The following essay was first published in the Houston Chronicle on March 29, 2020.
As I try to cope during this pandemic, I do so with less conviction that Houstonians really are all in this together. Increasingly, it’s your pocketbook ranking that determines ease of access to a host of daily perks and, in a national emergency, to the necessities. So far, we’re coming together pretty well as a community and a country during this pandemic. But what happens if today’s conditions extend from weeks to months? Will that same spirt of togetherness prevail? I worry that this pandemic could really test us.
The growing income inequality in our country is no secret. The top 10 percent of households in America account for nearly half of national income, according to New York Times business reporter Nelson Schwartz in his new book, The Velvet Rope Economy. Sure, the rich have always enjoyed privileges not available to middle and low income earners. What’s new and disturbing, according to Schwartz, is “how starkly the Velvet Rope has divided Americans from different walks of life, and how our social fabric is fraying as a result.” With COVID-19, could our social fabric begin to tear?
Warning signs are flashing. On March 18, professional athletes, celebrities and politicians with no apparent signs of the disease were swiftly tested, while others truly sick were fighting for days in emergency rooms to access the same level of care. When asked about this during a White House press briefing, President Trump said the well-to-do shouldn’t get preferential treatment. But then he rather dismissively said “perhaps that’s been the story of life” and quickly turned to the next question. But not in our lifetimes has the disparity between the haves and have-nots been so great.
Private flight charter company flyExclusive has reportedly seen a 20 percent increase in flight requests compared to this time last year. Here in Houston, private chef Charles Clark told the Houston Chronicle that his business is booming, and demand has him cooking for private dinner parties in exclusive parts of the city and jetting around the country to prepare meals for clients at private resorts.
Contrast these low examples with the admirable actions of fellow Houstonians. During Hurricane Harvey, the CEO of a local energy company spent two days rescuing people flooded out of their homes and transporting them to safety. After flood waters receded, he mobilized his company’s employees to help co-workers in need. In another example, a local environmental attorney and his artist friend have begun daily mass emails of their poems and paintings of birds to neighbors, a daily antidote for coronavirus anxiety and a promise that we will once again enjoy nature’s beauty.
We can all tell the difference between the actions of those who exercise community solidarity and those who unabashedly exercise their privilege. As this crisis unfolds, political and business elites have an extraordinary responsibility to lead by example and help those who have less than themselves. This is a defining moment when all of us should demonstrate the Houston spirit for which we are proudly known.