There’s a deep longing in this country—indeed, around the world—for this Covid-19 nightmare to end. Nine weeks into California’s shelter in place orders (SIPOs), people are starting to break out of the disciplined routines they adopted during the first phase of the pandemic. More and more people are leaving their homes for all kinds of reasons, some with and some without masks. Traffic jams—so oddly absent for weeks—are starting again. Employers are requiring workers to report back to their jobs, some with protective protocols, others without. Professional sports leagues are talking about re-starting. You can feel people slipping back into their “old” ways.
This feeling is being exploited by rightwing extremists, Republican governors in the South, some corporate execs (Elon Musk leading the pack), and, of course, their orange-hair cheerleader-in- chief. For weeks, the right has argued that the nation must choose between restarting the economy and fighting the pandemic. The narrative on the right has now become even more extreme: the pandemic is fake news. Progressives manufactured the Covid-19 pandemic to frighten Americans into giving up their ‘freedom’ and to submit to a socialist state. Scientists and public health officials are part of the conspiracy. Communist China weaponized Covid-19 and unleashed it on the United States. Whacko conspiracy theorists (Judy Mikovits) are everywhere on rightwing websites and Fox News debunking science. Republican governors in the South are ending SIPOs and re-opening restaurants, bars, movie houses, stores and beaches in states with rising Covid infection rates. Armed militias have invaded state capitol buildings in Michigan and Wisconsin demanding “freedom” from socialist politicians.
The demand for “freedom” from public health restrictions is dehumanizing. Right wing demagogues on Fox openly state that the nation must “pay a price” to revive the economy. They had always been willing to sacrifice delivery people, shopping market workers, and other so-called ‘essential’ workers who were forced to work with little or no safety precautions. They then said that elders and other at-risk people must be sacrificed. Then they added essential workers in the poultry and meat processing plants. They could care less that African Americans, Latinx and Native American people are dying at double or triple the rates as whites. They ignore the mortal threat to all incarcerated people. Now, Southern governors are endangering their entire states’ populations, including their own white racist base, in order to “re-open” their economies. And President Trump is airily and insanely predicting the U.S. economy will rapidly recover quarter in 2020, while acknowledging that the number of Americans who will die in the next two months will double.
The right has made it as clear as it can be: The freedom to make profits comes before the safety and health of the American people. There is nothing new about this callous disregard for human beings. Slave owners accused abolitionists of taking away their freedom. Early industrial capitalists decried efforts to regulate the working day or establish minimum wages as intruding on their freedom. When white men were forced by affirmative action to accept people of color and women of all races on the job, they protested their loss of freedom. And again, we see in this pandemic the American spirit of materialism and racism that callously offers up for sacrifice the lives of many millions of Americans. And it is certainly worth mentioning that what starts out as racists dehumanizing people of color has quickly broadened into a wider lack of regard for the safety of many working-class whites as well.
But this vulgar disregard for human lives is not the only way Americans have responded to the pandemic. There is a real spirit of cooperation and concern for others’ well-being that manifests especially in moments of real crisis such as this one. Opinion polls show that a significant majority of Americans oppose rapid “opening up” policies that ignore public health protocols. Most Americans are paying attention to science-based guidance on what is OK to do and what is not. Most Americans continue to refer to health care workers and supermarket checkers as ‘heroes.’ While people no longer need to make masks, many continue to support friends and family members who lost their jobs, donate money to help undocumented people, to feed the hungry, to support anti-domestic violence programs, etc. Some on the left scoff at all this celebration of working-class heroes as mere posturing meant to cover up these workers’ continuing exploitation. And no doubt corporations are doing just that. But leftist cynics are wrong about the source of this sentiment: this spirit of cooperation is real, and the collective actions that millions of people are taking right now are important steps towards reviving social consciousness and community empowerment.
The most important test of America—indeed of all societies today—is whether or not people will respond to the Covid-19 pandemic collectively or will devolve into vying interest groups. If people heed the right wing’s siren call for ‘the return to normal,’ America is at risk of losing its new-found and still fragile collective spirit, the understanding that we are all in this together, and that we must all take responsibility for those who are at greatest risk or we all will suffer the consequences. We are at risk of losing our new-found spirit of honoring our health workers, first responders, delivery people, and elder care workers for stepping into harm’s way to protect vulnerable people. If people believe the right-wing’s attacks on China and the WTO, and anti-immigrant policies masked as health policies, we are at risk of losing our understanding that this is a global pandemic that knows no borders, and that fighting it requires a truly global response.
Of course, the right-wing strategy of denial will not work. It will sooner than later blow up in their faces. They are just hoping that they can make it to the November elections before that happens. But this virus does not bend truth. States and businesses that ignore epidemiologists’ advice will within a few weeks see rising infection rates and deaths. The economic damage will certainly get worse as well, as governments will again be forced to order strict SIPOs in order to bend the curve down yet again. And once again, people who were lured into the right’s siren call of ‘returning to normal’ will have another opportunity to redeem themselves by recommitting themselves to actions to protect us all. But so many people will have needlessly died before this happens.
So now is a crucial test for America. Across this country, progressive organizations like the National Poor Peoples’ Campaign and the Georgia Black Legislative Caucus and influencers like Killer Mike are working hard to combat the right-wing strategy and are advising people to continue to shelter-in-place in states where the infection rates are very high and governments are ignoring CDC benchmarks when re-opening bars, restaurants and beaches. The idea that we are all in this together, while under attack, is still strong.
What is needed now is a clear moral message about our collective responsibility for one another. We need a clear message that says that when people are forced to choose between going back to work and their family’s health, the problem is that the government’s enormous economic stimulus program gave trillions of dollars to the super-rich and paid lip service to the needs of working people and small businesses. A Facebook meme says it best, “if people have to choose between the economy and their safety, it’s time to fix the fucking economy.” But this is exactly what the right is afraid of. The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare America’s inequities, but it also points us inexorably at what we need to get through this crisis. We need a robust national public health care system and we need government to pay workers their lost wages and to safeguard employers so they have jobs to go back to. We need to ensure that people will not lose their homes if they cannot pay rent. And all of this must intentionally ensure that those most harmed by this crisis are the first helped. If any of us is to be safe today, we must all be safe.
America is once again faced with the moral challenge that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of in 1967 when he said, “…(W)e as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values… We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented to a person-oriented society….Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.“ And now, when most Americans are aware that we need to be people-centered and that poverty and racism (and, yes, militarism) threaten all of our safety, now is the time for decisive steps to be taken to restructure America.
We stand at the crossroads with a dramatic choice to make. Which America will we be?