It won’t be the same, and that could be good — or not
Tired of the coronavirus? It’s not tired of you
As Americans reel from economic duress and collective cabin fever, with no steady hand on the ship of state’s rudder, some of us are saying to hell with it. We’re weary of uncertainty and fed up with continually shifting restrictions that — unless COVID-19 has touched us directly — seem arbitrary. It’s summertime and we can’t keep our kids cooped up in the house without their friends for one more day, and if we can’t get to the mall or a bar pretty soon, we’re going to lose what sense of humor we have left.
But as epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota, said in May, “We’re just in the second inning of a nine-inning game.”
What we don’t know about the virus — what organs it attacks and how, what its long-term effects might be, what if any immunity is conferred by surviving an infection — still outstrips what we do know. The one thing we can safely assume is that it is not, despite the wishful blathering of the Current Occupant, about to “fade away” anytime soon.
But at some point, the pandemic will subside
Nobody knows when that will be, and if someone tries to tell you differently, hang onto your wallet. If all the stars line up in miraculous harmony and we (a) develop a vaccine, (b)determine that it’s safe and effective, and (c ) figure out how to manufacture and distribute it on a massive scale — and if all of that happens here in the U.S. or in another country that feels disposed to make it available to us (and considering our behavior of late toward the very nations most likely to produce working vaccines, that is by no means guaranteed) — we’re still looking at a year or more.
Or it could take five years while we try out vaccines and treatments, or ten, by which time we may have achieved herd immunity anyway, at a cost to human life that none of us wants to contemplate.
And what then?
Things could actually be much better
COVID-19 has laid bare every fault line in the bedrock of American society. The question is whether we can face what the pandemic reveals, or choose to look away and pretend we don’t have to undergo what amounts to social and political reinvention.
We’re challenged in every system and dimension of our shared lives:
- A health care system that is overburdened and inequitable — see the disproportionate COVID death rate among Blacks and Latinos
- A political system that, with its accumulation of manipulations like gerrymandering, has skewed further and further away from our democratic ideals — leading to a president who can only deny reality and foment further division at a time when we so desperately need to unite
- A criminal justice system that fails to deliver justice for far too many of the people who are caught up in it — a major symptom of which is our disgracefully overcrowded, deeply unfair, and dysfunctional prisons that are now deadly breeding grounds for COVID outbreaks
- A public education system that is underfunded, under-respected, and struggling to meet students’ basic requirements — trying to plot its course with little guidance or support at the federal level
- A higher education system that cranks up higher and higher costs, presenting insurmountable barriers to many students at a time when education past high school has become a basic requirement for a middle-class income
- An economic system hijacked by a rarefied few at its pinnacle, who have over the past four decades managed to funnel a wildly disproportionate share of the nation’s wealth into their pockets, with increasing disregard for the wellbeing of everyone downslope
- A social system that has tolerated, for far too long, the racism, sexism, and bigotry that allow us not only to devalue those we regard as somehow “other” but to blame them for it
Imagine an America that has taken all of that on
Picture your life ten years from now, assuming that we have developed the will to address each of those issues. They go hand-in-hand, after all, and have as their common denominator our refusal or acceptance of inequity.
What might life look like if we realized that our previous status quo could no longer serve us? What if we could pursue our personal and professional lives without fear of losing our medical coverage because we have universal health care? What if we knew our kids could attend college without either them or us going into debt? What if we developed a system of social justice and support of the law that built trust and safety? What if our working lives made us partners in the prosperity we build?
It happens in other countries. Is it so wild and crazy to imagine that COVID-19 could become the crisis that pushes us out of outmoded ways of thinking and toward a peace of mind and standard of living enjoyed in countries like Finland and Denmark?
What if we, like them, agreed that individual freedom is a good thing, but individualism devolves into barbarity when we don’t embrace the reality that we are interdependent and all in this together?
If they can do it, why can’t we? Yes, we’re bigger and more diverse, but those could be assets instead of obstacles.
Now imagine if we fail to meet those challenges
The issues we have to face if we want a sustainable life to return to post-COVID, one that offers more than mere survival, are daunting. But consider the alternative: a further fractionalized country whose citizens regard those outside their tribes with greater and greater distrust, falling behind the rest of the developed world from which we’re increasingly isolated.
The merciless light of the pandemic has shown America that we are on a knife’s edge. Which way we fall depends, first, on recognizing that we have reached an inescapable decision point — and then choosing what kind of life we will accept for ourselves, our children, and our children’s children.
There is no guarantee of the outcome. But it’s a decision that each of us must make.