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Our perfect storm

In this moment when the highest health priority is to find distance from one another, our highest political priority must be to come together as a nation

MacLean Gander has taught English and journalism at Landmark College in Putney for more than 30 years, but the views expressed are entirely his own. (By way of transparency, we note that he is serving on the board of directors of Vermont Independent Media, publisher of this newspaper, where he is temporarily lending his considerable educational and administrative talents. In between these roles, he has been our investigative journalist in The Commons’ newsroom.)

West Brattleboro

We face a crisis that is like nothing the United States has encountered in the last century.

The world changed for us last Wednesday, March 11, sometime between the morning, when Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health warned that the COVID-19 crisis would get much worse, and the end of Donald Trump’s hastily written and poorly articulated national address that night.

The nation then began to shut down, beginning with the suspension of the professional basketball season and continuing over the following days with the closure of almost every significant cultural icon, from every other major sports league and the Boston Marathon, to Disney World and St. Patrick’s Day parades, to the museums, theaters, and concert halls of almost every U.S. city and town.

By the end of the week, the nation was on lockdown, for all intents and purposes, though even more stringent measures were being considered formally.

Most colleges and schools closed their doors, with schools in Vermont canceled until at least April 6. Many prominent politicians and other figures had been tested for COVID-19 or were in self-imposed quarantine because of contact with infected individuals.

Actor couple Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced that they both were infected, prompting the headline that everyone in the country now knew someone they loved who had the virus.

Trump himself finally got tested on Saturday after widespread reports of his contact with individuals who had turned out to have the virus. The results were negative, according to the White House.

* * *

The president’s speech on Wednesday night was designed to reassure the public, but it had the opposite effect. Within minutes of his delivery, U.S. stock futures had already begun to plunge, and the next day the markets suffered one of their deepest losses in history.

The wild Wall Street roller-coaster ride is not ending anytime soon.

Extraordinary fluctuations in arcane financial markets that undergird the global economic system signaled a crisis of liquidity and prompted the Federal Reserve Bank to pump $1.5 trillion of cash into the system — about $4,500 for every person in the country. On Sunday, the Fed cut the baseline interest rate almost to zero.

Whether the markets will stabilize and the economic system be prevented from the kind of collapse that caused the 2008 recession remains to be seen. One thing is certain: In addition to its public health crisis, Americans also face massive economic dislocation.

Most analysts agree that the U.S. will experience a recession that will be global in scale, though the depth of its severity and length were still uncertain. A number of reports noted the real question: how severe would the pandemic be, and how long it would last?

In Brattleboro, local businesses have already begun to announce layoffs, and calls for support have gone up on Facebook pages from local nonprofit service agencies.

It is clear that the economic damage will be quick and real.

* * *

A “perfect storm” occurs when different storm systems merge. In this crisis — our perfect storm — the United States faces three different, simultaneous vectors of tempest and trouble, all merging into a single event that has no comparison in our modern era.

First, we face a public health crisis of a magnitude that we have not seen since 1918, when the influenza epidemic killed more than 675,000 people in the U.S. and 50 million people worldwide — 12 times as many people than died in combat in World War I.

Second, of course, are the consequences of social distancing to suppress the spread of the virus on our economy, which we can only compare to the Great Depression of 1929 and the Great Recession of 2008. Both of these crises were caused by respective failures of financial liquidity. This time, we have the complexity of a threat that will essentially keep most of us at home for weeks.

And finally, the nation is also in the midst of a constitutional crisis, one in which political norms that we had taken for granted have been cast aside.

Last fall, Trump was impeached but not removed. He is mistrusted by a majority after having uttered more than 16,000 false statements, untruths, and lies during his tenure in office.

Still, his popularity rating has hovered at about 42 percent for most of his term, with 90 percent of Republicans supporting him, and it seems possible that he may win a second term.

We are in an election year that is different from any we have faced before — one that does not simply involve a contest between two approaches to policy but the fundamental question of what kind of nation we will be and whether our democracy will survive.

* * *

There is something about this current moment, when everything is in crisis and everything is shutting down — when you can’t find toilet paper in a store or online, for heaven’s sake — that concentrates the reason.

These are dangerous times, when people must be serious and reasonable. An epidemic like the one we face now can bring us together, and it can also tear us apart.

Calling the coronavirus “a foreign virus,” as Trump did, is like saying some humans are different from other humans. But viruses are impartial when it comes to hosts — they don’t discriminate the way we sometimes do. We are all equally vulnerable.

We need to match xenophobia with community, panic and exclusion with reason and kindness, visions of dystopia with visions of how much better things could be.

It is clear that we must do what it takes, as quickly as possible, to make the rate of growth of the virus linear rather than exponential. It is our only chance to avoid the kind of spikes in illness that have overwhelmed hospitals in nations like China and Italy, and it may already be too late.

Occasionally, one encounters the expression “never waste a good crisis.” It’s a concept that can be used for good or for evil. The danger that our current crisis may unleash the kinds of authoritarian measures that places like China and Iran have imposed should not be underestimated.

Yet this is also a crisis that forces us to see clearly what must change in our society. Let’s not waste it.

* * *

In the grocery stores, many aisles are bare, just like the major streets in Rome and Washington, D.C. A sense of apocalypse is looming. We make nervous jokes about it, or in more serious ways we bring out the dystopian tropes.

We have not yet faced the need to triage dying patients at hospitals that don’t have enough beds in their ICUs or enough ventilators, but by April we probably will. Worst-case estimates — made before current efforts to mitigate the virus’s spread — suggest that as many as 214 million Americans will contract the virus and as many as 1.7 million may die from it.

Right now, we have no real way to quantify the risk, and the only sure bet is that we face a 100-percent chance of uncertainty and further dismay.

The level of derangement that COVID-19 will cause in our lives is already here, but it also has barely begun. It will hurt all of us, but it will be most damaging to those who are most vulnerable.

Maybe this is what we need to see most clearly. Maybe this is the clear vision that will help us understand how to do the right thing.

For those of us who can afford to self-isolate and face the crisis from the comfort of a middle-class life, it can be easy not to see that our reality is not shared by the majority of Americans.

Some have jobs where they can work from home. Most do not. Some people have sick leave and medical insurance. Most do not. Some people can afford to buy a month’s worth of food and supplies on a single paycheck. Most cannot.

The economic hardship created by this crisis for those who live one paycheck away from disaster — about 40 percent of all Americans — cannot be overstated. The risks faced by the most vulnerable among us are almost incalculable.

Obviously, one way to deal with one’s privilege is to acknowledge that one has it, and another way is to be generous with friends and others who are not as well-placed within our savagely inequitable economic system. Even the ability to donate or volunteer is a sort of privilege.

We are called now, by this black swan event, to see clearly our current reality in the United States, which was already deeply sick.

Economic inequality, racism and xenophobia, sexism and queerphobia, all the “deaths of despair” from opiates, suicides, and alcoholism have been part of our news for several years, and in some cases for decades before that.

The incompetence and venality of the Trump administration was obvious from the start and has only grown worse, but the rot has been in the foundation a lot longer than that.

COVID-19 has cast a glaring light on the failures of globalism and the social arrangements of neoliberalism. It is clear that it is time for change in our social order.

Still, the current administration’s mishandling of the crisis is the main reason we face the level of crisis that we do today.

We are one of the least prepared advanced nations to deal with this crisis. Despite the lead time we were given as the virus spread from China to other nations, we are not ready for what is about to come.

There is some small irony in the fact that Canada and Mexico are both considering closing their borders to us.

But no one is laughing.

* * *

These next weeks and months could be very bad. They may make us feel nostalgic for a time when we cared about sports seasons being suspended or cancelled.

We don’t know what is coming. To hope for the best and prepare for the worst is the only sensible approach, but it is hard even to know what that means.

In a moment when the highest health priority is to find distance from one another, our highest political priority must be to come together as a nation.

In our fractured politics, it is hard to even know what that would look like, though it is obvious that taking back the White House should be anyone’s highest priority.

An equally high priority might be to more deeply and fully acknowledge the nature of privilege and inequality, to see the forces that divide us, and to work to create genuine community, based on candor and trust.

In his poem “September 1, 1939,” which marked the Nazi invasion of Poland, the British poet W. H. Auden wrote that “We must love one another or die.”

These times are not as dark as those — not yet, at least.

But the line seems true to me.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #553 (Wednesday, March 18, 2020). This story appeared on page C1.

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