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Like it or not, coronavirus connects us all

It’s just getting started, but already, the coronavirus outbreak is teaching some of us a few pretty hard lessons. Will they stick? That’s another matter entirely.

Whole Heart Provisions employees Dan Kelly, left, and Elena Toppo laughed with a customer while at the Cambridge location on Mass Ave.
Whole Heart Provisions employees Dan Kelly, left, and Elena Toppo laughed with a customer while at the Cambridge location on Mass Ave.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Like it or not, we’re all connected.

It’s just getting started, but already, the coronavirus outbreak is teaching some of us a few pretty hard lessons. Will they stick? That’s another matter entirely.

But, perhaps for now, we can agree on a few things: That facts and science are our friends; that competence and a steady hand are indispensable qualities in a president; that misinformation is an existential threat; that government does more than collect our taxes -- it performs vital functions, such as keeping us safe; and that, sooner or later, policies that harm some of us may hurt us all.

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This pandemic has rendered borders meaningless, not to mention walls. Whether a health care system a world away can contain the contagion has life-altering implications right here. Globalism isn’t some bugaboo to be beaten back with slogans, trade policy or tough talk at the United Nations; it’s our unalterable condition. What happens in Wuhan or Milan or Seattle or New Rochelle affects the entire planet. That’s as true of other countries’ economies, wars, and climate policies as it is of the virus that is remaking our lives right now. It has been ever thus, but it is harder to ignore when the threat is so close and so real.

Also hard to ignore: The vast inequities laid bare by the crisis.

The Biogen executives at the center of this state’s Covid-19 outbreak were refused tests for days after they began falling ill. Who knows how many other people were infected while they were trying to get the help they needed?

Their debacle demonstrates why access to adequate health care for everyone is more than a moral imperative. The compromised health of those who can’t afford insurance has always cost everybody: Now those costs are more visible, and more immediate. Now, an administration that couldn’t care less about giving poor people access to health care is talking about covering coronavirus treatment for the uninsured.

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The blue collar workers who make up most of the patient population at Lynn Community Health Center have faced the same obstacles as affluent Biogen execs when it comes to testing, and many more besides. The neighborhood institution serves more than 40,000 clients, most of them low-income, a majority of them women and folks whose first language is not English.

So far, said CEO Kiame Mahaniah, six patients have presented with symptoms that look like coronavirus, but the DPH allowed only one of them to be tested. While they wait for results, the two staff members who saw the patient have been quarantined. Mahaniah worries about the virus spreading, and about his shoestring operation’s ability to withstand an onslaught that might deplete supplies and staff.

He worries, too, about the center’s clients, who mostly work in hospitality, gardening, and other jobs that don’t provide sick leave.

“What happens to those patients when they are quarantined?” he asked. “How will they make ends meet?”

It might not help much in Lynn, but we are seeing at least some movement from a country that suddenly sees low-wage earners now that everyone’s health may depend on those workers’ ability to take sick leave: Uber, Lyft, and a few other companies are offering some pay to drivers who must be out of work for a couple of weeks, and other companies are suspending draconian policies penalizing workers for absences during the outbreak.

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Again, it’s more about self-preservation than compassion. And none of those policies get at the folks Mahaniah worries about most: the immigrants, undocumented and otherwise, who are afraid to seek care in the first place because of Trump immigration policies. What will they do if they get sick?

Coronavirus makes it impossible to ignore the ties that bind the immigrant hotel worker to the executive at the annual conference.

It reminds Mahaniah of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which King says injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.

There’s another part of that letter that applies here: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

That is more clear now than ever. And it will remain so, long after this crisis is over.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.