Can the coronavirus help us change things for the better?
Besides learning to cope with social distancing, homeschooling, and cabin fever, the slowdown brought on by the Coronavirus can teach us a lot, not only about human behavior in crisis but also about our social and economic policies. The unprecedented global actions taken to slow the spread of COVID-19 are already putting many of our practices and policies in stark relief.
In Venice, Italy fish are swimming again in the now crystalline waters of its usually murky canals. Imagine the sudden sense of wellbeing ocean creatures are experimenting at the absence of cruise ships and other manmade intruders. The pandemic gives us the opportunity to take a second look at the environmental consequences of our actions.
China’s drastic measures to contain the spread of the virus, decreased its toxic pollution cloud dramatically, potentially extending the lives of tens of thousands of people. In New York City, people rode bicycles instead of taking public transportation or breathing inside cars. Did we really need to suffer a pandemic to understand that most cities are better served by bikes? Even a controversial idea like a universal basic income is now gaining traction thanks to the impending economic downturn, with proposals to give taxpayers at least $1,000 for a couple of months to help stave off disaster.
The United States practices an extreme form of capitalism. Abetted by the Republican obsession for curtailing federal government, this is turning out to be a recipe for catastrophe, as evidenced by the Trump administration’s gutting of crucial federal agencies, such as the National Security Council’s global health security office, in charge of dealing with pandemics. The few safeguards we have, like Obamacare, Social Security, and Medicaid are under constant threat. Our lack of universal healthcare is now glaringly unsustainable. That Americans have to clamor for free (for any!) COVID-19 testing is an indication of the malevolence of our current healthcare system and the incompetence of our current government.
Most Americans are just relieved that they have a job. We don’t spend much time thinking about our employment benefits until disaster strikes. Now we are confronted with a system that has no official paid sick leave for workers; a system that has gutted unions and their many protections for the American workforce. Companies have benefited from the “gig economy,” employing freelancers without paying any benefits, and firing them without any safety net.
Now we read about mothers who go hungry so that their children can eat. And this woman happens to be a disabled Army veteran! This is happening in what is supposed to be the richest, most powerful country on Earth. We are watching first-hand the callousness of the unbridled free-market, deregulation, and corporations-are-people experiment. 99% of us are living proof of the obscene inequality that is a direct consequence of the economic and social policies of the last 30 years.
There’s never any government money for decent education or healthcare, but when disaster strikes, a trillion dollars suddenly materializes to jump-start the economy—mostly in the form of corporate bailouts, as usual. There is even talk of forgiving college student loans, and giving workers paid sick leave, as well we should. Policies that have always made perfect sense but that no one adopted because of rapacious capitalism, suddenly become urgent. Why wait until calamity strikes? Now that the world is at a standstill, we have a unique opportunity to learn from our mistakes and enact better environmental and socioeconomic measures. Disaster is staring us in the face. The question is, will it really bring meaningful change? Only if we demand it.