But that attitude is wrong. We don’t need to take these divisions for granted. And the people who have benefited most have a role to play in ending this profound unfairness. Stars who have cut the line to get coronavirus testing should be honest about how they managed to get screened. They should use their considerable cultural power to advocate expanding access to testing and treatment for their less-privileged fans.
There are reasonable arguments for having certain famous people tested early for covid-19, even if they aren’t seriously ill. As National Basketball Association commissioner Adam Silver argued in response to criticism from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, his league’s players are “young people who are working in close proximity to each other. They are traveling at great frequency. They are regularly in large groups, including the public. And the young cohort in particular, a large number of them are asymptomatic, and if they do have symptoms, they’re relatively mild.”
If early testing convinced sports leagues to pause their seasons or their training sessions, then that line-cutting may have safeguarded public health in a way that goes beyond any individual player or team. The same is true for movie sets, at which an infected actor could potentially infect not just other famous people, but makeup artists, costume designers, caterers and a whole host of lower-profile workers who come into close contact with them.
And there can be real value in awareness: Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson’s dispatches from quarantine undoubtedly helped their many fans around the world understand how widely covid-19 was spreading and encouraged audiences to take the pandemic seriously.
Still, the public safety rationales can extend only so far now that sports seasons have been put on pause and movie and television production is shut down. The U.S. surgeon general may want Kylie Jenner and other influencers to sign up for a public relations campaign about the risks of the virus, but getting asymptomatic influencers tested is hardly a necessary condition of enlistment.
Instead, if the very famous people who cut the line to get tested without an urgent rationale want to avoid the torches and pitchforks, they might try penance and transparency instead. That the very rich have access to a parallel health-care system is true in good times as well as global pandemics. But that system is ordinarily invisible to the rest of us.
Reporting on the pandemic has started to bring the health care available to the wealthy into clearer view. We’ve already seen stories about people trying to buy early access to covid-19 vaccines still in development and private ventilators, and most recently, about a concierge medicine service that got wealthy New Yorkers coronavirus testing at a time when the state was struggling to scale up capacity for the general public.
The people who jumped the line already can’t make up for the potential damage they’ve done to public health by hogging capacity that could have been used to identify sick people and to trace their networks of contacts. But if they come forward to explain how and where they got tested, they could help the public and public officials understand where testing capacity is available. And if stars of sport and screen feel like doing penance for pulling rank, they could put their money towards helping improve access to testing, lifesaving equipment and other help for those less fortunate.
This moment is a test for America’s pop cultural elites. Do they actually want the equality they so often claim to believe in, and that they use to sell the social significance of their movies come awards season? Or do they only want improvements that preserve their privileges?
Yes, stars can make cultural contributions to public health right now. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Twitter videos feature both adorable donkeys and sound advice about the importance of social distancing. The concerts the Indigo Girls and Willie Nelson are streaming online and the story-time initiative that actors Amy Adams and Jennifer Garner started make it easier to stay home. But celebrities can’t tell us to imagine a better world if they’re hoarding it for themselves.