In the United States, there is a growing sentiment that the global pandemic is “winding down” and that we are moving past a life dictated by COVID-19 restrictions. Someone evidently forgot to inform the coronavirus of this, though, and some health experts are similarly wary about putting a rubber stamp on this whole health crisis.
The World Health Organization, for one, has cautioned against calling the pandemic “over” when significant portions of the world are facing vaccine shortages and variants that are potentially more transmissible and/or more deadly, according to a report by Berkeley Lovelace Jr. for CNBC. As WHO director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stressed, “The pandemic is a long way from over. It will not be over anywhere until it’s over everywhere.”
Lovelace’s report, in part, details a tale of two countries. In the United States, for example, COVID cases have been on the decline and some medical experts have suggested fully vaccinated people can eschew the mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines previously established by the Centers for Disease Control, at least among themselves.
In India, meanwhile, daily cases are in the hundreds of thousands and the country recently set a new daily record for deaths. Researchers are still trying to get a handle on what the B.1.617 variant means for transmissibility and to what extent vaccines will safeguard against it. Experts are, for the most part, optimistic on the vaccine aspect, but this assumes that vaccine distribution is orderly and that people are complying with the recommendation to vaccinate. Depending on the country and even geographic/demographic factors, that’s not a given.
Even in nations like the U.S., reaching so-called “herd immunity” may be difficult if not impossible. In addition to new variants popping up, vaccine hesitancy (I mean this in terms of people who are indeed “hesistant” and not out-and-out anti-vaxxers), ineligibility for young children to get immunized, and low access to vaccines for poor/racialized members of the population makes it all the more probable we won’t completely eradicate COVID-19. Much like the flu, it will become endemic. This is to say that it will likely become less deadly over time, but nonetheless, a seasonal occurrence.
There’s also the possibility that relaxing mask and social distancing guidelines, while not to completely undo the progress we’ve made on COVID recovery, could cause spikes and prolong our collective suffering. Of course, context matters. Going maskless makes more sense if you’re walking alone outside with no one else around than if you’re riding the subway, assuming local or state guidelines even permit you to do the latter.
Even so, the rush to return to relative normalcy could prompt people to become too relaxed when it comes to meeting up in public places. In addition, and not merely to be cynical, but people may claim to be fully vaccinated and not actually have followed through with the required dose(s). The honor system is only as good as the buy-in of those involved, and judging by the refusal of many to wear masks correctly (hint: it goes over your nose) or at all, not everyone may have your best interests in mind.
In all, “going back to normal” makes sense to a lot of Americans, but that reflects a worldview which potentially overlooks struggles in other countries, overestimates the availability of vaccines, and reflects an exasperation with being in quarantine for over a year. We’re not at the finish line yet, despite ample room for optimism.
While a significant part of the push to get back to normal, whether people are getting vaccinated or observing mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines is only a portion of the larger discussion we should be having. For one, as difficult as it was for people to forge new routines in response to COVID’s disruption of daily life as we knew it, it’ll be as difficult if not more so to transition back to the old way of doing things. In addition, some people, places, and jobs haven’t quite recovered from the pandemic or never will. It’s not as if we can simply erase the damage done by a global health crisis that has lasted more than a year. The ripple effects will be felt for years to come.
By no means do I wish for a deadly pandemic to continue just to prove or drive home a point. Worrying whether the wrong interaction with someone will possibly lead to their death, my death, or both gets exhausting. In the headlong rush to get past what has truly been a dark time for much of the world, though, what does seem to be lost to a large degree in the conversation is how “normal” wasn’t all that good for many Americans.
Before the pandemic, for example, greedy corporations like Amazon were effectively paying zero taxes and taking advantage of monopolistic business practices to rake in profits. The pandemic only made Jeff Bezos richer and gave the company that much more latitude to, say, run a multi-million dollar campaign to thwart a unionization attempt in one of its warehouses in the U.S. Millions of young people are being crushed under the weight of our collective student debt. Our infrastructure is crumbling. Black Americans are still getting killed disproportionately by police. Our planet is still hurtling toward a climate catastrophe.
The pandemic hasn’t obviated our responsibility in addressing these problems. Now we are looking at putting COVID in the rear view mirror and going back to brunch, content to ditch the masks absent any meaningful reflection on how broken our society already was. Our battle to overcome COVID-19 is an opportunity to rethink how we redo things at a structural level. Unfortunately, we seem dead set on learning little to nothing from our communal suffering, with the worst actors apparently intent on driving us further into the abyss and more quickly.
There’s still time to take a deep (and hopefully fully-vaccinated) breath before we turn the page on COVID, a disease we very likely will continue to see in some form in the years and decades to come. It would be a shame if we didn’t use that pause to think about how far we have come and how far we as a global community have to go.
I’m not sure if you realized, but there’s some sort of virus going around.
By now, unless you’re living under a rock, you understand that COVID-19, a disease caused by the SARS/coronavirus 2 virus strain, is a global pandemic (and even if you do live under a rock, you might want to get tested if you can afford it). According to the Center for Disease Control, fever, cough, and shortness of breath are common symptoms.
As of March 12, the World Health Organization has confirmed over 125,000 cases of coronavirus disease, with upwards of 4,500 deaths across more than 100 countries, regions, and territories worldwide. What’s worse, as numerous authorities on the subject matter have emphasized, these numbers represent only what is known.
Depending on the availability of testing, those showing symptoms or suspecting they might have the disease after being in contact with people who have tested positive might not be able to confirm they’ve contracted it. Plus, there are those who may be asymptomatic but are still carriers of the disease. Regardless, the tallies stand to get much higher and the scope of the problem much worse.
In no uncertain terms, then, this is serious business and not, as some have suggested, a “hoax” or some elaborate conspiracy designed to bring down President Donald Trump. On that note, if anyone or anything can make Trump’s legitimacy as a leader seem questionable, it’s Trump himself.
It is painfully apparent that Trump and his administration are woefully unprepared for a health emergency of this magnitude. The president has repeatedly undercut his own advisers and medical professionals on the facts surrounding COVID-19, suggesting that a vaccine is nearing availability when the actual timeline points to such an intervention being a year or more away. Trump also has downplayed the gravity of the moment, opining that this coronavirus threat will be gone by April in concert with a rise in temperatures, despite having no evidence that the virus will be susceptible to warmer weather and otherwise failing to appreciate the notion that this strain could return in full force when the weather gets colder again.
Clearly, the United States’s response thus far is indicative of the disorganization and flippant self-servingness of its highest officeholder. For one, the Trump administration disbanded its global health security team after the sudden departure of Timothy Ziemer, the official designated as the country’s leader in the event of a pandemic. Trump has also authorized cuts to the CDC, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Security Council, organizations which all play a role in helping the government respond to a major health crisis. If this weren’t bad enough, in its proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, the White House has outlined further cuts to the CDC and, at this juncture, is sticking to its guns. You know, because we’re not having enough fun as it is.
Given every chance to seem remotely presidential, Trump has severely botched this aspect. From the first mention of COVID-19 as a “foreign virus” that “started in China” in his Oval Office address on the coronavirus disease, the xenophobic overtones and influence of Stephen “Richard Spencer Is My Homeboy” Miller were unmistakable. The haphazard announcement of a 30-day travel ban on most trips from Europe to the United States, aided by Trump’s inability to read a teleprompter because the man won’t admit he needs glasses, is also of questionable utility given that there are already so many cases here.
Speaking of confirmed cases, America faces a shortfall of available testing for the coronavirus, in large part because the Trump administration sought to drag its feet on its response so as to fudge the numbers and not make the president look bad. Instead of using the lag in the proliferation of the virus following its earliest reports from China, whose own initial response to the outbreak deserves admonishment, the Trump administration squandered that time, blaming, of all people, Barack Obama for this mess. Seriously, is there nothing Trump won’t blame Obama for?
In sum and to put it mildly, there’s a lot of noise and disinformation surrounding COVID-19 in America right now. I certainly don’t wish to add to it. More narrowly, though, I’d like to highlight the attitudes of Americans across the political spectrum in relation to coronavirus right now.
As one might expect, there are umpteen refrains from armchair political analysts and professional pundits alike that this health emergency isn’t political. We’re all affected by it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re from China or the United States or Italy or the United Kingdom or South Korea or Iran or what-have-you. COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate and the loss of life and livelihood as a byproduct of this crisis are regrettable independent of where you live, what you look like, or how much money you have or make.
By the same token, as with calls for civility in a political climate marked by dramatic polarization and online interactions that often veer into the realm of personal attacks, abuse, death threats, and doxxing, these pleas are only as good as the intent of the person making them. Notions of “we’re all in this together,” made in good faith, are valuable and inspiring because they evidence a recognition that this pandemic is one we have the ability to address, particularly by working with one another and rejecting the distinctions and principles that might normally divide us. As the saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures.
Pledges of unity are therefore double-edged swords, and when wielded in bad faith, serve only to silence conversations we need to be having, especially on behalf of members of marginalized groups. Defenders of President Trump are quick to hide behind the sentiment that in this time of communal suffering, we should put aside our criticisms of one another in service of a common goal in fighting COVID-19.
Discourse restricted in this way, though, deflects blame where blame should be assigned. The Trump administration’s actions and verbiage heretofore have been shameful. We are behind the curve on coronavirus testing and COVID-19 amelioration as a direct result of the president’s deliberate inaction and counterproductive rhetoric designed not to negatively impact the stock market and not make him look weak by proxy. As recent market plunges the likes of which haven’t been seen in decades manifest, meanwhile, we obviously have already crossed that bridge. With every new cancellation or shutdown and with the market gains accrued during Trump’s tenure effectively erased, now is the right time to scrutinize his job performance. It is in the crucible of an event like a global pandemic that we arguably can best judge a leader’s ability and temperament. Trump is failing this test miserably.
The fact of the matter is we’ve heard this kind of politically-motivated inertia before and it’s no less depressing. In the wake of innumerable mass shootings, America has yet to make substantive progress regarding gun control, even as far as the most basic reforms which most Americans agree on (e.g. universal background checks) go. To dismiss desires of Americans on the left, on the right, and everywhere in between to hold Trump accountable for his poor handling of the COVID-19 threat is to make eerily similar arguments against progress merely to cling to an ideology and to ignore the reality of the circumstances at hand.
Bringing former president Barack Obama back into this to illustrate a point, if he were primarily responsible for the systemic failure of our government to address coronavirus, he would be roundly criticized on FOX News and elsewhere in conservative circles for the quality of his administration’s response. Hell, the man once caught flak for using Dijon mustard on his burger. If the roles were reversed, do you have any doubt Obama would be lambasted by Americans from coast to coast? Trump seemingly gets a pass from some because he, under normal circumstances, screws things up and lies about it. It’s not that funny normally, however, and it’s certainly not a laughing matter now. It’s quite literally life or death.
Accordingly, it’s fair to make discourse about America’s response to the spread of COVID-19 political in nature because it already is inextricably linked to politics. Most of our world is, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. In our own daily lives, we wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) expect to get away with things because of our political affiliation or a particular agenda. The same applies to Donald Trump and exceedingly so given that he willingly signed up for the task of leading the country.
In their own addresses on coronavirus after President Trump’s debacle, Democratic Party presidential candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders drew a marked contrast to their potential general election opponent by treating the occasion with the solemnity and measure it deserves.
On his campaign website and in his public remarks, Biden has emphasized the need for “decisive” public health and economic responses to the COVID-19 crisis, highlighting the importance of “trust, credibility, and common purpose” as well as “leadership grounded in science.” He has advocated for free and available testing; the creation of mobile and drive-thru testing sites and temporary hospitals; activating the Medical Reserve Corps; accelerating the production of medicines, tests, and vaccines; allocating resources for health and emergency services workers, including overtime reimbursements; ensuring paid leave for workers and reimbursements to employers; expanding unemployment insurance, employment relief, food relief, medical assistance, loans to small- and medium-sized businesses, child care, mortgage and student loan relief/forbearance, and union health funds; and other forms of mediation. It’s a rather detailed plan.
As for Sanders, he also was highly critical of the Trump administration in his address, stressing the urgency for declaring a national emergency (which Trump has since declared); convening a bipartisan coalition of experts to lead the coronavirus response; and caring for communities most vulnerable to COVID-19, notably nursing home residents/rehabilitation patients, immigration center detainees, and the incarcerated. Like Biden, he supports free testing for coronavirus as well as free vaccines when available.
Sanders too examined the need for funding for paid family and medical leave; expanding community health centers; facilitating private- and public-sector cooperation to ensure the availability of ICU units, medical professionals, and ventilators; establishing safeguards against price gouging, especially with respect to the pharmaceutical industry; augmenting unemployment insurance for employees and independent contractors alike, food assistance programs, and emergency loans to businesses; and placing a moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shut-offs, among other things. As with Biden, there are policy specifics aplenty to be appreciated herein.
For both candidates, the proposed coronavirus response is much more developed than anything the Trump administration has or likely can come up with. As always, “better than Trump” is a low bar to clear. An important distinction to be found between the two, meanwhile, is in the call for structural reforms, the importance of which is magnified by the severity of the problems the United States and the world currently face. Regarding access to high-quality health care for all Americans, the expansion of public programs to meet the need at this juncture is evocative of Medicare for All, an idea certainly not lost on Bernie’s supporters.
The Federal Reserve’s move to inject $1.5 trillion into the markets to fight “highly unusual disruptions” related to coronavirus also eats away at the professed concerns about cost that Sanders’s opponents have used to try to discredit him. What is evidently lacking is not the ability to meet these costs, but rather the political will. As Sen. Sanders tweeted in response to the Fed’s decision, “When we say it’s time to provide health care to all our people, we’re told we can’t afford it. But if the stock market is in trouble, no problem! The government can just hand out $1.5 trillion to calm bankers on Wall Street.” Critics of the backlash to this intervention say it is unfair to call this a “bailout,” but it’s hard to view this as anything but socialism for the rich and for Wall Street speculators.
Following a string of disappointing primary losses on consecutive Tuesdays, Bernie faces an uphill battle in capturing the Democratic Party presidential nomination. While I wouldn’t wish COVID-19 on anyone, though, it draws attention to the necessity of providing health care to everyone as a right as well as the sheer absurdity of saying we can’t pay for things like the cancellation of student debt when we can provide the markets over a trillion dollars in cash infusions with a snap of our fingers.
So, electoral prospects be damned: Bernie Sanders is right on these issues and deserves to continue his campaign as long as he can shine a light on the problems we face as a nation and will face even when we can reasonably say coronavirus has been contained. Here’s hoping he hammers this point home in this weekend’s debate with Joe Biden.
While those directly involved with the movement and others sympathetic to the cause may view it in a more redeeming light, Occupy Wall Street, for many, will remain little more than an historical footnote, or worse, an outright joke. For all the attention raised by OWS about corruption in government, economic and social injustice, and the greed of Wall Street—remember “we are the 99?”—there are any number of retrospective criticisms about Occupy Wall Street after the fact that, if they don’t explain why the movement has all but dissolved, they at least speak to its limitations. Among the major criticisms of the Occupy movement are that it was characterized by a lack of clear policy goals or message, a lack of minority representation, that it targeted the wrong audience (i.e. Wall Street, as opposed to Washington), that it was populated by privileged white “slack-tivists,” and perhaps biggest of them all, that it did not produce the kind of lasting legislative change needed to inspire participants and sustain its momentum. To this day, within progressive circles, some of which formed from its ashes, OWS remains a cautionary tale of sorts owing to how quickly it died out, as well as a reminder of the challenges that liberal-minded organizations still face today.
In the wake of the recent Parkland, Florida shooting that resulted in 17 deaths and has since captivated the thoughts of a nation, the calls have been widespread and loud for meaningful action on gun control/gun law reform. In truth, a response of this magnitude, the likes of which hearken back to initial reactions to the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, seems overdue. That mass shootings in schools can and likely will continue to happen, though, because they have continued after the massacre in Newtown, or even the Columbine High School shooting—which will see its 20th anniversary in April 2019—brings the same questions of sustainability and potency to bring about change of this activist energy that dogged the Occupy movement.
Back in October of last year, Liana Downey, an author, strategic advisor, and teacher, penned an op-ed about the inherent flaw in asking for “gun reform” wholesale. For all the finger-pointing done toward Republican lawmakers and the NRA for standing in the way of measures like expanded background checks and bans on assault rifles and various other semi-automatic or fully automatic firearms for civilians, Downey finds fault with activist groups that lack specificity in their goals and the language they use. She writes:
CBS News reported that the response of democratic legislators to the Orlando Massacre was to “shout down Speaker Paul Ryan and demand a gun control bill.” Was that helpful? It sounds like action, but what were they actually asking for? Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America told supporters on social media to “use this form to call your US senator and demand action on gun violence now, and pass it on.” What action? Terms like ‘gun control’ and ‘gun reform’ are notoriously vague. Do they mean tightening background checks or that the government is “coming to take your guns”?
This ambiguity is deliberate. Knowing full well that the pro-gun lobby is quick to raise the cry “they’re coming to take our guns”, most politicians and protesters — even those in support of reform — hide behind indirect terms, in the hope that they won’t ruffle feathers. Yet the opposite happens. Those who lobby on behalf of the gun industry, whose job it is to keep demand and supply of guns growing, seize on the lack of clarity and paint a doomsday scenario for gun owners.
The problem caused by the lack of a clearly-defined goal is two-fold. The first, as Downey explains, is that it galvanizes support amongst the “opposition,” as it were. In this instance, those who oppose gun control out of concern for what it means for their ability to own guns outright worry about greasing the slippery slope toward repeal of the Second Amendment, perhaps fueled by a general sense of distrust toward the federal government. The second, though, is that the lack of direction makes it hard to build and sustain a movement. Nearly 20 years removed from the Columbine tragedy, advocacy for gun control has been, as Liana Downey terms it point blank, a “failure,” because it has been unclear, because it hasn’t defined an end game or measurable goals, and because it hasn’t done enough to inspire. That is, on the last point, while our anger and sadness might naturally prompt us to want to take action, vague notions of effecting “gun reform” do not exactly tingle the spine, to borrow from Downey’s verbiage.
For her part, Downey suggests establishing a concrete goal of cutting the lives lost each year due to gun violence in the United States in half—roughly 15,000, according to available statistics from the last five years—and in doing so, echo the strategy of similar campaigns that have proven successful, such as the reduction of deaths due to drunk driving by some 12,000 fatalities per year due to the advent of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Not only does this goal provide guidance for activists, but as Downey argues, it allows one to be scientific. Downey goes into length about hypothesis testing with respect to reducing opportunities for fatal gun violence to occur, and I’ll let you parse through the diagrams and such if you feel inclined. Suffice it to say, though, that having a clearly-defined mission makes tracking deaths and compiling statistics on gun violence easier. Which is especially helpful when the Center for Disease Control has its funding to research effectiveness to reduce gun violence cut or blocked by Congress. Thanks a f**king lot, NRA.
Of course, this still leaves the matter of the political power that gun manufacturers and the gun lobby possess. Where there are laws or proposed bills to protect firearms and ammunition makers on either the supply or demand side, there is usually the influence of lobbyists to be found. As Liana Downey views the relationship between proponents of gun control and those more resistant to reform, there are two options for the former: 1) diminishing the influence of gun manufacturers, or 2) inviting them to the table to help achieve the goal of reducing gun-related deaths. Re #1, while this is possible, with the NRA so entrenched in the realm of congressional politics, and so organized and capable of mobilizing its base, to boot, this is agreeably tough sledding. Re #2, however, with the goal of reducing and tracking gun violence firmly established, any refusal of the gun lobby or sponsored members of Congress to act becomes political fodder for those who want to advance legislation which will bring about meaningful, positive “gun reform.” Or, as Downey puts it, it becomes clear that those who stand in the way of change “value money, not Americans.” Indeed, if we can’t agree to this end, we seemingly never will.
Much of the focus on the Parkland massacre, as it invariably does with any mass shooting, has been on whether or not this tragedy was preventable. From the various profiles I have seen online of the shooter (I refuse to name him because I believe this attention should be devoted to the victims, not the perpetrator of such violence), he would seem to fit the stereotype of the would-be school shooter. A sufferer of various mental health disorders. A loner. His mother recently died. He was upset after a break-up with a girl. Expelled from the very school he shot up. And, of course, he seemed to really, really like guns, as evidenced by disturbing social media posts attributed to him. It also appears the FBI was made aware of his potential for violence as recently as last month, but indicated that it failed to follow established protocols that would’ve resulted in the shooter being assessed as a “potential threat to life.” Aside from the obviously regrettable notion that the Florida shooting may have been averted, that this gives, ahem, ammunition to the likes of Donald Trump, who has decried the U.S. intelligence community as a matter of self-preservation and because he is a wannabe dictator, as well as Gov. Rick Scott, a man with an A+ rating from the NRA, is unfortunate in its own right.
Whether we want to play psychologist and figure out what went wrong with the shooter, or take on the role of internal affairs and wag our fingers at the school district or the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or even take on gun and ammunition manufacturers for their supposed culpability in these events—personally, I favor only holding manufacturers responsible in cases where they knowingly or negligently sell to the wrong people or a defective product, or for deliberately misleading the public and investigators—the above concerns shouldn’t take us away from the central discussion we need to be having about what steps we can take going forward to reduce gun-related violence and deaths in America. This is where Liana Downey’s concept of hypothesis testing with respect to variables which may lead to a decline in the fatality rate comes in, whether regarding a change in the sheer number of guns in our country, legal restrictions on access for certain individuals, technological improvements designed for safer use, or some other modification to existing laws and policies. Whatever is likely to have the biggest impact and can feasibly be put into place, that should be the focus.
This is not to say, it should be stressed, that the subjects of mental health and of accountability for law enforcement related to school shootings like this aren’t meritorious and shouldn’t be pursued. As someone diagnosed with depression and anxiety, I support increased attention to mental illness and removing the stigma that too often accompanies people who deal with associated disorders. I also believe in accountability at all levels of government, though I am wary of assigning blame when it is recognizably difficult, if not impossible, to keep track of the movements of all people within a given area or to respond in a timely manner to an imminent threat of violence. As I understand, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the site of the shooting, had recently conducted drills designed to bolster preparedness in the case of violence such as this. This may have prevented additional loss of life, but 17 lives were still ended on the day of the shooting, and a community is still coming to grips with its devastation. There’s only so much that can be done in these circumstances. The point, before you or I fail to be able to see the proverbial forest for the trees, is that these are worthy conservations to be having, but separate from or in addition to the gun control issue. Besides, it’s not as if mental health issues are a prerequisite for mass murder. In fact, numerous doctors have responded critically to President Trump’s insistence on talking about the mental health of the shooter in the aftermath of the tragedy.
That the national consciousness is as devoted as it is to bringing about political change is commendable. However, as Occupy Wall Street or perhaps even the #MeToo movement would teach us, we need to be clear and specific in what we’re asking for, and we need to make sure we follow through in measuring and tracking the variables that will have the greatest impact in reducing deaths related to gun violence. To put this another way, “gun reform” is an admirable pursuit, but as Liana Downey and others would insist, it won’t get us anywhere.