a worker sanitizing a bus

2020 has tested our humanity. Where do we go from here?

COVID-19 and protests for social justice have shined a spotlight on society’s inequities and most vulnerable people.

In full protective gear, Sterling Johnson sanitizes a Bay Area Rapid Transit train at a facility in Concord, California.
This story appears in the November 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Ruby Moss somehow found the strength to drop to her knees in prayer. Although severely weakened herself from the virus, she cried out to God to plead for the life of Adolphus Moss, her husband of 32 years.

He was deteriorating rapidly. A nurse had just called from a hospital in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to warn that even with a fully engaged ventilator, Adolphus could no longer breathe.

“Hear my cry, O Lord. Spare his life,” Ruby repeated desperately. Several minutes into her prayer for a miracle, her answer was delivered: “I’m sorry. He didn’t make it,” said a voice on the other end of the phone.

A graveside ceremony was held for Adolphus Moss at Fourth Creek Baptist Church Cemetery in York, Alabama, in April. Without fanfare or a public commemoration of his life, Moss, 67, a deacon in his church and respected civic leader in his rural community, was ushered into the ground. His entire service lasted 10 minutes.

“I wasn’t able to give my husband the kind of home-going service he deserved,” says Ruby, who has written a small legacy book honoring her late husband. “We were told 10 people could attend and that two would be funeral officials. It seemed like we were in a whole different world. It didn’t seem real.”

The year 2020 has brought unimaginable change to the way we live, and the way we die. The dying die alone. Survivors grieve in solitude. The death ritual has changed beyond recognition. The Irish wake, with its tradition of an open coffin surrounded by people singing, hugging, and toasting the departed, is now severely curtailed. The long-celebrated African-American custom of funeral repasts after home-going ceremonies—a practice dating back to slavery—has largely come to a halt. Ritual body washings of the deceased, widely practiced by Eastern and Middle Eastern faiths, are performed in protective equipment, if at all. Final breaths now are routinely taken without the comfort of a familiar touch or parting hug. COVID-19 has turned death into the loneliest journey of the shared human experience.

“Funerals are enormously essential in navigating grief,” said William Hoy, clinical professor of medical humanities at Baylor University. “A Zoom funeral is not the same. I fear there will be a heavy price to pay for our inability to rub shoulders, shed tears, and mourn in the same physical space.”

Hoy pointed out that “some survivors who lost family during the 9/11 terrorist attacks have yet to recover from the fact that the bodies of loved ones were never found or properly laid to rest. The grief-stricken absolutely require the human connection.”

It has become painfully clear that the virus has altered life as we know it.

Along with leaving a staggering body count, the virus also has stolen the most basic treasures of our shared experience. Well-established routines involving work, education, and family life are strangely disfigured, daily habits capsized. The ceremonial mile markers that register achievement have been shredded. Since March, we frequently have engaged in unusual behaviors, such as panic shopping for toilet paper or quarreling with strangers over the probity of wearing face masks in public.

Structural inequalities and misaligned cultural values of societies around the world are being examined and judged. What is essential work? Who is an essential worker? And why are the working poor disproportionately on the front lines and so inadequately protected?

An estimated 1.9 million tourists descended on Rio de Janeiro, the oceanside metropolis, for a week of partying in February. The revelers likely were not thinking about the plight of the poor as they consumed caipirinhas, the national drink of Brazil, and frolicked along the famous beaches of Copacabana. But the tens of thousands of people who gathered at the Sambadrome Marquês de Sapucaí, a downtown stadium, to watch a succession of 13 parade ensembles on the last Sunday of Carnival were treated to a celebration of poor Brazilian women.

Unidos do Viradouro, a prestigious samba school, used its performance to pay tribute to impoverished Black women laborers known as the washerwomen of Salvador, Brazil, who were descendants of enslaved Africans. In the furiously contested parade competition, Unidos do Viradouro was judged the best in show. Its performance was celebrated by an international audience, which sensed, perhaps, an affinity for and connection to the vulnerable and the poor.

The feel-good moment ended abruptly.

Brazil recorded its first case of COVID-19 the same day. A 61-year-old businessman who recently had visited northern Italy went to a São Paulo hospital complaining of fever, cough, and a sore throat. He was Latin America’s patient zero. His infection signaled to disease specialists that the coronavirus already was likely sweeping across South America. Medically and economically vulnerable hosts for the virus, such as the washerwomen, or laundresses, now commonly known as lavadeiras, and millions of others crowded into Brazil’s favelas, suddenly were at dire risk.

If humanity is to ultimately prevail over COVID-19 and viruses yet to come, the poor and the socially disenfranchised—the washerwomen—must be included in the safety net that sustains us all.(1) Brazil was second only to the United States as of late August in total number of infections and confirmed deaths.

(1) Globally, 61 percent of people work in the informal economy in such jobs as domestic helpers, street vendors, delivery drivers, and day laborers.

COVID-19 is a cunning virus. Those who suffer long-standing social inequities steeped in class, caste, race, and wealth are especially vulnerable. It exploited preexisting conditions. And when it intersected with the civil unrest that exploded in the United States in the summer, overlapping crises unfolded. While a novel virus attacked lungs, a much more familiar virus continued to wage war on Black lives. After watching George Floyd slowly die under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, the world reacted with fury and resolve. From the Middle East, Europe, and the most unexpected parts of rural America, the chant “Black Lives Matter” was heard.(2)

(2) A Black Lives Matter protest occurred in 40 percent of U.S. counties, in 60 countries, and on every continent except Antarctica.

The statement brought global recognition to the concept that life is interconnected, sacred, and must be protected. A cross section of demographics and widely diverse cultures decided to no longer stand silent in the face of systemic police abuse and latent white supremacist views. That’s when statues began to topple and long-revered names were removed from university buildings.

It all revealed something simple that we now have to confront: In order to survive this virus, and others in waiting, we must become a more fair and just collection of societies. An obvious truth has been exposed: In viral warfare, humanity is as strong as its weakest link. Our collective survival depends on an ability to develop a far greater appreciation for the direct relationship between universal health and social justice. It also requires a willingness to take decisive steps to alleviate the never ending pandemic of crushing poverty that is the Achilles’ heel of the planet.

Some underestimated the virus and considered it manageable if not benign. The world has watched the ebb and flow of its attacks and often reacted tragically. As infection rates skyrocketed, Bishop Gerald Glenn, 66, a prominent evangelical pastor in Chesterfield, Virginia, exhorted his congregation on the fourth Sunday in March not to fear the virus. Like many ecumenical leaders, Glenn, a former police officer, didn’t heed the advice of Virginia governor Ralph Northam and others who warned against gatherings of more than 10 people.

“I firmly believe that God is larger than this dreaded virus,” Glenn told his parishioners. “If I had to deliver my own eulogy, I’d say, ‘God is greater than any challenge you and I face.’ That would be my epitaph.”

Glenn died from COVID-19 three weeks later. His religious faith never appeared to waver, but neither did the deadly resolve of the virus.

Weeks later, the annual hajj was reduced to skeletal proportion to counter the inestimable health risk posed by the five-day religious ceremony. The pilgrimage, which all physically and financially able Muslims are obliged to make once in their lives, constitutes one of the five pillars of Islam.

Normally, upwards of two million pilgrims make the journey to Mecca each year. This year the crowd was limited to a thousand people. The virus’s ambush of a world religion that is embraced by nearly two billion people laid bare its sinister mode of attack. It targets not only the bodies of victims but also the spirit of those forced into separation and isolation.

A devoutly religious man in Columbus, Ohio, posted a song on Facebook last summer that he hoped would cheer and comfort many of his lonely and elderly friends. My father, who turned 78 in June, used the occasion of his birthday to pick up his ever present acoustic guitar. He stood in front of his computer and recorded himself performing a song he wrote 30 years ago. He called the song “God’s been good to me.” It was a song of praise and gratitude.

Frank Morris, who once pastored a small country church in the foothills of Appalachia, was distraught about the reality that he no longer could safely attend weekly worship services or celebrate his birthday with loved ones. That didn’t stop him from trying to connect with others.

After viewing the video, I asked my father why he made it and then chose to share it. His answer was simple.

“I wanted to reach out to people who are worried or sick and let them know that I was thinking about them and that they are not alone. I wanted them to remember the Psalms of David: ‘I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their seed begging bread,’” he said, paraphrasing a scripture I’ve heard him quote frequently.

Hopefully, his words are more than scriptural cliché. Perhaps viral death has presented us with a wake-up call we will not ignore. The catastrophic health threat that now exposes our weaknesses as a species also illuminates our connection. That is the silver lining of the moment. Under the threat of plague, we have been given the opportunity to reconsider how communities and societies depend on one another, despite long-standing, artificial divisions.(3)

(3) COVID-19 has exacerbated the hunger problem in the U.S.: Over 54 million people, including 18 million children, may not have enough to eat. From March to June, U.S. food banks distributed 1.9 billion meals.

It’s not hyperbole to say we are all pieces in a global chain of dominoes. Some of us are much more susceptible, but all are dangerously at risk of falling.

Few American cities have been hit as early and ferociously by the pandemic as Detroit. The city has endured the kind of attack that is capable of incinerating hope. Once the auto capital of the world, the Motor City declared bankruptcy in 2013. But long before that crisis, it had for decades suffered the desperation of being one of America’s poorest large cities. Motown was on its way back, though.

Passionate local residents breathed life into their beloved city, investing in Detroit’s neighborhoods as others sought comfort elsewhere.

Its riverfront downtown seemed on the verge of roaring to life with a resurgence of high-end restaurants and pricey condominiums. Blighted neighborhoods written off as lost were attracting developers and well-heeled urban pioneers. Then, in mid-March, COVID-19 struck.

The disease instantly exposed all of the preexisting conditions that made Detroit vulnerable.

Thousands of the city’s impoverished, mostly African-American residents lacked running water in their homes because of unpaid water bills. How could they wash their hands to help ward off the virus?

Within weeks of the pandemic’s spread, more than 40 percent of city residents employed before the virus struck had lost their jobs, many permanently. Based on a University of Michigan survey with more than 700 respondents, Detroit’s unemployment rate by late April was nearly 48 percent—more than double that of the state overall. Death marched in like a parade.

The tragic story of Jason Hargrove offers a cautionary tale of the interconnectedness of strangers and how death stalks even the most pedestrian encounters.

A married father of six, Hargrove drove a public bus for the city of Detroit. His job was considered essential in a city where nearly 20 percent of residents rely on public transportation. Early in March, Hargrove grew worried. He told his wife and work colleagues that he was concerned that the job had become risky.

His worst nightmare materialized, he said, when a middle-aged woman boarded his bus, stood behind him, and coughed repeatedly. She made no effort to cover her mouth.

In a Facebook post on March 21, Hargrove angrily vented at the unidentified woman: “I feel violated. I feel violated for the folks who were on the bus when this happened,” Hargrove said in the video.

Eleven days after the video was posted, Hargrove died in an intensive care unit in a Detroit hospital. He was a frontline worker who, in the age of a pandemic, assumed the risk of a dangerous job.

“Jason cared deeply about his job,” said Desha Johnson-Hargrove, his wife. “He wasn’t making millions of dollars, but he felt that he was directly responsible for the safety of his passengers, and he always attempted to connect with them. Everyone was greeted with a ‘good morning, sir,’ or ‘good morning, ma’am.’ That’s the kind of person we’ve lost.”

Just like legions of public transit operators in crowded cities such as Tokyo, New York, or Mumbai, Hargrove didn’t have the luxury of working from home. Many of his riders were laborers themselves, headed to low-wage jobs that demand a physical presence in a factory, grocery store, or nursing home. The buses became rolling petri dishes.

We know with certainty that select groups of people will continue to remain at high risk of getting sick or dying from the virus for the simplest of reasons: They don’t have access to health care or, like Jason Hargrove, they work in essential frontline jobs where exposure is all but certain. In the United States, African Americans and Latinos have suffered disproportionate rates of fatalities from health issues often labeled preexisting conditions, or simply because the nature of their work forces them to leave their homes.

The same is true globally. Each time we enter a grocery store, we stare into the eyes of a desperate mother or of others who are unable to shelter in place. That’s the interconnection that we suddenly recognize: Some of our most vulnerable are our most essential.

“In too many countries the social contract has been broken, and the very global institutions established to reinforce rights, equality, inclusive growth, and global stability have contributed to the convergence of crises the world now faces,” said Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, which represents 200 million workers in 163 countries and territories.

The breadth of global poverty was, of course, staggering long before the arrival of COVID-19. Nearly half of the world’s population lives in poverty, according to Oxfam, an international charitable organization focused on alleviating global poverty. The combined wealth of the world’s 2,153 richest people exceeds that of 4.6 billion people. Coronavirus has exacerbated the horror show in ways still to be determined. In July Oxfam estimated that as many as 12,000 people a day could die from COVID-related hunger by year’s end. That number could exceed the number of deaths from the disease itself. (Follow National Geographic's comprehensive coronavirus coverage.)

New hunger spots proliferate, not only in distressed countries such as South Sudan and Venezuela but also in middle-income countries such as India, South Africa, and Brazil.(4) Millions who barely survived before the pandemic are now at risk. The United States is not immune from hunger. With businesses forced to shut down and schools relegated to remote learning, households rarely have been more stressed and, in some cases, food insecure.

(4) The world’s top 10 hunger hot spots are Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Venezuela, West African Sahel, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, and Haiti.

The Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking Poll in May found that 26 percent of Americans reported that since February, they or a household member had gone without meals or relied on charities or government programs for groceries—including 13 percent who said they had visited a food bank or pantry for supplies.

“The awful truth is that food insecurity is exploding here in our own backyard,” said Oxfam America CEO and president Abby Maxman in a press announcement.

“Every town has people who are going to bed hungry right now. Those who were on the edge before are now struggling to stay afloat. In Mississippi, nearly a quarter of all residents are experiencing food insecurity; in Louisiana, over a third of all children are facing empty cupboards.”

As many U.S. communities struggle to survive intact,(5) those who look out for the most vulnerable have become even more crucial.

(5) In just one month early in the pandemic, nearly 20 percent of U.S. adults reported losing wages as a result of COVID-19.

On a hot July day, Vince Cushman, a manager for the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, was drenched in sweat and directing traffic in a municipal parking lot. Few downtown office workers were driving into the city because of the virus, so the large lot had become a staging area for a weekly food distribution serving about 2,000 families in the Cleveland area each Thursday.

For eight years Cushman has worked at what he calls one of the busiest food banks in the United States. He considers his job a public service. He said he believes community service is a hallmark of Cleveland. That’s one reason he was distraught when he contracted COVID-19 in March; from where, he’s not sure. He missed nearly six weeks before he recovered.

“We’ve been through a lot of hard times. That’s why in time of crisis, I believe we respond better than a lot of places that haven’t had to consistently handle adversity. We also are careful not to judge people in their time of need,” Cushman said.

“I always tell my volunteers, we never know the circumstance that caused someone to get in a line for food. I don’t care if they drove into the parking lot in a Lexus, you don’t know if they’re homeless and living out of that car. Our job is to treat them with dignity and civility with the understanding that we’ve been given an opportunity to serve them,” he said.

But it’s not just the hunger of desperate families that worries educators around the world. The likelihood that children are suffering unrecoverable setbacks in their education is a critical concern.

A March poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that as U.S. schools switched from in-person classrooms to remote instruction, parents in households earning less than $50,000 annually were particularly worried about the future prospects for their children. Some 72 percent of these parents said they were concerned that their children would fall behind academically. Meanwhile 56 percent of parents in high-income households harbored the same fears.

“We already know that—all else being equal— students on average benefit academically and in their social and emotional development from being in school,” said Aaron Pallas, chair of the Department of Education Policy and Social Analysis at Teachers College of Columbia University. “Even planned interruptions, such as summer vacations, can slow students down, and these interruptions may hit students from working-class and impoverished backgrounds harder than middle-class children and youth.”

Despite the pandemic shuttering schools and workplaces and reshaping our daily lives, a reconsideration of history continues. The planet overflows in currents of racial unrest, social uprisings, and continued calls for immediate redress of social inequality.

Following the death of George Floyd, the 46-year-old African American who died after being arrested in Minneapolis on suspicions of passing a counterfeit $20 bill, one of the largest protests in U.S. history began in earnest. In the five weeks after his death in May, 15 million to 26 million people in the United States participated in public protests, according to several published polls, and millions of others around the world joined in solidarity.

“The scale of protest we have witnessed is unprecedented,” said Deva Woodly, associate professor at the New School for Social Research in New York. “These are coordinated efforts that are happening everywhere, in cities, suburbs, and rural areas. More than 40 percent of the counties in the United States have had a Black Lives Matter protest.”

A breaking point more than four centuries in the making was reached when the world was forced to confront the brutal truth: Black lives haven’t mattered. Floyd’s case finally stripped the privilege of ignorance from the blithely unaffected.

His life may not have mattered to some. His death did to many. Young people from rural America, affluent white students, and multitudes of everyday people joined in solidarity with founders of Black Lives Matter and civil rights activists from around the world in the call for racial and social justice. The ties that bind us together as humans were forged in the air so cruelly stolen from Floyd.

COVID-19 has radically altered many of our social behaviors, but will it change the values of our cultures? Lessons of modern history are encouraging. During the past century, great advances in human rights and social progress occurred in the immediate aftermath of horrendous death and tremendous social unrest.

American women won the right to vote in the wake of the devastation of World War I and the influenza pandemic of 1918. The twin crises opened the American labor market to women and exposed gender inequities that would no longer stand when the war ended and influenza abated.

The United Nations, dedicated to maintaining peace among nations and promoting human and social rights, was formed shortly after World War II. It continues to serve as a referee of global conflict and disagreement.

Black American soldiers returning from the same war against tyranny and fascism served as an early and powerful catalyst for the civil rights movement and the overturning of entrenched systems of legalized racism.

Now another grave crisis persists with the relentless attacks of the virus. It demands a universal response. COVID-19 initially attacked our most vulnerable and then gathered strength by standing on the shoulders of our weakest to strike indiscriminately. Cases of the virus continued to surge in the U.S., Brazil, India, and other parts of the world. The virus ruthlessly targeted preexisting health conditions, and massive social inequalities fueled a global inferno.

The lesson for our future is clear: Demanding change and working for global justice and fairness are humanity’s best hope for survival.

We are all connected to the Black washerwomen of Brazil. We’re universally tethered to unheralded and essential workers such as Jason Hargrove, who continued to drive a Detroit bus until days before he died of COVID-19.

At great human, financial,(6) and social cost, the virus illuminates the inextricable ties that bind us all. Those long rendered invisible have shown to be indivisible.

(6) A labor group estimated that the equivalent of 400 million jobs were lost worldwide because of COVID-19, which could push a half billion people into poverty. Women and young people are particularly hard-hit.

“Jason always took deliberate measures to make sure his passengers were safe and that his bus was sanitized,” Desha said of her late husband. “He was interested in the protection of his passengers, and in return, his passengers would protect him from unruly riders. They all understood that they were on the bus together.”

Death has placed an unforgiving mirror to our face. We’re all on this bus together.

Phillip Morris is a Cleveland-based journalist who often explores issues of race, class, and culture. Pari Dukovic is an award-winning photographer known for an informal documentary style that’s both atmospheric and colorful.

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