March 11, 2020, was the day the world stopped. The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced that they had the virus and were quarantining in Australia. In Los Angeles County, where I live, all gyms and bars were quickly closed, and a week later California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide stay-at-home order, urging 40 million residents to shelter in place.
While normal people tried to figure out how to juggle work, child care, and living under the same roof for 24 hours a day, celebrities were having a ball. Locked up with only their phones and without their handlers, the public was treated to an unfiltered parade of narcissism on fire. Distraught about the postponement of Coachella, Vanessa Hudgens took to Instagram Live to lament that “like, yeah, people are gonna die.” Gal Gadot talked about how “we’re all in this together” and gathered a celebrity cast to sing a horrifying version of “Imagine” from their sprawling mansions.
But no one does complete lack of self-awareness like Madonna. Not to be outdone in the tone-deaf celebrity video genre, she took to Instagram on March 22, 2020, naked in a tub filled with water and pink rose petals. As slow piano music played in the background, she described the virus as “the great equalizer.”
“That’s the thing about COVID-19,” she said. “It doesn’t care about how rich you are, how famous you are, how funny you are, how smart you are, where you live, how old you are, what amazing stories you can tell. It’s the great equalizer.” She finished this philosophical rambling by concluding that, “what’s terrible” about the virus is also “what’s great about it.”
The working class recognized what a joke this was from day one. Overnight they became “essential workers,” the heroes who never stopped working through the whole pandemic because they couldn’t. The nurses. The caretakers. The grocery store workers. Firemen. Policemen. Sanitation workers. For these Americans, their jobs only got harder, more dangerous, and more regulated. Their lives at home also became more complicated. Who would care for their children, now home from school, while they continued working? How would they protect their elderly family members? How could they keep their families safe from COVID-19 while coming and going from public-facing jobs?
Despite Madonna’s bathtub prophecy, COVID-19 absolutely cared about how old you are. In fact, the older you are, the more deadly the virus. It also cared about your weight, your job, your preexisting health conditions, your race, where you live, and your socioeconomic status. Not only did low-income minority communities suffer disproportionate consequences in mortality rates, but they also suffered the greatest social and economic repercussions.
Meanwhile, the upper class spent the entire pandemic thanking essential workers for their sacrifice, clapping for the hospital workers from the doorsteps of their West Village brownstones and saluting the Postmates drivers dropping off their $25 bone broth. Of course, while they were patting the poor on the back, they also were padding their pockets. Many studies show that upper-income families only improved their financial circumstances during the pandemic.
Clearly, COVID-19 wasn’t exactly the great equalizer. In fact, it was the exact opposite, revealing existing structural inequalities—many of which were only deepened by the public health response to the virus. Now, as the debate moves from school closures and Zoom workplaces to vaccines and mandates, the policies catering to the “pajama class” and hurting vulnerable people continue—and the delusional, self-serving rhetoric surrounding them only grows more poisonous.
From the outset of the pandemic, there were two types of people: people who could work from home and people who couldn’t. Those people who didn’t have the luxury of working from their couch made it possible for the millions of people who were able to shelter in place and post pictures of their sourdough on Instagram. In my Los Angeles neighborhood, even at the height of the pandemic, a week didn’t pass without the sound of a gardener’s leaf blower, and the nannies I recognized from their daily walks with the children were there when the rest of the city was eerily quiet. Women got manicures in their backyard. Pajama workers got their car washed in their driveways by remote services and their toilet paper delivered through Amazon Prime. There was a dumbbell shortage as everyone attempted to combat the banana bread pounds by beefing up their home gyms.
Meanwhile, in an effort to “protect” its citizens, California began mandating militant public health policies. Public parks were closed, leaving little outdoor space for people crammed in tight quarters in dense urban centers. Schools shut down, leaving families who still had to go to work and couldn’t afford high-speed Wi-Fi and devices for each child to figure out how to get their kids to Zoom school. The local Vietnamese mom and pop, and countless other small businesses, were closed, but the mega-Walmart was allowed to stay open. At their core, these policies were structurally racist and classist, and yet there was no outcry.
Instead, there was a yawning disconnect between the lip service paid to these “vulnerable populations” and the passionate support for policies that hurt them. Going into the pandemic, the liberal media had already spent the Trump presidency talking about how America was a systemically racist country. And when the George Floyd protests kicked off, these condemnations reached a fever pitch.
Black Lives Matter signs appeared all over neighborhoods in Los Angeles. In order to justify millions of Americans marching and yelling en masse in the middle of a pandemic, dozens of public health and disease experts signed a letter that said, “White supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19.” Articles highlighting how Blacks and Latinos had a higher death rate from COVID-19 addressed many long-term inequalities like lack of access to health care, or social factors like living in crowded environments, taking public transportation, and having jobs in which they were exposed to the public more often.
These factors are absolutely true, but you wouldn’t know it from the public health response in liberal cities. Retweeting the open letter about white supremacy from the couch while protesting school reopenings aimed at getting vulnerable students back into physical classrooms was just more high-minded lip service. As Batya Ungar-Sargon writes in her forthcoming book, Bad News, “[Liberal elites] needed a way to be perpetually on what they saw as the right side of history without having to disrupt what was right for them and their children. A moral panic around race was the perfect solution: It took the guilt that they should have felt about their economic good fortune and political power—which they could have shared with the less fortunate had they cared to—and displaced it onto their whiteness, an immutable characteristic that they could do absolutely nothing to change.”
Now, of course, vaccines and mandates are the talk of the town, and the class-driven divide between the working class and the elites continues to grow unchecked. Almost overnight when the Biden administration took over, we went from “America is racist to its core” to “trust the government implicitly, take your shot, and show your papers.” Los Angeles County just passed one of the most sweeping vaccine mandates in the country, requiring the shots for everything from bars to gyms to indoor city facilities.
You’ll be forgiven if you suffered narrative whiplash. The sneering contempt many in the left-wing pundit class have demonstrated in their recent rhetoric about the “unvaccinated,” many of whom are lower-income people of color, is in direct opposition to the years of “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” These days, the men and women who worked through the whole pandemic are being shamed and patronized by the very people whose cushy existences they facilitated for a year and a half. The liberal elites who holed up in the Hamptons and didn’t have contact with the outside world for a year are ready to get back to their SoulCycle classes, even if it means firing a few people they once called “frontline heroes.” The irony of the same people who screamed in the faces of policemen at the height of a pandemic turning around to demand that these cops now shut up, stop asking questions, and get vaccinated is almost too much to bear.
Apparently, it’s difficult to comprehend that the people who never stopped working while you were in your bubble, who bore the greatest risk throughout the whole pandemic, are making their own calculated decisions about getting a vaccine. As a society, we seem chronically unwilling to take their arguments and reservations into account (let alone scientific considerations like natural immunity—the vulnerable populations that suffered the most deaths also suffered the largest rates of infection. It’s not out of the question that many already had the virus).
The discourse in the media makes it sound like these criticisms are aimed at the right-wing anti-vaxxer population—and that might be true on a countrywide level—but the numbers tell the truest story about who will be most disproportionately affected by draconian mandates. In L.A. County, only 54% of the Black population and 62% of the “Latinx” population have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Despite all the resources the city ostensibly devotes to equity and inclusion, it’s clear that these minority populations will be most affected by the mandates. If Black lives matter to you so much, shouldn’t you care that Black people will be excluded from restaurants and movie theaters and nail salons?
From my perspective, this is state-sanctioned discrimination, and the righteous moralizing from the pajama class is the highest form of limousine liberal hypocrisy. Aiming uncharitable and derisive rhetoric at the very people you have been screaming should have a seat at the table is a tone-deaf disgrace. It seems like in Los Angeles County, the signs calling essential workers heroes really mean “if you do what we say.”
Bridget Phetasy is a writer, comedian and Twitter addict. Once the iconic “Playboy Advisor” for Playboy magazine’s monthly advice column, Bridget now maintains a monthly editorial for Spectator US magazine. She is the host of the podcast Walk-Ins Welcome and a satirical comedy show Dumpster Fire, available on Rumble and YouTube.