Published on Global Health Studies Blog-Project of University of Miami , Summer 2020
In August 2019, I traveled to the US for the very first time, and many things made me wonder at that first moment I got off the plane and entered the airport. The first thing I noticed was the stark gap between how people looked and behaved. “Some people are noticeably poorer than others,” I thought to myself. Why was this the first thing manifested in front of my eyes as a newcomer? Even back in Europe, where I studied for my Masters, not everybody shares the same social or economic status. However, one might not notice this with one’s bare eyes.
On the other hand, I instantly saw what I have heard the most about the US: there seemed to be an invisible pyramid, and people were magically assigned to its different levels. The airport’s staff who assisted passengers with luggage looked very different from those in Italian airports. With dark circles around their eyes, apparently the result of lack of sleep, I realized I was in a new world.
I experienced my second shock in the supermarkets. The cashier nicely placed each item I bought into one plastic bag. I remember my heart started beating: I couldn’t believe my eyes. Not only were plastic bags completely free of charge but using them was highly common and encouraged. I felt like I was on another planet where no one has ever heard of the environment, climate change, or the fundamental daily steps humans take to protect the Earth. It took me a year to understand that many things in the US are: first, crucially centered around money; second, highly swayed by the media- which is fed continuously by where the money comes and goes; and third, and most importantly, everything is acted upon and conceived politically in bipartisan terms that have been exacerbated in recent months.
Shortly after I arrived in the US, the pandemic struck. Following China in January 2020, Italy was hit by COVID-19, a new and largely unknown virus at that time. As an Iranian living for some years in Italy and now in the US, I followed the news and updates in all three countries where I had friends, family, and loved ones. The US and Iran had many similarities, specifically their failure to take COVID-19 seriously and mismanagement of the public health crisis that has led to many lost lives. The US and Iranian government appeared to politicize the pandemic spending much of their energy on the blame game.
On the other hand, Europe in general and Italy, more specifically, seemed to be more focused on immediate public health crisis management. They saved time and lives by having their media educate the public and broadcasting any new changes. The Italian government, being hit by a pandemic that was largely unknown back in January, asked their citizens to stay home. Many did not respect the warnings and restrictions, therefore the Italian government set up rules and penalties and, consequently, kept people indoors in small Italian apartments and homes for 77 days. The rules were gradually being set and were gradually lifted beginning on May18th. By the end of June, the quarantine was over and people returned to the streets, bars and work with some new restrictions such as wearing masks indoors. While Americans flooded supermarkets to hoard foodstuffs when there were no lockdowns were ordered and in some extreme cases very loose stay-at-home orders were put in place, in Italy, people did the same in preparation for a long, unknown period of lockdown. As some Americans stood in long lines to purchase guns to protect their property from potential looters and thieves, many Italian lives were lost to the virus by the hundreds and thousands.
Some noticeable differences in these countries’ social structures were evident during the pandemic. The most important one is free public health insurance. I am still surprised by how people in the US do not demand universal healthcare or, rather, many Americans do not believe healthcare is one of the most basic human rights and not a luxury in 2020. One of the first warnings issued to me by my American friends was regarding calling an ambulance when experiencing a health emergency. By their own admission, it could cost you a fortune to get to the emergency room. Countries such as Italy or Iran, where I have lived, provide ambulatory services for free.
Unlike in Miami, and more generally, the US, the quarantine in Italy was very strict for those two and a half months. During those 77 days, Italians could only go to supermarkets and pharmacies with a valid ID card and a document proving that those establishments were the closest one to their residence. Only families or individuals living in the same household could ride in the same vehicle. No outdoor jogging or physical activity was allowed for at least one month, and there was a 7pm national curfew. Traveling from one province to another was banned – exceptions were made for business trips. Wearing masks in public was obligatory nationwide, and the price was set at 50 cents each. No one was allowed to sell a mask at a higher price point. Gyms, beauty salons, cafes, bars, restaurants, galleries, movie theatres, etc. were all closed. Only supermarkets, pharmacies, and companies preparing and distributing food and providing transportation services remained open. Strict social distancing policies were instantly formalized and applied in public transport. Government assistance was provided to freelance and seasonal workers at a rate of 600 euros per month. All other employees were paid 80% of their salary during the lockdown.
The disparate responses of states in the US make any country comparison challenging. What I can point out is some of the fundamental differences I have observed in the logic that has informed many US behaviors during this pandemic. How individual freedom is understood and defined in the US, such as by the right to carry a gun, dine out, go to the hair salon or work during a global pandemic, for example, has been constantly on my mind during my year here and particularly during this pandemic. How money is valued over people’s lives in this land with such strong non-secular roots, has been on my mind as well. Some of my American friends think COVID-19 will magically disappear after the 2020melection, placing US politics at the center of a global public health crisis over which it- nor any other country- has any control.
COVID-19 has taken many lives while affecting the health and livelihoods of many people the world over. One potential outcome of the November 2020 presidential election is that it may redirect the course of the US’s public health response to this crisis. However, compelling the American public to reimagine a US in which health care is a human right appears to be a longer-term project. The pyramid structure that has placed the poor, minorities, and communities of color’s lives at risk during this global pandemic has its roots in the history and formation of this country, and I doubt whether abolishing it is a goal of the American electorate or an immediate objective of this capitalist society.