COVID-19 sheds light on inequality, in sports and beyond

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The COVID-19 pandemic has been shining a light on social inequity and the lack of social safety nets in America, be it in how the government is responding (to means test solutions or not to means test solutions; insider trading to enrich themselves off of the pandemic itself), how people are responding (hoarding for price gouging; forcing their employees to show up for “essential” work that doesn’t fit that definition no matter how much you stretch it), and in who has access to being tested for the virus itself.

The last point is the one we’ll focus on here, and not just because it has a sports component that allows me to shoehorn it into a niche newsletter. Testing for the coronavirus still is not widely available… unless you’re rich and/or famous. On the night when the COVID-19 threat became real to many people, the members of the NBA’s Utah Jazz and Oklahoma Thunder were tested for the virus. When you add up players, staff, and so on, that was 58 tests: and those tests came from Oklahoma’s limited daily supply. In fact, the 58 tests comprised 60 percent of Oklahoma’s supply, a strong majority.

That’s dozens and dozens of tests performed, many of them on individuals who could easily afford to be treated for the virus if they began to show symptoms, all before they showed any such symptoms. And it let all of those folks cut in line for the test.

Now, I’m not suggesting NBA players and staff don’t deserve to know if they’ve come down with the virus. It’s just that they don’t deserve to know if they’re infected any more than people who don’t play or work for an NBA team do. How does an NBA player deserve to be tested more than, say, a Wal-Mart employee from Oklahoma, who can’t use their limited paid sick time when they miss work unless they have a doctor’s diagnosis? That’s Wal-Mart’s policy, by the way, not a manufactured scenario. Who had to show up to work the next day while sick, infected with coronavirus, interacting with hundreds and hundreds of strangers that they then passed their infection on to, because there were no tests left available after the NBA used their power and influence to swipe the majority of a days’ ration? Because if they aren’t paid for their missed work, they can’t afford groceries, or rent, or to treat the symptoms they’re experiencing but can’t have tested yet?

In all, eight NBA teams have been tested, and the league continues to defend their decision to push those through at the expense of people who needed the tests more: they didn’t need to force through tests for their players to know that shutting down the season was the right thing to do. After Rudy Gobert tested positive — an important distinction for Gobert’s test is that he was, in fact, showing symptoms — everything should have shut down simply because of how pandemics work. And because it would be safer for the players, the staff, fans, and society at large if no one was hosting gatherings of 15,000 people in an enclosed space across the country every night.

Yes, the NBA has been planning around the coronavirus for months, and it’s how they ended up getting all those tests lined up in a hurry, but that changes nothing about the above. You or I could have planned around the virus for months, too, but we lack the influence to do anything about it besides stockpile some cans and dry goods: we’re not going to get testing centers to hand over most of their testing kits for the day because we believe the threat is a real one.

It’s not just the NBA who has power and influence, of course. Celebrities are Business Insider ran an article titled, “How asymptomatic celebrities, athletes, and billionaires are getting tested for the coronavirus when you can’t,” and it is infuriating. What the article details, I mean, not the article itself:

[Idris] Elba — like Kris Jennerthose NBA players, and other celebrities who have been able to get tested before showing symptoms — similarly most likely bypassed the CDC’s testing requirements and backlog by using private labs to facilitate the coronavirus tests. Some wealthy people have hired concierge doctors to collect nasal swabs and blood samples in their homes to send out to private labs for testing.

While the federal government has made tests for the novel coronavirus free for all Americans, a test from a private lab may come at a steep cost. David Nazarian, a UCLA-trained concierge doctor who has tested patients for the virus, said that the coronavirus tests would cost “hundreds of dollars” — in addition to his regular fee.

Still, the doctors fielding requests for the coronavirus tests from wealthy patients aren’t immune to public concerns about the well-off receiving priority treatment. The labs “are overwhelmed,” Sari Eitches, another Los Angeles-based concierge physician, told Business Insider. “That’s where the ethics of this comes into play, because I do have a lot of patients who naturally want to be tested just to be sure. [But] if we don’t have enough lab employees to read the tests for everybody, we really do have to start triaging now. We have to make that decision. Are we going to triage based on your access due to your socioeconomic status?”

There aren’t enough tests for everyone, and they’ve already been given to asymptomatic, wealthy patients who can afford to pay for a free test to ensure they get it: the potential triaging mentioned above has already begun!

It’s not just tests that are in high demand and low supply.There aren’t enough ventilators to handle the current crisis. Mass 3D printing of key components for coronavirus treatment has been necessary in Italy, and they had to be reverse-engineered because the company that produces the value in question wouldn’t share their blueprint, despite not being able to produce the component in the needed quantities themselves. The rich, by the way, are trying to get their own personal ventilators for their homes, just in case, at a time when there aren’t enough to get by in hospitals across the world.

So, you have companies looking to protect their patents, even going so far as to sue researchers looking for a COVID-19 vaccine, rather than focusing on helping the entire world heal from a pandemic. The rich and famous can cut in line for testing that’s supposed to be free and available for all, because they of course are able to access their own private and exclusive medical experiences that us plebeians didn’t even know existed until they were written about in a major publication. The NBA might have been planning to deal with COVID-19 for months, but that doesn’t take away from their use of status to get what they wanted come testing time. It always comes down to wealth, from every angle. And the rest of us will suffer for that.

  • MLB has pledged $30 million, or $1 million per team, to pay ballpark workers during the suspension of the season. That sounds good in a headline, but that money won’t stretch as far as you think: remember, paying the employees of one arena that hosts NBA and NHL games was projected to cost $3.3 million to cover just 14 games, and the MLB plan doesn’t necessarily cover things like, say, health insurance. Which might just be vital during a pandemic.

  • Which is a long way of saying that you’re not done seeing me report on this angle. For now, here’s Hannah Keyser with a look at the coronavirus’ impact on workers who depend on baseball.

  • Neil deMause is here with a couple of charts to ruin your morning if it’s full of optimism, but I suggest you click anyway, since realism and preparing for the worst are much more useful these days.

  • Some Minor League Baseball teams think they’ll shut down for good because of the coronavirus, and you know there’s at least one person in MLB’s offices whose reaction to that news is, “Oh, good, that’ll save us the trouble of shutting them down ourselves.”

  • Speaking of MiLB, those players will be paid through April 8, in the sense that they’ll get their spring training per diems and allowances until the day their regular season was supposed to start. It’s better than the nothing MLB initially handed out, but it’s not nearly enough, and it’s not a replacement for salaries. That’s supposedly being worked on, but my skepticism of every MLB v. MiLB player showdown is extreme for a reason.

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