,200 to most American adults, with an additional $500 per child under 16 .
Those deemed “essential workers” are bearing the brunt of the risk of COVID-19. While many of us are privileged to work from home, health care workers, delivery drivers, and grocery store employees go to work in face of this deadly disease. Companies like Walmart and Amazon are even mass hiring to keep up with the shifting demand of this new world order .
The swiftly falling stock market is an obvious cost. Though the Dow Jones has only fallen about -35% compared to the -53% decrease in the 2008 crisis, conditions are expected to worsen before they improve . And while the Earth might be sighing in relief at the closed Chinese factories, the workers without pay surely are not . Though every state in the U.S. has introduced some form of shelter in place, work from home, or social distancing measure, the virus continues to spread. Unemployment claims in “the third week of March of 2020, 3.3 million Americans file for unemployment in one week.” This cleanly beat out the previous record of about 700,000 Americans who filed in 1982 . Since then, around 6.6 million more have filed .
What are the levels of social costs? “People assume I have the virus just because I am Asian,” said one BYU co-ed. This is not unique, as multiple sources report increased rates of anti-Chinese sentiments . While the desire humans have to distance themselves from disease is a natural impulse, across the world fairly racist signs and slogans were put up. According to one CNN article, some businesses are saying COVID-19 has been more damaging for sales than SARS or 9/11 . In China, the rampant sexism of the healthcare industry has been highlighted with a flood light. Female health care workers in some hospitals are seen “willingly” shaving their heads to somehow prevent the spread of disease while male doctors with a full head of hair smile on. One Chinese publication “praised a hospital in Wuhan for ‘avoiding waste’ by serving different meals to male and female medical workers. An accompanying photograph appeared to show that male workers got an extra dish, and more [food] than their female colleagues” .
On the academic front, while some celebrated the move to classes online, many worry about the stability of their on-campus jobs. “I didn’t pay out of state tuition to take classes online,” bemoaned one University of Washington student. Videos of professors trying to use Zoom range from heartwarming to hilarious, but online classes are not the same learning environment. As one BYU professor said, “I haven’t felt a feeling this strange on campus since September 11.”
What a Time to Be Alive
While the costs outweigh the benefits, every time of uncertainty can be an opportunity. Carbon outputs have been significantly lower in China. Businesses are rethinking the use of office spaces and how technology can be a resource. Perhaps this creative destruction will breed new ideas that would have otherwise been undiscovered. Maybe you get a reason to skip that social gathering you were dreading. Perhaps, like many, you will finally have time to pick up that hobby you’ve never made time for. Maybe you will have the time with your family that your demanding job deprived you of. Looking back, most will remember a time of wide-spread uncertainty and sold-out toilet paper aisles during this global pandemic. Since the beginning of March, when BYU seniors were ordering caps and gowns and the Utah Jazz were still playing, the death toll has risen, the disease has not slowed down, and let’s be honest, most of us are going a little bit stir-crazy. Some states have already reached their projected peak COVID-19 deaths and hospital admissions . Most are doing all they can to “flatten the curve” and mitigate the devastating effects of this virus.
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