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Virus Vision

A crisis has a way of magnifying things that go largely unnoticed in ordinary times. The coronavirus outbreak not only has taken a staggering human and economic toll, it also has made certain realities plainly apparent and certain truths self-evident. This is one way a crisis can be both a curse and a blessing.

These are times that bring to mind that scene from Frank Capra’s iconic 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life when the greedy Mr. Potter lectures George Bailey: “Now take during the Depression, for instance. You and I were the only ones that kept our heads. You saved the Building and Loan, I saved all the rest.” To which George Bailey replies: “Yes, well, most people say you stole all the rest.”

Modern life imitates that 1940s art. While the pandemic caused tens of millions of Americans to lose their jobs and the health insurance that is tied to their employment, America’s billionaires saw their fortunes grow 15 percent from mid-March to mid-May, making them nearly a half-trillion dollars richer. Fundamental flaws and injustices in our economic system have never been more obvious. A stiff wealth tax has never been more justified.

Our country’s slow and inadequate response to the spread of the coronavirus exposed how woefully unprepared the U.S. was to deal with a pandemic and how many holes there are in our health care system and how easily people can fall through those holes. COVID-19 is nothing if not a cruel reminder of how elusive and fragile health security is in one of the world’s richest nations.

The pandemic lays bare our country’s racial divide as it claims the lives of black Americans at three times the rate of white people. The virus plays racial favorites because it discriminates based on where you live and what kind of housing you have, where you work and what kind of job you do, what kind of transportation you rely on, and what kind of access you have to medical care including diagnostic testing and treatment for COVID-19.

The pandemic bluntly calls into question American food security and challenges us to come to terms with how unwise it has been to allow ourselves to become so heavily reliant on a few gigantic producers and distributors. It presents us with both a choice and an opportunity to disavow get-big-or-get-out policies and create a more decentralized, sustainable and secure agricultural system.

Vanishing smog due to COVID-19’s impact around the world vividly illustrates how much human activity pollutes the air and threatens our planet’s health, making denial of manmade harm all the more implausible.

COVID-19 makes us take a hard look at how we’ve taken for granted vitally important national assets like the postal service and permitted them to be demonized and pushed to the brink of insolvency. When you are living in isolation during a public health emergency and depend on post offices and mail carriers to deliver life-sustaining medications, suddenly the value of such service comes into sharp focus.

Still, in times of crisis such sharpened focus and heightened awareness elude many. Wisconsin’s own Scott Walker has come out against providing stimulus funds to the states. Writing in The New York Times, Walker advocates austerity at precisely the wrong moment, arguing that states should cut their workforces rather than get federal help to continue basic services at a time when their revenues have evaporated due to the economic devastation of COVID-19. That approach ignores every warning from history about how recessions can be turned into depressions.

This pandemic is going to create a new normal, whether we like it or not. Will it be intensified economic inequality, aggravated health insecurity and resumption of environmental insanity? Or will it be greater justice, elevated humanity and gentler treatment of our surroundings and each other?

Dealing with this virus may be fogging our vision but it has made our choices clearer than ever.

Mike McCabe

May 28, 2020

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