“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” Mahatma Gandhi

Warren Buffett, speaking about economic crises and the scandals that frequently result in their aftermath, once remarked, “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.” When a crisis hits, it reveals the nasty elements of a system and society. The pandemic has revealed a level of corruption and injustice within several systems of American society that has previously gone unaddressed. These are two of the.

America’s Elderly

The pandemic exposed the dysfunction and corruption within America’s system of care for its elderly. By the end of June, 8% of all confirmed US coronavirus cases were located in America’s long-term care facilities. Forty-one percent of all coronavirus deaths were linked to these locations.

Residents within these facilities were obviously higher-risk populations, but they were also populations that were the easiest to quarantine. By early June, Hong Kong had zero deaths among its nursing home residents. Long term care facilities host a vulnerable population, but an easily protected community when the system and government prioritize protecting the weak.

Our system and government do not work that way. By August 23, the US had 5.9 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 180,553 deaths. Experts linked more than 207,000 of these confirmed cases and more than 52,000 deaths to nursing homes.

In recent years in the aftermath of significant crises from hurricanes to fires, the routine neglect and abandonment of the residents within long term care facilities were publicized and abhorred – but it also continued. Editorials and activists repeatedly warned of the endemic corruption within America’s nursing home – but it continued.

In May, a report from the US Government Accountability Office noted that more than 80% of US nursing homes between 2013-17 were cited for infection prevention deficiencies. Half of these facilities had persistent problems reported across multiple years of the review. Simple solutions such as identifying and isolating the sick from the rest of the facility’s population were not adhered to in some locations. In 2018, a study by the Office of Inspector General for Health and Human Services found that near 1,000 nursing homes (7% of those included within the study) failed to meet minimum staffing requirements for more than 30 days.

The system which supports long term care for the elderly was built to fail. Even when corruption and dysfunction within the system are identified and penalized, there is no guarantee it stops. A 2017 report by the New York Times found that many nursing homes that fell into special focus status, a red zone for federal oversight, returned to their dysfunctional way after escaping that status. Among 528 nursing homes that graduated from special focus status before 2014 and continued operating, 52% harmed patients or put patients in jeopardy within the next three years. These repeat offenders spread across 46 states.

American Prisons

The US hosts less than 5% of the global population but the largest prison population in the world. Based on simple numbers alone, the US prison population is nearly 30% larger than China. The US has 2.5 times more prisoners than Russia. On a per-capita basis, 737 Americans live imprisoned, for every 100,000 members of the nation’s population. Compare that to 118 in China and 615 in Russia. In the United States, you are far more likely to be imprisoned than anywhere else in the world. That is not because America’s justice system is more efficient or more hardline than others. It is because the US justice system stands in the place of a mental health system. In the US, the mentally ill are medicated as minors and imprisoned as adults.

US Prisons served as touchdown points for the extraordinary outbreaks of the virus throughout the pandemic. Testing within American prisons did not begin in any serious way until April. At that point, Texas, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee began testing prisoners for the coronavirus. These few states were shocked by what they found. Their discoveries were a prelude to what many parts of the country would uncover in the following months.

To date, there have been nearly 1,000 official coronavirus deaths in American prisons. The Marshall Project tracks these numbers as they become available, but testing in many of the country’s prisons remains delayed – to the numbers are probably much higher.

California, Florida, and Texas each have more than 10,000 confirmed coronavirus cases within their prison system. In Texas alone, there are more than 20,000 cases. The federal prison system has so far identified more than 13,000 confirmed cases.

In the US, American prisoners have virtually no political voice, which means, like America’s elderly, they are easily ignored by political leaders and forgotten by society. Adding to this problem is a misinformed and polarized social perspective in which prisoners “get what they deserve.” The American system sticks more than 2 million people (as of 2016) into prisons every year and essentially forgets them. This land of the forgotten is where the coronavirus demonstrated some of its most concentrated outbreaks on American soil in 2020.

An Issue of Priorities  

Managing a pandemic is no small affair. But we need to be careful to note the difference between the effects of a pandemic crisis and the impact of a flawed system exposed. The pandemic requires a resolute focus to confront and overcome. The corrupt and dysfunctional social systems require a recalibration of our values and priorities.

The status of the systems we rely upon to handle America’s elderly and imprisoned is in dire need of repair. The status of those who frequently cannot speak for themselves reflects the standard and quality of our whole society.

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Matthew 25:35-36

I recognize there are other groups and systems within our society that have also been left behind and hit harder than others in this pandemic that I did not include in this brief article. Feel free to share this article on your social media and mention the groups that also need to be recognized and prioritized.