Celebrities have always been the symmetrical, smiling face of wealth inequality. Their role in modern life is as paradoxical as trickle-down economics: to be preternaturally charming and attractive, but also relatable and attainably aspirational. We speak of “liking” one celebrity and “disliking” another on the basis of the professionally calibrated personas they beam out to us as sincerity. We enjoy their work – their acting, their singing, their athleticism – and we cheer on their successes. They are purveyors of a great American myth: that there is such a thing as “well-earned” luxury, or a “deserving” millionaire.
And in America, fame doesn’t just make you rich: it makes you a role model. So it makes sense that over the past, terrifying week – a week which has set the foundation of modern life shaking like the San Andreas fault – we have seen a slew of beloved celebrities solemnly, dutifully announcing that they have received a positive test result for Covid-19. Idris Elba, Tom Hanks, Kevin Durant, Daniel Dae Kim. Many of these celebrities, including the entire roster of the Brooklyn Nets, were tested on the basis of their potentially having been in contact with a confirmed infected person; many, including Elba, were asymptomatic.
Still other celebrities have announced their negative test results, including Heidi Klum and Kris Jenner. As the New York Times notes, some of these celebrities – like Klum – received tests after using their platforms to complain about not being able to get tested.
Covid-19 is a terrifying virus, and I genuinely hope that the celebrities who have contracted it recover fully. I have no doubt that their being tested will benefit many others, especially those who work alongside them and now know to self-isolate. In an ideal world, these celebrities would be tested, because we would all be tested, but that is not the world we live in. Instead, these celebrity Covid-19 tests have happened alongside a broader failure to test everyday citizens and residents in the US and the UK, including medical workers, those in at-risk groups, and those experiencing serious, even hospitalization-requiring symptoms. Medical workers are not being tested, and each day brings new stories of sick, vulnerable people who are refused testing. We know that testing is a key to derailing this virus’s path of destruction. The communities that get tested fast and early – which, in test-strapped countries, appear to primarily be the communities of the wealthy and powerful – will be far better protected.
Watching yet another celebrity announce that they have been tested (often while asymptomatic) feels like watching a medical drama that takes place on another planet. Meanwhile, the rest of us wait: not just for tests, but for the after-effects that a lack of testing will bring upon our communities, and upon the communities of those we love.
The reaction of the internet community to celebrity Covid-19 testing has been, broadly, predictable. “Not Uncle Idris!” some cry. “Tom Hanks!? Who do I have to fight?” Is this how we would react if, say, a hedge fund manager announced his Covid-19 status? Of course, Elba and Hanks’s job is to play characters like Stringer Bell and Forrest Gump, not to directly manipulate markets and profit off of the financial devastation of everyday workers. But these celebrities are, at the end of the day, multimillionaires and direct beneficiaries of staggering wealth inequality. And they’re not only receiving better medical care than you – certainly, that’s old news – but they’re receiving access to a vital and very limited resource, one which should be allocated on the basis of priority, not privilege, especially at a time of international crisis. Strategically allocating tests would save countless lives; allocating tests on the basis of wealth and access will mean lives lost across every socioeconomic demographic.
The wealthy and the powerful are counting on us not paying attention. They’re looking out for their own
So far, that seems to be a lesson of this virus: it shows us who and what gets protected, as the ship sinks. On the Titanic, it was women and children. With Covid-19, it’s the wealthy and powerful. Testing is just one part of the class story unfolding: everyday workers are being laid off en masse while the wealthiest industries begin batting their eyelashes at trillion-dollar bailouts. Researchers race to develop treatments and a vaccine for Covid-19 while billion-dollar firms fight to monetize their findings in advance. Low-paid “key workers” – nurses, orderlies, delivery drivers, teachers, grocery store attendants and social caregivers – put themselves at greater risk of contracting the virus in order to keep society running, while generously paid employees in less-essential industries work from home. Mortgage holidays are set in place without a mention of rent relief. Contract workers, gig economy workers and service industry workers face complete financial devastation while unseen parasitic financiers (and, in a few instances, millionaire politicians) play the market like Monopoly, round and round, collecting big as they pass Go.
The wealthy and the powerful are counting on us not paying attention. They’re looking out for their own: the hedge funders, the landlords, the pharmaceutical billionaires. They’re counting on our attention being elsewhere – not Uncle Idris! Not Forrest Gump! – and they’re counting on our anger losing steam by the time this international nightmare ends. They’re counting on us taking it – as President Trump tells it – as “the story of life”. Meanwhile, we’re learning to look after ourselves. Community aid organisations proliferate, offering local, grassroots support to those in isolation. Nurses, orderlies and doctors charge ahead, fighting for testing, fighting for patients’ lives. We do what we can to check in on those we love, and to look out for those we do not know.
When this is over, I hope we’ll remember who got thrown the life jackets, who got in the lifeboats. I hope we’ll remember how the rest of us were left on the sinking ship, to save each other in the small ways that we could. I hope we have the energy to fight for structural change, once we’ve thrashed and paddled our way back to the shore.
And I hope whichever actor wins an Oscar for their portrayal of a delivery worker during the Covid-19 crisis donates all of their winnings to medical research.
Jennifer Schaffer is an American writer living in London