by Mindy Clegg
As many of us head into our second month of shelter in place orders (or not in some cases), we are looking to the past for guidance on what comes next. Unsurprisingly, many wonder when does “normal” return. It’s a hopeful question, as after all, this is hardly the first devastating disease that humanity has wrestled with historically. Those previous pandemics brought out massive disruptions, sometimes for centuries after. Events like the Black Death in the 14th century, the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918, the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, and more recent scares such as swine flu, ebola, and zika, all had (or are still having) long lasting impacts—the aftermath was not back to normal, but a world transformed. But even the more recent public health emergencies seem distant problems to some.
AIDS for many still remains a “gay problem” rather than an actual, ongoing public health problem that needs a systemic response. For many white, straight people it was a “non-event” in their communities, something they experienced via the news rather than in their daily lives. The ones further in the past seem even less impactful, with the Spanish Flu as a prime example. Most narratives of the Great War told to the public ignore or downplay the role of the 1918 flu in reshaping the world. Part of that is a failure to understand how complexity of historical cause and effect. We don’t think of the Spanish Flu as disruptive, as it came at the end of the War, which gets all the public attention. But the world was pretty radically altered by the events of both the War and the pandemic: “normal” never fully returned. People lived transformed lives in the wake of both events. Here I want to argue that “normal” as we’ve come to experience it will most likely not return. Whatever changes come out of this pandemic need not be a negative if we proactively address the real cracks being revealed in our system. To quote the great Leonard Cohen, “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” I argue we need to use that illumination to create a system of sustainability rather than one based on endless growth to nowhere.
While there may no going back to what had become normal, we can move forward. An appeal to “normal”—as nice as that sounds—means ignoring the obvious structural defects being revealed to us in real time, especially in the United States. The cracks in our health care system that many were already aware of have widened to a shocking degree. Well before all this, people were denied health care for fear of going too deeply into debt. This reality impacted working class communities of color the hardest. This continues to be true with the pandemic. One of the earliest shocking stories that emerged was a teenager who had supposedly been denied care due to lack of insurance. The truth of that was far more complicated, but revealed how vulnerable communities struggle to get health care, even with insurance. The young man’s family had insurance, but there was miscommunication due to a language barrier between the father and urgent care worker. Recently a nurse was turned away from her own hospital four times as her symptoms were not deemed severe enough. She eventually succumbed to the illness. In hard hit cities like New York City there is rationing for beds; especially in working class communities with large communities of color. Of course, opponents of single payer claim to oppose such rationing, but tolerate it, even during a pandemic, in a for-profit system. If you could not access health care before, you’re unlikely to all of sudden be able to access it now. This reveals that particular communities are having a harder time accessing testing and care for a variety of reasons, from language barriers to flat out rationing in vulnerable communities.
As has been reported communities of color are at the highest risk of contracting and dying of the Coronavirus. The disparity isn’t happenstance, it’s a byproduct of centuries of racist and classist inequality. One just need look at historical events such as the Tuskeegee experiment which ended only in 1972 (starting in the 1930s, running for 40 years), when hundreds of black men in rural Alabama were denied treatment to study the course of the disease syphilis. This study did lead to the establishment of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to monitor studies on humans, but only after the damage had been done. Health care has long been rationed in the for-profit health care system, for the poor, for communities of color (and increasingly in some states) for women seeking access to birth control. Former candidate for President Bernie Sanders made health care expansion one of his signature issues, in part because of lack of access for specific communities. His Medicare for All plan sought to roll out the medicare system for all Americans, regardless of income or preexisting condition. The plan addressed the fact rationing of medical care by our current for-profit system. Sanders had long argued that health care should be a human right, not a commodity. After bowing out of the race, Sanders kept his name on the ballot in hopes of pushing the DNC to embrace his position on healthcare as a human right (among other things). This now seems critical in the wake of the Coronavirus.
Failures of our health care system are the most obvious right now. These were most certainly helped along by Trump’s irresponsible dismantling of the pandemic protocols put in place by the Obama administration and his refusal to address the problem despite having over twelve briefings on it in January and February. But the impact to our food supply chain reveals these cracks in our system, too. Certain paper products and cleaning supplies still seem in short supply, with many people still finding empty shelves when looking for toilet paper or paper towels. But meat may be the next hard to find item. Several meat processing plants have shut down due to outbreaks of the Coronavirus among their workers. Meat—a staple of the American diet for many—may become harder to get. So far, despite some sectors having serious issues, food is making it into stores, so there is probably no reason for most people to panic, although areas that are food deserts are being hit the hardest. Neighborhood Bodegas in NYC struggle to balance staying in business to serve their communities with staying safe. Food insecurity is a frightening thing. But this is nothing new, either. Nearly 40 million Americans suffer from food insecurity of varying levels already, with children the most vulnerable group, especially children in working class communities, with Native children and black children the most at risk for food insecurity. For millions of Americans, this is already a daily concern. More and more, concerns of communities of color and working class communities are bubbling up into the middle class, thanks to this pandemic. It should not take something like this to address these issues.
Any number of failures of our modern society could be read through the prism of this pandemic. Education, job security, transportation, access to the internet, leisure time, and so on. Rather than creating cracks, coronavirus merely highlights them. It’s soothing to think this is just due to some natural disaster, but as the saying goes, “there is no such thing as a natural disaster,” only failures of public policies.1 Given that, it’s obvious that the current system of neo-liberal capitalism had failed many people prior to the pandemic. Neo-liberalism remains a controversial term. The term was coined by its original advocates, Ludwig Von Mises and Fredrich Hayek. Both opposed the rise of the Keynesian New Deal system that regulated corporations and banks, and offered a social safety net. Today, most people associate the term with theorists such as David Harvey, who criticize the system and as such dismiss it as having any real meaning. But since the end of the Cold War, neo-liberal policies have been increasingly applied in a number of places, shifting resources from the public to the private sector. This process began during the Cold War. One need only remember UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s maxim “there is no society” or US President Ronald Reagan’s deregulatory trickle-down economic policies to show how this ideology was already influencing public policy during the late Cold War. The markets were put before the people in such policies. An understanding of the dangers of such “market-centric” thinking advocated by neo-liberals go back to the interwar period, such as in the insightful works of political economist Karl Polanyi. Polanyi linked the unfettered capitalist economy of the late 19th and early 20th century directly to the Great Depression and the rise of fascism and authoritarian communism.2 Today in the age of deep globalization, the right-wing nationalist attacks on international public institutions can be read much the same way. One would need to be incredibly blind or willfully ignorant not to see the outcome of endless attacks on global public institutions as endangering billions of human lives in this moment. This is not to say that such institutions can’t or should not be reformed. But the American president seriously threatened to defund the WHO in the midst of a pandemic. While there are many criticisms to aim at such institutions, reform seems a safer bet rather than defunding as people are dying. Perhaps such discussions can be tabled until our current crisis is under control.
If the current economic system has failed to address our needs, shouldn’t we contemplate change? And not just let it happen, but actively pursue change for the better? Any number of issues should be given consideration for systemic reforms. Anything and everything can and should be on the table. Some are already making such suggestions, based on the works of Polanyi even. Given our current environmental crisis and its connection to consumerism, we perhaps should contemplate a shift from endless accumulation to sustainability, especially with regards to our energy grid. Former Georgia Gubenutorial candidate Stacey Abrams recently advocated for coming out of this pandemic with a strong plan to address climate change. Honestly, why not? Rather than clapping for greenwashing, how about (much like during the Cold War) we advocate for a strong state-backed response to radically alter our energy grid to make it environmentally sound and sustainable. An influx of federal dollars into university departments that research and innovate around environmental issues would also be welcome (again, see precedent in the Cold War). While the climate crisis seems daunting, so did going to the moon, but those Soviets were not going to defeat themselves—so there we went, cost be damned. The actual threat to human life we face should garner at least as much effort and concern as “sticking it to the Reds.”
Why limit this to our biggest collective emergency outside of the current pandemic? What about labor issues? The major labor unions wish to reorient their relationships with corporations in the aftermath of this crisis, in part because it’s becoming crystal clear just how critical labor is to the smooth functioning of the capitalist economy. Others seek deeper and more systemic changes to our national labor relations, that includes more serious balancing between workers and management. As the New Deal liberal consensus that created the vaunted American middle class came unraveled in the 1970s and 1980s, the traditional big labor unions lost not only the power they had fought for, but also the trust of many American workers, whether they identified as being on the left or right. An editorial by other labor leaders in the leftist magazine In These Times advocated for these greater changes that many rank and file members can likely get behind. An active and engaged labor movement was key in the postwar middle class expansion. A newly empowered labor movement today can help foster a new middle class based on sustainability, as it’s in all our interests to do so. These are just two areas of life that can stand some systemic improvements.
This is not a suggestion that we see the silver lining of this pandemic. Far from it. But we should be acknowledging the absolute failures to address our most basic needs as a mass society by the neo-liberal economy, at the very least, if not capitalism in general. The reality is that the free market has shown itself to fail at solving all of our needs as a global society. If something does not work, it should be rejected or reformed. Science fiction author William Gibson once noted that the future is here, but it’s not evenly distributed, and that’s true. Only a few have access to health care that can do astounding things to save our lives, to engaging educational opportunities, to sustainably produced food, to clean water, to affordable housing, and to any other number of basic needs in our modern mass society. Whether you believe in a capitalist system, a socialist system, or something else, the reality is that what we do have right this moment has failed us, not just the most vulnerable, but all of us. We are moving into uncertain territory here, as this pandemic probably means a depression that will take years to alleviate. Our goal moving forward should be building human-centric, sustainable infrastructure that benefits more than just the global elite.
1 See also the excellent work on the policy failures during Hurricane Katrina, Chester Hartman and Gregory Squires (eds), There is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class, and Hurricane Katrina, New York: Routledge, 2006.