Opinion |

Privileged America Complains on Its Endless Coronavirus Spring Break

When there’s talk about eliminating 80 year olds, I get a little nervous. When spoiled Americans talk 'deprivation,' or crowd the beaches, I think about all the vulnerable people they can't see, but are willing to sacrifice

Ishmael Reed
Ishmael Reed
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Joggers trespass at the Miami Beach in Miami, closed to prevent the spread of coronavirus. March 19, 2020
Joggers trespass at the Miami Beach in Miami, closed to prevent the spread of coronavirus. March 19, 2020Credit: AFP
Ishmael Reed
Ishmael Reed

The coronavirus crisis exposes America’s inequalities, racism, rotten information sources and compromised morals every single day.

President Trump says that he might suspend "social distancing" on Easter, the day that his Evangelical supporters take in hundreds of millions in donations. His daily briefings earn high ratings for the networks, but bleed their credibility. Now they’re deciding whether to run his uninformed rants, or keep making money. National Public Radio has decided against continuing to run them. How do you think the others will decide? 

Fox News has been making light of the pandemic, but its boss, Rupert Murdoch, and his family aren’t fools: they themselves were early adopters of precautions against the contagion. But the Fox News poison is both general – and specific.

The Lieutenant Governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, recommends that seniors be sacrificed in order to save the stock market. Fox News commentator Brit Hume agreed, defending Patrick’s comments by saying it is "entirely reasonable that elderly Americans could be fine with dying amid the coronavirus outbreak to save the U.S. economy." 

I get a little nervous when there’s talk about eliminating 80 year olds. I’m 82. 

I’ve been under a kind of consensual house arrest for over a week. I went out for a walk at the Golden Bear track above the University of California at Berkeley, where I taught for over 35 years. But the walkers weren’t obeying the recommendation to stay six feet apart from each other – and me. Earlier, in a bid to get away from the plague news, I encountered the plague ship, the Grand Princess, which was parked in the Port of Oakland. Will I have to die so that the owners and operators of the Grand Princess might thrive? 

Ishmael Reed at the Port of Oakland; behind him, the Grand Princess cruise ship
Ishmael Reed at the Port of Oakland; behind him, the Grand Princess cruise shipCredit: Carla Blank

The first global crisis that I experienced was World War II. Everybody seemed to pitch in. The enemy was real and concrete, not something crawling under a microscope. There was no requirement that only 80-year-olds serve. I was in first grade. We were encouraged to collect canned food for "the starving people of Europe." 

We lived in the projects, which my parents saw as a stopover on the way to the middle class, which they subsequently achieved. Having survived a depression, they now faced a war launched by white nationalists.

I remember collecting canned food from my black neighbors before I went to school. Those neighbors, because of food rationing, had few goods themselves. They sacrificed like the black soldiers who were drafted only to be commanded by white Southern officers chosen because "they knew how to handle niggers." Their humiliations and abuse were recorded by two great novelists and veterans, the late John A. Williams and John O. Killens

They note that white and black soldiers - U.S. troops all - sometimes waged physical combat against each other, while the baffled enemy looked on. When I told navy veteran Harry Belafonte that John A.Williams had had a fist fight with a white fellow soldier, he remarked, "Just one?"

Speaking from the point-of-view of a curmudgeon, maybe the younger generation just hasn’t been tested like we were. This is Times’ writer Michelle Goldberg's idea of deprivation. "I don’t have a dining room, but I’ve been able to eat in thousands of restaurants. I have no storage space, but everything I needed was at the bodega. I don’t have a home office, but I could work at coffee shops. Now those supports are gone." 

Contrast that with the photos taken in Cameroon by Barbara Lowenstein, a regular contributor to my zine, Konch. This new batch adds to the photos she’s collected from a number of African countries. Not only is she a superb photographer, but by showing Africans in their everyday lives, and living in the conditions that her subjects endure, she counters the cartoonish picture of sub-Saharan Africa offered by the corporate media. 

She shows that hundreds of millions would be satisfied with just electricity, clean water, and sanitation, which Ms. Goldberg and the rest of us take for granted. I’m sure that the over 4000 Oakland homeless, some of whom live near my home, would be satisfied with a meal in just one of those thousand restaurants that Ms. Goldberg misses.

Surfer reflected in a window outside a restaurant serving carry out orders, after California Governor Gavin Newsom's statewide "stay at home order" in the face of the fast-spreading coronavirus. Guerneville, California, U.S., March 21, 2020
Surfer reflected in a window outside a restaurant serving carry out orders, after California Governor Gavin Newsom's statewide "stay at home order" against coronavirus. Guerneville, CA, March 21, 2020Credit: SHANNON STAPLETON/ REUTERS

Maybe millions of Americans are so spoiled and privileged, crowding on beaches and at Mardi Gras, that they might be unable to meet this calamity. NBA player Udonis Haslem chided those students who flock to Miami beaches without regard for those less fortunate than they.

"If our schools have to close down for a long time because this corona thing gets out of control, millions of kids are going home to empty refrigerators…The worse this pandemic gets, the worse it’s going to be for those kids…

"And I’ll tell you one more thing—this idea about those people, that because of coronavirus they’re going to go hungry? They were already hungry. Way before all this. They were already worrying about where their next meal was gonna come from, or where they’re gonna sleep tonight, or how they’re going to get their next dollar… this ain’t about me. It ain’t about you….This thing is about us….This virus is going to affect everybody, especially the most vulnerable." 

Life is not a permanent spring break. Disaster doesn’t make us equal, but we will all suffer for the selfishness of some of us. For us who grew up during World War II, we remember an endless winter.

Ishmael Reed, writer and poet, is Distinguished Professor at the California College Of The Arts. His "Malcolm and Me" is a best-selling audio-book

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