As we all cope with the current challenge of the pandemic, I keep thinking about the post-pandemic world we’ll have to deal with when we emerge from this. I don’t want to miss the lessons we’re being hit with now because they’ll be crucial for surviving the next crisis—the climate crisis—which will be a greater threat than COVID-19. And it’s already bearing down on us.
Stripped down to the rivets by this pandemic, what did we get right? What did we get wrong? What are the weaknesses we’re finding in our institutions and in ourselves that have cost lives? Here are factors I know are broadly shared and much discussed:
It‘s folly to keep devaluing competent government. Ronald Reagan’s famous joke, “The nine most dangerous words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I'm here to help’” stands out in times like these less as a witty one-linerand more as a cover for dangerous and ignorant derelictions of responsibility. Decades of conservative attacks on the idea that government can do anything good, combined today with a profound lack of leadership from the top, have crippled and delayed an effective nation-wide response to this pandemic, and made obvious the need for a well-staffed, well-lead and competent government capable of meeting inevitable challenges like pandemics and climate disasters.
“Advocates of a minimalist conception of government claim they are defenders of liberty,” began an April 9 editorial in the New York Times. “But theirs is a narrow and negative definition of freedom: the freedom from civic duty, from mutual obligation, from taxation.”
There’s a direct correlation between endemic GOP hostility to government and the fact that this government spun its wheels for six weeks as the disease gained a foothold and now fumbles badly in delivering even the aid Congress has approved. FEMA staff and budgets have been so gutted that the agency can’t handle the massive logistical challenges of getting supplies and equipment where they’re needed on time. Even before this crisis hit, the Trump administration, terrified of disloyalty from the “Deep State,” has decimated top leadership tiers, watchdog offices and planning teams in the bureaucracy, leaving huge vacuums in expertise, leadership, management and oversight. A White House team charged with planning for a pandemic crisis was disbanded 18 months ago. And outside the beltway, state unemployment offices have been underfunded for a long time, and many Red states have deliberately made it hard to apply for benefits, so the surge in unemployment is overwhelming the benefits system.
The cost of the incompetency of this small government to handle a full-blown crisis rises by the day.
We need to value experts and what they know. Science and competency are crucial to effective decision making. As an experienced mountain climber, I know that, while bold, creative risk-taking can be an important part of a good leadership, “winging it” is too often a deadly alternative to fact-based decision-making. If all your experience and expertise tells you that your next step will cause an avalanche—you don’t take it.
Leaks have now revealed that President Trump had intelligence information as early as last November warning him of a potentially lethal outbreak of a transmittable disease in Wuhan, China and much more specific warnings from intelligence services and from his own Trade Representative in January. Not only did Trump deny receiving this information, he did nothing, later claiming that “no one could have foreseen this coming” when, in fact, his own people had told him it was coming for months.
As a result, a central government that discredits experts and rewards cronies could initially barely tie its shoes when a real crisis hit. A foolish dismissal of science and professional intelligence briefings in the White House created a weird world of alternative facts that led to weeks if not months of official pandemic denials and obfuscations. People are dying because of those needless delays.
The lesson for me is that the damage done by a crisis is determined not just by the impact of the crisis itself but also by the fragility of the system it attacks.
Polarization is not just maddening—it’s crippling us. Of course we don’t all agree on many things. But this pandemic shows us the price we’re paying for letting the political gaps in this country grow into canyons of antipathy and rage. Egged on by self-serving ideologues in politics and in the media, it’s now become difficult to agree in any politically mixed company that the sky on a clear day is blue. Politicians in Wisconsin who refused to bargain just sent their citizens to stand in lines at public polling stations at the height of a deadly pandemic. A dysfunctional Congress can barely manage to create the consensus politics needed for vital economic supports to keep the shutdown economy alive. The criteria for doling out critical national supplies are being tainted by political threats and allegiances to the point where governors have been forced to bid against each other, and against the federal government.
We can’t go on this way without digging a hole so deep we can never climb out of it.
The fixes are there. Solutions with potentially strong bipartisan support, such as infrastructure building and creating a win-win immigration policy, have been sitting on the table for years, stalled by partisan bickering. The pandemic shows us that the current level of partisan gridlock is literally killing us and that a re-focus on bi-partisan dealing is not only politically feasible, it’s the only sane way forward. To quote Ben Franklin, “We must all hang together or we will hang separately.”
Media, including social media, is a major driver of our polarization. You may be old enough to remember when the federal law mandated that broadcasters give equal time to competing points of view, a time when families listened to primetime news icons with some respect and trust. And back when, more recently, we thought that the principal purpose of social media companies was to help us connect pleasantly with our friends.
That those days are gone doesn’t mean we have to accept the media landscape we now have, a world of anger, hyperbole, lies and blame. We need to stop just shaking our heads at what the “other side” is spewing and become more proactive, for example by filling the social media we use with communications that are fair, balanced, respectful and fact-based. We can put these same qualities into Op-Eds and Letters to the Editor, especially in local media. We can join or organize advertiser boycotts of media that deliberately inflame hate and rage through lies and hyperbole. And we can discipline our face-to-face interactions to find even the smallest bits of common ground, and to expand from there.
I understand that these suggestions might have seemed naïve just six weeks ago. Now they look like imperatives, given that, in a real crisis, we see that clear and honest communications are a matter of life and death.
We can’t survive the current income and racial gaps. This pandemic has cast a blindingly bright light on another stark and shameful example of how deadly those disparities can be. There are enough statistics now to show that poor people (predominately people of color) are significantly more likely to contract—and to die from—COVID-19 than others, not just because of poorer access to healthcare, but because they are more likely to suffer from poverty, underlying health problems, and poor housing. NPR reported a last week that while blacks comprise 29% of the population of Chicago, they are 55% of those infected. The Cook County jail in Chicago is the largest known locus of US virus infections. Black and Hispanic people in New York City are twice as likely to die of the virus as white people, according to preliminary data released by the City. You can find comparable stats online for many other cities.
To put a human face on it, we are a nation in which professional basketball players can be tested more rapidly for the coronavirus than health care workers; in which the affluent can retreat to the safety of second homes, relying on workers who have no paid sick leave to deliver food; in which many children in lower-income households don’t have the computers or band-width to connect to the new digital classrooms.
Las Vegas has painted rectangles on an asphalt parking lot to remind homeless residents to sleep six feet apart…
How, as a nation, do we live with that?
And consider that the virus itself respects no boundaries of class or wealth. “We’re all in this together” is not just a moral ideal but a cold hard fact of public safety. People who have no income have to keep working. On the way to and from work, at work, they come in contact with others, and the virus spreads. The situation cries out for a national mandate for paid sick leave which would provide not only personal and public health benefits, but also, by lowering the threat of contagion, help keep businesses open.
We need a national system for health care. First, it’s a credit to many state and city leaders that they’re managing to make our existing patchwork quilt of state and local systems work as well as they have. Still, the lack of central direction has created unnecessary delays, confusion, conflict and avoidable shortages, as supplies end up at the wrong times in the wrong places.
Second, we’re seeing a fatal health care gap in the still large numbers of uninsured Americans. Without affordable access to health care providers, many working class people aren’t getting the treatment they need now. Creating a system that covers people who can’t pay isn’t charity, it’s a matter of protecting everyone. A health care system that covers all Americans would greatly decrease the chances of sick people infecting others.
We need to re-think individualism. Rugged individualism is in white male America’s DNA, and white males are, in the main, still in leadership everywhere you look. The pandemic demonstrates the downsides of that deep focus on an ideology of self, a focus that has left too many (mostly) men unprepared, intellectually and institutionally, for this crisis. The belief that the Have-nots are poor because they haven’t worked hard enough, that they are undeserving of help from the Haves, weakens incentives for mobilizing disaster relief, public health assistance and economic supports needed to get the nation through this crisis. That said, it’s a deep joy to see how many people do not believe in Me First and the Hell With Others. There are beautiful, spontaneous community actions taking place all across the country.
There are plenty of people who were until a few weeks ago railing against “Big Government,” but now are demanding government interventions in the” free” market that will save their investments. When the pandemic ends, and their finances have been protected by government actions, how many of them will note that the “Big Government” they despised has value?
Stop destroying the global partnerships on which America depends. Almost from his first day in office President Trump has gone out of his way to insult, demean and undercut other countries and their leaders.
Now, he’s blaming China for America’s losses in this pandemic, fueling tensions that threaten to undermine delicate trade negotiations crucial to America’s economic future. He’s gratuitously insulted the World Health Organization—a UN agency that’s done great work for decades—for disputing his analysis of the pandemic. He’s destroyed a budding relationship with India by threatening retribution if India doesn‘t sell the US its national stockpile of a drug Trump (but not his public health advisors) thinks will cure COVID-19. Poor nations in Latin America and Africa cannot find enough materials and equipment to test for coronavirus, partly because the United States and Europe are outbidding them for limited supplies. And the list goes on…
Pandemics cross borders with lethal ease. Meaning that the only solutions that make any sense are global solutions. Meaning that collaboration and cooperation are imperative, as are sound, trusting personal relationships among leaders.
As a former diplomat I can tell you that America has fewer friends and less respect in the world than at any time I can remember. This condition is self-inflicted and it will take years to repair.
A WARM-UP DRILL. Will we have the guts and take the responsibility to incorporate the lessons learned from this crisis into a post-pandemic world? Will we have learned that our weakened institutions and carelessleadership made the pandemic worse?
Will we grow as individuals? One lesson I’m thinking of as I leave the house on a supply run, is that the toughness I’ve always valued in myself and which has carried me through multiple life-threatening crises, isn’t top-of-the-list now. I may still think I’m invincible. I may still relish a life-threatening challenge, but this one’s not a solo. I have responsibilities to my community and my taking risks could endanger others.
So I leave the house with mask and gloves and I social-distance my way to the post office and the grocery store and the pharmacy. There’s no way I’m going to put other people at risk by being macho myself. Here’s hoping that idea is getting through to other adventure junkies like me.
I value lessons like those from philosopher and educator Parker Palmer who said in a recent essay, “As some of the fallout from this crisis comes my way… I’m learning more about the good hearts of people who reach out in ways that reflect our shared humanity. I'm touched by those who ask, ‘How you doing? Any way I can help?’, and clearly want to know.”
A crisis provides the opportunities to forge a better society, but not the political will to seize them. That requires ideas, courage and leadership. All seem in short supply today. Frankly, I‘m not optimistic that we will seize these opportunities for the renewal of our institutions and ourselves, even though they are right there for us to see, in full view amidst the wreckage. For the sake of my great-grandchildren I hope I’m wrong. I hope that this nation and others will summon up the courage, foresight, compassion and vision required to shape a new world that fixes the fatal flaws exposed by this pandemic.
America faces a fundamental choice between defending a status quo revealed by crisis as dangerously inadequate— and embracing progressive change. During the Great Depression and again after World War II, America used a just and activist government to build new worlds on the ashes. We need to do it again.
It’s not like the universe is going to give us a respite. We cannot forget in this time of a pandemic that the climate crisis is still bearing down on us. It is inexorable and existential. We will survive COVID-19. Humanity will continue when the virus has played out. But if we do not learn the survival lessons this planetary pandemic has given us, we will not survive the next challenge, the global climate crisis that’s heading straight at us.
This pandemic is a warm-up drill.