(Graphic Courtesy of The New York Times)
When thinking of American politics and society over the past couple years I think we can all agree there has been a trend of wanting to return to “normal”. From Donald Trump promising an idyllic vision of the past or Biden promising a return to Obama years it seems that everyone is advocating a return to some kind of past when things were “ok”. Hindsight is 20/20 though and the past is simply not an option anymore. The COVID-19 crisis this year exemplifies that. This crisis is estimated to potentially lay off 80-90% of hospitality workers (https://unitehere.org/press-releases/hospitality-workers-union-unite-here-on-impact-of-covid-19-pandemic-there-needs-to-be-a-bailout-of-the-american-worker/) and may even result in a 20% unemployment (https://thehill.com/policy/finance/488143-mnuchin-warned-jobless-rate-could-hit-20-percent-without-federal-response) in the broader economy. In a society where upwards of 60% of our population would be bankrupted by an emergency $1000 expense, this reality of layoffs and the simultaneous pandemic is truly life-threatening (https://www.cnbc.com/2019/01/23/most-americans-dont-have-the-savings-to-cover-a-1000-emergency.html). Boiling all of that down: if we don’t take serious action we are screwed economically and health-wise which impacts every possible sector of life. When faced with extreme non-normal problems like this we need non-normal solutions to reduce harm. Times like these force everyone to question the basic dynamics of society and the very root of why things are the way they are. The normal crisis responses of flooding the stock market with treasury money and passing payroll tax cuts simply are not enough to help out the average American or even the larger economy in the face of this crisis.
While dealing with the crisis right now is of the utmost importance though I think we should also consider how we will move forward after this event, more specifically how will we define our new “normal”.
Simply, there will never be a normal like we’ve had in the past. This crisis has exposed much of the rot and inefficiencies of our political and economic system. It will force people to advocate for change or face the life or death consequences of the current system. Understand that many people will not die and suffer directly from COVID-19 but indirectly from its innumerous consequences. Those families that are waking up today and having to think about how they will pay rent or put food on the table now that they’ve been laid off. The regular everyday people that may die in everyday realities like car crashes or having an infection because our medical system will be almost entirely overburdened by COVID. The thousands of suicides or turns to opioid use that will occur after months of potential unemployment that we have already seen in the past in 2008 and in the rust belt. These are the harsh truths and outcomes of our current society, they may be uncomfortable, but that is the function of the systems we prescribe to every day.
I think at this moment we need to obviously first be focusing on limiting the spread of COVID-19 and “flattening the curve” but still at a very important second is taking a step back and evaluating the basic propositions and institutions of daily life. How did we get to this point? Why does our political or economic system operate in the way it does? How could we maybe reorganize society to be “better”. How can I make the changes I want to see?
In this historical moment, it is ok to be scared. This is also a moment of great reflection though. One that can be used by society to refocus our priorities and reorganize how our society functions to better ensure prosperity for all. The ideas of the past have only led us to this point with: historic inequality, a looming climate catastrophe, broad political dissatisfaction, and a viral pandemic threatening us all. It is time that we stop looking to the past and trying to regress ourselves to some rose-tinted history, it is time to inspire new solutions and look forward to how we can drastically change society not just on a surface level but a systems one. This moment will require much of us in the short term but even more in the long-term. It is a moment where despite our isolation we must focus on cohesion in helping and understanding one and another. Most importantly though, in this moment, we all have to realize that the ability to define society and to create a new better “normal” is in our hands, its just a matter of action.