We yearn for normal. We promise ourselves that we will never take it for granted again. Handshakes. Embraces. High school sporting events. Dining in restaurants without wearing masks to the table. Singing in church. To go inside a hospital with a loved one. Not having to teach small children about social distancing. Happiness is in the details. We want those details back.
But, when we look at the bigger picture, does a return to “normal” take on aspects of doing the same things in the same ways while expecting, or hoping for, different results? If so, what does that define?
Do we want to continue to accept an economic order which, according to data published last year by the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, has concentrated two-thirds of our nation’s total net worth in 10% of our population? Those within the 50 to 90 percentiles (“the middle class”) hold 30%. The lower 50% holds just 1.5% of the nation’s assets. Small wonder the pandemic and its lockdowns have affected different segments of our population in vastly different degrees of vulnerability and hardship.
Globalization provides an abundance of cheap goods. But should we be content with the fact that Wal-Mart, if it were a country, would be China’s eighth-largest trading partner? During lockdowns, Wal-Mart continued to sell goods that many other stores were not allowed to sell. That is hardly the working of a free-market economy.
Do we want to continue to turn a blind eye to the fact that the cheap goods available to us through globalization are provided through the exploitation of workers in some of the world’s poorest nations? Economic slavery, by any other name, is still economic slavery.
The pandemic also lifted a veil to one of the brutalities, in our own country, upon which we make the amenities of modern life. Early on in the crisis, the conditions in which workers in large-scale slaughterhouse and meat-packing plants labor made them susceptible to catching and transmitting COVID-19. Plants had to shut down. When animals could not be butchered and processed for market, many thousands of cattle and swine were killed and buried. Why? Because if the animals grow beyond a certain size, the processing plants are not configured to handle them. Are these markers of a truly civilized society?
Must our meat go to so few plants? Would smaller plants across more of the country be better? Would such a model result in better prices for farmers, improved conditions for plant workers, higher quality meat for consumers, and at least somewhat better treatment of the beasts-led-to-slaughter?
In Pennsylvania, for some time in our forests our ash trees have been killed by the Emerald Ash Borer and our hemlocks (our state tree) by the Woolly Adelgid – both insects are invasive species from Asia. Perhaps they were harbingers of things to come. Closer to our own well-being as a species, earlier in this century we, led by our Center for Disease Control, have had to control and mitigate SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) – diseases which originated overseas. None of these seem to have appeared among us because of a malign purpose.
But the fact that the coronavirus which causes COVID-19 first made its appearance among men in the same Chinese city which has that nation’s Institute of Virology, associated with the Chinese biowarfare program, will always cast suspicion on a truly natural transmission of the virus from bats or pangolins to humankind. There is no evidence to prove this assertion. Only the troubling circumstance that the Institute of Virology is located in Wuhan.
In regard to looking to Washington for leadership, that especially seems a case of doing the same things in the same way and expecting a different result. The Trump administration has shown no steady hand in its handling of this national emergency. (What has it shown a steady hand at?) Congress is hardly showing itself deserving of its constitutional status as a “co-equal branch of government.” The two major political parties are great at articulating what they are against – not so good at achieving a consensus of what they are actually for.
If COVID-19 teaches us anything, it will be the importance of local responses to local needs. We can continue to look to the emperor for answers if we want to, but we will often be looking in vain. Our federal and state governments at best will marshal the materials and get them where they are most needed in this struggle. And maybe provide good overall guidance. Beyond that, all our shoulders are required to move the wheel.
I am finding my local community, for all its faults and limitations, is a safer place than the “global village.” I suppose this makes me a “luddite” – “someone who is against new things because they threaten the comforts of the old.” But not all change is progress. Just ask some of the 50% of your fellow citizens whose boats are falling while the boats of the upper 10% continue to rise.
I wish I felt certain of the answers. All I can do for now is borrow from George Eliot: “A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth, for the labors men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge. The best introduction to astronomy is to think of the nightly heavens as a little lot of stars belonging to one’s own homestead.”