Creating our future — choosing how we respond to this pandemic crisis

When faced with a major crisis (as the world is now), there are primarily two ways to react. One is to be compassionate and look to see how we can improve the world. The other is to focus the fear and blame on people and to use the crisis to perpetuate hate. The choice is ours to make.

In this short essay, I will give a brief sweeping history of responses to crises, an overview of observations as to how we are currently reacting to this current crisis brought on by the covid-19 pandemic, and conclude with some specific proposals on how we can react with love and compassion.

After the first world war, many countries around the world expanded the right to vote. For some countries, it was because their constitutions were newly written, for others that right to vote was hard fought. World cooperation was attempted with the League of Nations; but, of course, there were massive failings in this plan as well — far more than I can tackle in this essay.

When faced with the Great Depression, the United States, through the leadership of FDR and his cabinet (notably Frances Perkins); worked to get Americans to work again. The programs they created such as Social Security, disability insurance (SSDI), and a federal minimum wage, among others are still with us today. The left and the right were in oppositional ascendency. And in some areas in the time between the wars, the opposition was seen and felt within the same countries. Some countries, when faced with the same economic crisis, blamed the “other” and the leaders in those countries stoked the embers of fear and hatred until a very deadly fire consumed the world.

After the second world war, much of the world was literally and figuratively in shambles. But out of these shambles, many countries started new programs in rebuilding. For example, it is at this time the UK began the National Health Service. New levels of international cooperation began with the creation of the United Nations. Though, of course, a new “enemy” was also created with the onset of the Cold War.

After September 11, the US responded with increased xenophobia, Islamophobia, widespread curtailments on civil liberties, and belligerence. While there has not been another attack since, the fear and hatred this one attack created has not yet been eased by many — and has been stoked by certain media outlets and political leaders. This is an example of how horribly America can react to a crisis.

In this current pandemic, I have seen reactions that bring promise, and I have seen reactions that make me worry for our future. Given that we are in the midst of this; we have time to choose how this will shape us.

First for the hope. I have seen people of all ages, all socio-economic backgrounds, all religious backgrounds, and even though differences in partisan affiliation come together by self-isolating. I have seen leaders of many states and many governments address their residents with concern and compassion to express the gravity of the situation while acknowledging that this is frightening for us all. I have seen international cooperation among medical professionals on working towards better treatments, better medical protocol, prevention methods, improvements in delivery, etc. I have seen people sharing ideas on how to create personal protective equipment in response to the shortage — it looks like nearly every person with a sewing machine has been making masks. And whether cloth masks are effective or not; the response is heartwarming. I have seen businesses that are already taking a hit donating to their community. I have seen many communities coming together with mutual aid, and coming together by staying apart.

But I have also seen people stoking fear and hatred…. I have seen people say those who are older and those with underlying health conditions should simply be sacrificed to this pandemic for the “greater good” (which, frankly, serves no good). I have seen people blame the sick for getting sick (even if they became ill before there were any “stay at home” orders). I have seen people ignore the scientists and insist that this pandemic is just a hoax. I have seen far too much blaming of the “other” for this crisis. First with racist responses toward people of Asian descent and more recently toward blaming people from US hotspots for the illness. I have seen leaders downplay the crisis and I have seen leaders try to use the crisis for their personal gain. I have seen the current President give minimal aid to states where he doesn’t like the governors, but fill 100% of the aid requested for a state where he likes the governor.

We can choose how to react. We can choose what to do next. We can choose to look upon our neighbors here and across the globe with love and compassion or we can choose to be filled with hate. I hope we choose the path of love and compassion. So here are some things I hope we change for the future using the lessons of today:

  1. Health includes public health. What we all do impacts the health of others. This is true with a contagious disease. This is true with environmental contaminants. This is true with public safety. This is true when we look at the health impacts of racism, sexism, and poverty.
  2. We need a single payer health system. While a single payer plan wouldn’t have prevented this crisis; we are seeing millions of Americans losing insurance coverage as they have lost their jobs. It is also already predicted that private insurance companies will be looking to raise their rates by up to 40% after this crisis. This isn’t the time for half-measures or incrementalism. We need universal single payer coverage now.
  3. We need paid sick leave for all workers including part time employees, self-employed workers, and small business owners. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it has taught us that the one way to stop the spread of a contagious disease is to stop interacting with others when one is contagious. For the safety of workers and for the safety of the public; we need to have paid sick leave for all of us.
  4. Procurement and distribution methods of needed supplies needs to be changed. It is one thing for individual hospitals and clinics to buy swabs, gloves, face masks, gowns, etc. on their own when there isn’t a medical crisis. It is quite another thing when these items are in short supply. Right now, every state, every hospital system, every nursing home, every city fire department; are all competing with each other to get items that are in short supply. Some states, including some Republican run states, are stepping up and saying that the purchasing and distribution has to be centralized during this crisis. But the federal government has let us all down. Meanwhile, prices for everything that is in short supply have been jacked up to extreme profiteering levels. Add to this, that industries have been promised that they won’t be held liable if their products fail; and the disaster before us has only become greater. Taxpayers can literally pay tens of thousands of dollars for a ventilator that is defective, people will die, and the manufacturer will be held harmless.
  5. We need to continue to recognize the importance of “essential workers” long after this crisis is over. The postal service, delivery folks, grocery store workers, everyone in the supply chain from farmers to factory workers to truckers, health care providers, utility workers and the like all deserve our utmost respect.
  6. We should come out of this crisis with the recognition that all people are valuable and no one is disposable.
  7. We should come out of this crisis with a new zeal to work cooperatively throughout the world to prevent and solve future crises. A health crisis or an environmental crisis on the other side of the world still impacts us. We are a global community.
  8. We should come out of this crisis with a greater respect for science and education. For decades, science denialism and anti-intellectualism has grown continually worse. Critical thinking skills have declined from lack of use — or from never being taught to begin with. This crisis has shown the dangers of ignoring public health experts and not listening to scientists who have studied epidemiology for years. What several world leaders have downplayed as a mere “scare” has taken thousands of lives. Let’s start listening to scientists. Let’s stop dismissing higher education. Let’s listen to real experts (not the tv talk show kind) about health and about climate change.
  9. We need leaders who exhibit real leadership. That is we need leaders who respond to crisis with compassion. We need leaders who surround themselves with and listen to experts. We need leaders who seek to solve problems rather than find others to blame.

When this is over — and it will eventually be over — we will have a chance to do a major reboot. Let us use this time to commit, not to a return to normal, but to creating a world filled with love and compassion with an eye to preventing this from happening again by recognizing our interconnectedness and heeding the best information science can offer.

Photo by Duangphorn Wiriya on Unsplash

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