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Sara Polak: ‘Corona unveils great social inequality in the US’

Following China and Italy, it appears that the United States is becoming the next epicentre of the coronacrisis. Can the US handle this crisis? Is president Trump dealing with the situation correctly? We asked Leiden America expert Sara Polak.

America, and the capital of New York in particular, appear to be the next main stage of the corona crisis. Following the news is discouraging. What appears to be happening in the US?

‘What you see primarily is that America is a country with enormous differences between poor and rich. Epidemics like this one are often seen as social equalizers: the virus doesn’t care whether you are poor or rich. But it’s precisely minorities and those in poverty who are among the people most affected by corona. What makes this situation so poignant in the United States is the lack of social security and collective welfare. There is a large number of ‘working poor’: about one third of the American population struggles to make ends meet each month. A lot of these people don’t have insurance or are underinsured, which means that they can’t just go to the doctor when they are ill. They often also can’t stay at home when experiencing symptoms, as there is a real chance that they could be fired for that. This causes major issues and facilitates the spread of the virus.’

America expert Sara Polak

This crisis unveils issues, but could it also be the catalyst for positive change?

‘It’s too early to be able to say that. What I do think is interesting to note is that there are major strikes going on at the moment. For example at Amazon, where a lot of people are expected to keep on working in the warehouses, despite the lack of health insurance and risk of being fired after calling in sick. Strikes in the US are a rare occasion due to lack of employment protection. So these employees are making a statement and I think that companies will take this seriously. What you are also hoping for of course is that this situation stresses the importance of collective access to health care. But we shall see.’

You specialize in media communication by presidents, how effective are the actions of president Trump?

‘In the media there is a lot of - deservedly so in itself - criticism of Trump, however the systemic problems which are occurring in America were there before his presidency, so he did not create them. Despite this, his reputation is declining. For many who have been satisfied with Trump in the past, it has become clear that things aren’t going well right now.’

How could this affect the chances of his re-election at the end of 2020?

‘That is difficult to assess. The US is heading towards an economic crisis and the state of the economy has always played a major role in elections. If the economy crashes, it will affect his chances negatively. On the other hand, the Democrats are also doing poorly. They are in the middle of their primary elections, which are normally very good for their exposure, but which have been shut down completely. Besides that, there are concerns about Joe Biden, the designated Democrat candidate, mainly about his health. How this will work out, is very difficult to predict. Usually around this time I have an idea about what the result will be, but this has proven to be exceptionally difficult this year.’

At the moment you are working on the book Embodying Contagion, a collection of cultural stories on contagious diseases. This seems very coincidental?

‘It is indeed very strange to be working on that during these times. I have been working on it for a couple of years now. Embodying Contagion is a compilation which I have redacted together with Sandra Becker and Megen de Bruin-Molé and which talks about the cultural stories that circulate in times of epidemics, the so-called ‘outbreak-narratives’. And what role popular culture and news media play in the emergence of these narratives. The book is in hands of the publisher at the moment - it is under review - though we would like to add an afterword on corona. We hope to publish the compilation by the end of this year.

About Sara Polak

Sara Polak is a university lecturer at (among others) North American Studies (MA), and her research focusses on the literature and culture of the United States. She specializes in the media communication of American presidents and the role which those narratives play in the formation of a collective identity. 

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