Mar 23, 2020 - Health

The coronavirus economy will devastate those who can least afford it

Illustration of a hand reaching out for help from under a giant virus cell.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

If you think your new reality is inconvenient and stressful, here's some perspective: Tens of millions of people are trying to stave off the coronavirus without reliable access to basic needs like shelter, food or health care.

Why it matters: The people who were already vulnerable in a strong economy are facing severe hardship as jobs evaporate overnight and safety net services are strained to the max.

Here's a look at who's hurting the most:

People experiencing homelessness: You can't "socially distance" or shelter in place if you don't have shelter in the first place.

  • Transmissible diseases can spread quickly among those sleeping in close-quartered shelters and in outdoor encampments without hygiene facilities.
  • The homeless population is trending older, so they're more vulnerable to COVID-19.
  • "We don’t want people sleeping outside but don’t want to put them at risk in a shelter where others have been exposed," said Lauren Dunning, director of Milken Institute's Center for the Future of Aging. "We have to look at opening emergency shelters to so people can properly quarantine."

Low-income workers: Hourly-wage workers in retail, food service, janitorial jobs, and even preschool teachers often live paycheck to paycheck — and their incredibly slim margins are about to be obliterated.

  • 53 million Americans — 44% of U.S. workers — are making a median of $10.22 an hour, or about $24,000 a year.
  • About half of low-wage workers are sole earners for their families, per Brookings Institution fellow Martha Ross.
  • "As you see the economy shut down, it's a picture of a workforce that was already vulnerable that's now going to be in much deeper trouble," Ross said.

Older residents of rural areas: Rural residents tend to be older and less likely to have paid sick leave or access to health care services.

  • More than 100 rural hospitals have closed in the last decade.
  • Those who don't have a doctor nearby, or who don't have health insurance, are more likely to forgo testing and treatment.

Single parents: They're shouldering the burden of work (if they still have it) and childcare on their own.

  • According to a ParentsTogether survey of 1,500 families, two-thirds of families are struggling financially due to the coronavirus outbreak and have lost income or expect to soon.
  • 80% of families are worried about having enough money to cover housing and food costs within three months; 46% are concerned they'll run out within two weeks.

Parents of children with special needs: Children with physical, emotional and intellectual disabilities often rely on therapy and services provided through public school systems, the majority of which have closed for weeks.

  • Mounting financial pressures and jugging remote work while caring for special-needs children can create extreme stress for parents, especially those caring for multiple children.

Poor families: Children are at the mercy of their circumstances and, without school to offer routine and reliable meals, can take on the anxiety they see in the adults around them.

  • Among families with children receiving free or reduced-priced school meals, more than half are worried about being able to feed their children, per the ParentsTogether survey.
  • Nearly one-third of families whose schools have closed haven't been told by their districts where they can get food.

The mentally ill and immunocompromised: This group of patients has a host of complicated pre-existing conditions that often go untreated due to lack of access to care or social stigma.

  • People suffering from mental illness may have difficulty dealing with the stress of the crisis and not know where to seek help.
  • Those with weakened immunity require specialized care that can be hard to find, and are also more susceptible to the coronavirus itself.

Inmates: Social distancing is hard to achieve in overcrowded jails without putting everyone on lockdown or solitary confinement, Axios' Stef Kight reports.

  • Visits by family, friends and attorneys to people in federal prisons has been halted and several states have paused visitation for the time being.
  • Proper hand washing isn't always possible, and hand sanitizers are often considered contraband in prison because they can contain alcohol.
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