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Here’s how the coronavirus divides us

When it comes to the coronavirus, we’re learning not all of us are equal. Celebrities, some elites (remember that word ‘some’) and NBA stars—even boorish ones—can get tested straight away, while everyone else is being denied, even many with symptoms.

Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson were tested. Idris Elba was tested. Sean Payton was tested. The entire Utah Jazz’s NBA team was tested, using half of the state of Oklahoma’s daily allotment of test kits—this after the Jazz’s Rudy Gobert previously mocked fears of the virus by intentionally touching microphones at a press conference. (Nice.) Kevin Durant was also tested along with Nets teammates and many other NBA teams. 

And 100 or so wealthy New Yorkers belonging to Sollis Health, a so-called medical concierge service, were able to obtain tests with ease. Sollis, you should know, offers “house calls, with a portable X-ray machine, to our members in the Hamptons during the summer months.” (Of course it does.)

Now I sincerely wish all the best and a speedy recovery to any of those aforementioned folks who are ill. And if they had symptoms when they requested a test, they 100% should have been tested. But I’m also saying that others, i.e., many thousands of Americans with symptoms who are being denied testing should be tested too. They should not be a lower priority. 

“This whole crisis is like an X-ray revealing the inner workings of the social/economic structures,” says Nelson Lichtenstein, professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

If it makes you feel any better, (and it shouldn’t) some high-profile people are in fact being turned down. Pulitzer Prize-winning conservative columnist and former Reagan speechwriter, Peggy Noonan became highly symptomatic and was turned down for a test. She naturally wrote about it with her usual eloquence and outrage. And then there’s Congressman Don Beyer (D-Va.) who was exposed to a person that had COVID-19. Beyer asked Dr. Brian Monahan, the attending physician of the United States Congress and the United States Supreme Court, to be tested and was denied. Beyer and his wife self-quarantined and are both fine.

“I didn't get any special treatment and yeah that’s fair,” Beyer told me on Friday. “But it’s really not about me or Congress. The real concern is the population in this country who don’t have resources and access to health care.” Poor people, people of color, undocumented workers and the homeless will get sick disproportionately Beyer argues. “The coronavirus really magnifies and accentuates various forms of inequality in our country,” he said. 

But the testing gap is hardly the only divide when it comes to this pandemic. 

Think first about the people who still have to go to work versus the people who get to work from home. This is a salaried versus hourly divide, or what we used to call blue collar versus white collar. I was taking the New York City subway into the office every day until this Wednesday, when I began to work from home, and each day there were fewer and fewer professionals. The subway became almost entirely a train car of cashiers, delivery guys, and cleaners.

These folks can’t just flip on Zoom, Hangouts, Skype, WebEx (like I can) to restructure sick balance sheets, formulate HR strategies or code. They have to operate cash registers, deliver food and sweep up pharmacies, in other words man the jobs that the government now considers essential. They don’t have a choice of course. They have to go to work, putting themselves in harm’s way, because the boss says so, but also because what are they going to do, quit? It’s not like they have some brokerage account at Morgan Stanley to fall back on.

Phillip Ruiz, 34, an Amazon warehouse worker at a facility in Staten Island for the past year and a half, who makes $18.70 per hour, has been reluctant to go to work for fear of getting sick.

“My dad is two years away from 80 and has pre-existing conditions. I don’t want to put him at risk,” says Ruiz. “They’re treating this like we don’t want to go in. It’s not the case at all, who wouldn't want to go into work and make money under normal circumstances.”

Food delivery driver Dori McGuire Guy wears a protective mask as she loads a take-out order into her car at the Pike Place Market, Friday, March 20, 2020, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Millions of gig economy workers are vulnerable, too, notes Janice Fine, a professor at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. “Someone classified as an independent contractor does not qualify for unemployment insurance or for other kinds of relief programs,” she says. “It’s a moment when you can hold up the employment contract and it looks like swiss cheese.”

As for businesses, we all know airlines, restaurants, hotels, and really almost every company are getting kicked in the gut. Goldman Sachs says GDP may be down 24% in Q2. But the FANGs and their ilk, well, they won’t be hit that badly. In fact they may make out. Dan Ives, equity analyst at Wedbush Securities who covers tech, says there will be pain, but “they’re companies even in stress case worst case type scenarios still generate tens of billions in free cash flow.”

Sure Apple’s iPhone sales will take a hit and the company closed its stores, but you can still buy all its stuff online, plus increasingly Apple has subscription revenue to tide it over. At Google, I’m told they’re scrambling to keep up with all the millions of people at home online instead of doing, well, everything else we used to do. As for Facebook? It’s likely more people than ever are on it in this environment. What about Netflix and chill? Sure. Much more of that happening too. Amazon? Forget about it. The company is hiring 100,000 people. And who owns Skype, Xbox and LinkedIn? Correct, Microsoft. Those businesses will do just fine.

Rich get richer anyone?

Then there’s the story of the two senators, Kelly Loeffler, (R-GA) and Richard Burr (R-NC) who sold hundreds of thousands, to millions of dollars of stock after being warned in a private briefing in January about the catastrophic risks posed by the coronavirus. Loeffler, who’s married to Jeff Sprecher, the CEO of the company that owns the NYSE, fired back on Twitter: “I do not make investment decisions for my portfolio. Investment decisions are made by multiple third-party advisors without my or my husband's knowledge or involvement.” (Maybe so, but I noted the potential for conflicts of interest like this in a recent article about Loeffler.)

Senator Kelly Loeffler arrives for the Republican policy luncheon at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, DC on March 19, 2020. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

As for Burr he said that “the sales were prompted purely by public news reporting on the coronavirus, not by nonpublic information gleaned through his official duties.”

Senators, honestly, this doesn’t look good.

In a new book, “The Velvet Rope Economy: How Inequality Became Big Business,” New York Times writer Nelson Schwartz explores how “a virtual velvet rope divides Americans in every arena of life, creating a friction-free existence for those with money on one side and a Darwinian struggle for the middle class on the other side.” Schwartz uses examples in everything from education, to highways, home security and sadly enough health care.

On one side...Schwartz says, for a price, red tape is cut, lines are jumped, appointments are secured, and doors are opened. On the other side, middle- and working-class Americans fight to find an empty seat on the plane, a place in line with their kids at the amusement park, a college acceptance, or a hospital bed.

“We are all aware of the gap between the rich and everyone else, but when we weren't looking, business innovators stepped in to exploit it, shifting services away from the masses and finding new ways to profit by serving the privileged. And as decision-makers and corporate leaders increasingly live on the friction-free side of the velvet rope, they are less inclined to change--or even notice--the obstacles everyone else must contend with.”

Nelson Lichtenstein believes people are getting fed up, and the government needs to step up. “I think it puts an end to the world that Ronald Reagan inaugurated when he said the eight worst words you want to hear are “I’m from the government and want to help.” It’s an ending to that moment,” he says.

Maybe not quite yet Mr. Lichtenstein.

At one of President Trump’s daily televised press conferences this week—now held in lieu of rallies, which are verboden because of coronavirus—President Trump was asked about non-symptomatic athletes and the well-connected getting to the front of the line.

Is that right Mr. President? “No, I wouldn't say so,” Trump responded, “but perhaps that’s been the story of life.”

I understand what the president is saying, but actually that’s always been a part of the story of life we don’t have to accept. Especially right now.

 This article was featured in a Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on March 21, 2020. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe

Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer.

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