The Great Covid Revelation
Every once in a while, a natural event comes along that challenges an entire society. Not necessarily a war, which may be influenced by environmental factors yet still ultimately relies on human choice. There’s a reason natural disasters play have played an out-sized role in the myths of ancient peoples: floods, droughts, epidemics, great fires and ice ages became totemic not for the disastrous power they wrought but for the societal response required to overcome them- or not. The true nature of a society’s values rise to the fore when these natural disasters strike unannounced, and it becomes impossible to hide authentic character.
War is easy to use as a galvanizing cause; natural disasters tend to be more complicated, with broad and narrow effects. One of the central foundational myths in Chinese civilization is of a Duke who engineered a canal system to alleviate devastating floods in the valley, human ingenuity and industry that remade both land and people; the success of Ancient Egyptian civilization likewise hinged on their ability to adapt to the flood and drought cycles of the Nile river. In Central America, Ancient Mayans built incredible city-states unlike anything seen in the world at the time, yet climate change ultimately uprooted and dispersed their population for good; when the Black Death or Bubonic Plague swept through medieval Europe in the 14th century, a horridly repressive feudal society was laid bare and began a precipitous decline in favor of greater equality and human rights. Some civilizations adapt and thrive; some plan for every contingency and keep their eyes to the future; and some go up in flames while a few individuals profit from the disaster.
What our current global pandemic has exposed is not necessarily the ideological differences between various systems of government, but the difference between a government/society that can act effectively in the best interest of all, and one that is paralyzed by internal strife, incompetence and selfishness. The governments who have fared best have acted decisively; while their methods may have been anachronistic across the spectrum, the results were relatively uniform. South Korea combined rapid implementation of a nationwide public-private testing apparatus with personal responsibility, backed up by widely-available affordable Personal Protective Equipment. China shut everything down, rapidly constructed massive containment and treatment centers, and used cutting-edge technology to contact trace and regulate individual movement. Germany built the largest testing capacity in the world but toed the line when it came to restrictions. The Czech Republic and other countries adopted widespread mask mandates with phenomenal success- and then saw their numbers rise exponentially when the mandates were removed. Our northern neighbor in Canada didn’t do anything drastically different from the US, they were simply better in their execution.
Now consider the United States, rated as “most prepared” for future pandemics as recently as 2019. Obviously we didn’t quite meet that bar, but why? Was it luck, a more susceptible population? Can we blame one man? I would say all these factors were likely at play to some degree, but the comprehensive culpability lies elsewhere: namely, us. Our society and our institutions. We seem to lack the quality of leadership seen in other countries, granted, but then again not many countries significantly rely on one individual leader. In fact, a common thread among the countries that have fared the worst seems to be an authoritarian bent- Brazil, Russia, India, to some extent the United Kingdom. Populism doesn’t really encourage independent expertise or efficient and effective institutions. No, it’s not Trump’s fault we are the way we are- he is a symptom, the fruit of our own seed. He is the patron saint of selfishness and, with apologies to our cherished pluralism, an embodiment of the “me first” approach that has come to define our society.
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
Just look at our national discourse, where news media organizations and interpersonal dialogue share a symbiotic relationship. We can’t fully blame our current news-media environment because we ourselves create it; we can- and should- hold them, as well as our unregulated social media giants, accountable for chasing clicks, views and ‘engagement’; but their algorithms don’t create the inputs. They choose them. They exploit our own inherent characteristics. We are the ones who click and share what titillates us the most, not what informs us the most. I think the news media coverage of this epidemic could be roughly reduced to three main categories of engagement: fear, cynicism, and contextual honesty.
Fear: “The virus has no known remedy, it can’t be stopped and it will kill you!”
-or “They are going to use this virus to control your lives!”
Cynicism: “This is all overblown!” or “Just let it run its course, it’s going to anyways.”
Contextual honesty: “There is far more that we don’t know than what we do know.”
The truth was, we didn’t know much when this began- and that’s ok! It should have been expected. The scientific process takes time, and never runs in a predictable, straight course. In truth, what we needed in the Spring and Summer was a little bit of fear (because it is a dangerous disease that spreads easily) with a little bit of healthy skepticism (let’s maybe not implicitly trust every pre-print research article that hasn’t been peer-reviewed, and be rational with choosing what to close down and what to keep open) and a lot of contextual honesty (it’s ok to live with mystery for a little bit- that’s what most life is anyways).
Instead, most of our discourse somehow became a culture war. As it does far too often.
The most simple remedy for viral spread- wearing a mask- became a source of controversy and division. South Korea had cheap masks available at every post office within a matter of weeks; when the USPS devised a plan to send 5 masks to everyone in the country, the administration shut it down for fear citizens would take the virus seriously. Instead of suppressing the virus as the Czech Republic and other countries had done with widespread mask usage, we saw months of mockery and attacks from all corners of society. Memes and mask-shaming videos displaced actual scientific expertise in our discourse. To be sure, the immediate information from experts was unfortunately ambiguous and sometimes contradictory- which a rational person might expect from the first brushes with a novel virus nobody had ever seen before, but which a society with an overwhelming desire for immediate satisfaction and easy answers was bound to exploit. Again, our political leaders and news institutions deserve blame for this, but their hype and misinformation found a receptive audience. It’s a chicken and egg conundrum- does our society get the leaders and journalism we ourselves have wrought, or are we their victims? Both must be true.
It is selfishness, plain and simple.
The ‘West’ of the end of the 20th century was largely built on humanism and empowered personal liberty, to great benefit for many; but for a society to function in a comprehensively beneficial manner, there must exist a weight of collectivism and unity to balance the scales for all, not just the majority. Many countries realized this and evolved into a blend of representational democracy with socialist values. Basic rights like health care became accessible to all, in forms that varied from country to country yet with synchronized aims/goals.
In the United States, we started down this path with the New Deal Era…but as the century wore on we lost touch with reality, caught up in our own mythical status and illusion of grandeur. By the end of the cold war, as we announced ourselves the “only superpower” in the world, we were already blinded; chasing the almighty dollar and fame at the expense of decency and compassion. Locked into our two-party system (a system that would have horrified most of our founding fathers in the 18th century), compromise has become a dirty word. Victory was all that mattered, our own selfish desires pre-eminent versus our national unity. More and more, we became an island nation of warring islands perniciously separated from one another. Personal liberty was no longer tempered by common good. Our politics became a zero-sum-game, and our governing institutions became paralyzed by this strife at every level.
The Covid pandemic has not created these issues; it has only exposed them. As South Korea and Germany formed public-private partnerships and streamlined necessary materials and processes, our response was impossibly bogged down by infighting and a complete lack of teamwork. Our testing apparatus was an unmitigated disaster; despite the availability of testing kits from other countries, we chose to make our own- while still remaining reliant upon other countries for specific parts like nasal swabs. Our first batch was contaminated, and instead of working together with other departments or private companies the CDC wasted precious weeks fixing its mistake, alone. While other countries were developing diverse and responsive testing capabilities through centralized mechanisms, we were hamstrung by de-centralized chaos. Tests regularly took over a week to return results, at which point they were useless; testing was never able to be focused on contract tracing efforts because, well, we didn’t really have thorough contact tracing programs. Individual states had to fight against each other for vital PPE and even had to literally hide their shipments from the federal government so they wouldn’t be seized. There was never a unified method of gathering and sharing data with each other or with the public, and months later we still heavily rely on a few independent journalistic endeavors to keep track of the data. Supposedly independent departments were sabotaged or undercut by the administration, and guidelines constantly shifted, contradicted, and disappeared into the ether. Some of this could have been solved with better leadership, but the underlying structural issues would have been a barrier to any administration.
The result: an almost unfathomable tragedy that affected citizens along our pre-existing fault lines of inequality.
In the United States, the poverty rate is 10.5%.
Yet for African-Americans, it is 18.8%. For Hispanics, 15.7%. Both are more than 1.5 times their percentage of the overall population.
1 in 5 low-income Americans report going without health care due to finances, as opposed to 1 in 25 high-income Americans. As a result, low-income families (which are disproportionately minorities) experience more chronic illnesses, less accessibility to health care facilities, and more medical debt.
It is no surprise, then, that this pandemic has affected low-income and minority Americans far more than everyone else. African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans have been hospitalized at 4.5–5.5 times the rate of White Americans. The mortality rate is, similar to the poverty rate, 1.5 times their percentage of the overall population.
Of course, this all lines up with what we knew of the American health care system before the pandemic even struck. We spend twice as much as the average wealthy OECD country on health care, all for the lowest life expectancy out of every country. We have the highest chronic disease burden, twice the obesity rate, fewer physician visits, more expensive technologies and the highest number of hospitalizations and deaths from preventable causes. We are last in measures of health care access and quality. So what else should we expect from a nationwide health crisis? Our health care system is set up for the wealthy to receive some of the best care in the world, and everyone else to receive just enough to keep them chronically dependent. Profits take precedence over the good of the community.
The response to this pandemic is not just about health care, however. No matter what level of ‘lockdown’ or restrictions were placed on society, every business and sector has been impacted. We are simply too globalized in our supply chains and consumption habits for any economy to fully shut out the rest of the world. GDP across the world’s economies will constrict this year, no matter how thoroughly each country kept the virus contained. But there has been a marked difference between the approach to employment in the US compared to most of the rest of the world.
In the Euro zone, governments made concerted efforts to provide extended support for all businesses and employees affected by the virus; according to the Brookings Institute, the unemployment rate has risen just under 1 percentage point, from 7.2% to 8.1%.
In the United States, no such support existed; there was instead an increase of unemployment benefits, a one-time stimulus check, and a scattershot small business loan program that was not directed enough towards businesses affected by the virus. The unemployment rate jumped from 3.5% to 14.5%, before falling below 8% in the past few months. We have undergone a fourfold increase compared to the average OECD country.
Any guesses as to where the worst job losses have taken place?
According to Pew, 47% of low-income families have experienced Covid-related job losses or pay cuts, compared to 42% of middle class families and 32% of upper-income families. Distinguishing by race, 53% of Hispanic families have this experience, compared to 47% of Asian families, 43% of Black families, and 38% of White families. Lower income families are more likely to have remained unemployed during the recovery of the past few months, and the unemployment rate for all Black Americans remains double that of White Americans.
As a recent NBC News headline euphemistically proclaimed, 8 million Americans have “slipped” into poverty during this pandemic…as if they just accidentally took a wrong step.
But all of this lines up with a nation that has become one of the most unequal on earth over the past 40 years. The most staggering statistic is the racial wealth gap: median wealth for white families is over $171,000, while median wealth for black families is $17,100. We are the most unequal country in the G7, one where the richest 50 individuals hold as much wealth as the 165 million poorest. One where major corporations routinely pay 0 federal income tax, and where all wealthy take advantage of unethical business tactics and lobbying influence to hide their fortunes from the IRS and the good of society. Every crisis affects them the least: in the recent ‘Great Recession’, the top 20% increased their wealth by 13% while all others saw a decrease of 20%…and the recession itself was brought on by unethical tactics of those very same wealthy elite!
For as much as we wish that we could say that we are different now, that such inequality is in our past, I present to you the aforementioned small business loan program, the Paycheck Protection Program. As we’ve already seen, low income families and minorities faced the brunt of effects from this pandemic. So did we channel PPP money to these small businesses truly in need? Of course not. 38% of loan applications were accepted overall, but that number was only 12% for minority-owned businesses. Mainstream lenders rewarded their biggest clients first- large or medium-sized businesses with mostly white owners- and without necessary regulation or stipulations put forth by the administration or congress, minority-owned businesses were left out. Once again.
Just like the great recession, the wealthy have only increased their wealth as the rest of us have suffered; the 643 wealthiest Americans have seen gains of over $845 billion over the past 6 months, or an increase of 29%.
It is not a surprise to note that the wealthy have fared better than the poor in this pandemic, from high-quality health care to financial security to consistent education in an inconsistent environment. But just because these inequalities are unsurprising does not make them logical or ideal in any way. We may think of our approach to capitalism as irrevocably and concretely handed down to us by better men- but that is only a myth we’ve subscribed to. We create this reality for ourselves; we are the ones in control of the myth. We are the ones who have chosen to believe CEO’s are somehow over 300x more valuable than the average worker, that a small minority of wealthy people armed with algorithms to trade imaginary stocks for made-up sums of money is somehow more important to society than educators who teach our children or farmers who produce the food on our tables. Adam Smith isn’t still alive pulling the economic strings- he died hundreds of years ago in a society vastly different from our own. This doesn’t mean we should disregard everything he said, but it also doesn’t mean we should treat his- or other philosophers- words as absolute truth; their words are relative to their time and place, just as ours are.
I don’t mean to condemn all of humanity here; indeed, the inequality described here is in our very nature. Altruism, or self-sacrifice for the good of all, is still a bit of an anomaly in the natural world. It goes against everything in human development- whether you want to look at it as biological evolution, original sin, suffering, or an imperious God. There is a struggle between beings at all levels and scales of life, and this competition with each other has spurred growth and progress through the ages. But while we are a part of this natural order, or possibly the fruit of it, we must also recognize at this point that we are more. You may believe we are spiritual beings with unique capabilities of consciousness or simply the current masters of evolutionary biology like the dinosaurs before us; either way, we are in a unique situation, capable of a unique kind of community/fraternity across the globe.
As far as we know, we may be the first species in the history of the earth able to connect across the planet and make reasoned choices between individual selfishness and the good of the species- or even the earth. Because, as many philosophers and religious leaders have noted: what is best for everyone is best for everyone. When we harm each other, we harm ourselves. When we harm our environment, we harm ourselves. We gravitate towards mutual self-destruction rather than mutual benefit. And in an era where we have the capacity to provide for the basic needs of every human on earth in a sustainable manner, it should be a crime to deny basic decency to another human being based on a political ideology or man-made religious doctrine. It should be a crime to destroy the world around us in the name of man-made concepts like “capitalism” or for hoarded individual wealth.
We have the power to make that choice. We don’t need political status or financial influence- we can make this choice in our own lives, and do our best to spread this shared ideal as quickly and broadly as the coronavirus itself spreads. Because while the pandemic has exposed our current society in all its flaws and imperfections, it has also presented us with a great opportunity: to build back with the values we want to see in each other, informed by clear and honest assessment. To build a human society that reflects our best ideals rather than our basest desires. To see ourselves as one human race, with many different colors, languages, and cultural backgrounds. To learn from our past in order to secure a better future for ourselves and our children. To follow the great spiritual leaders of our time: Pope Francis, Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, Thich Nhat Han, the Dalai Lama, and others who preach universal love.
In the end, the greatest lesson I think we can learn from the pandemic is this: we have a better chance at succeeding as a human race when we see ourselves as one human race, not 7 billion different islands.