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.
On the U.S. version of The Office, tasked with picking a health care plan for Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, Dwight Schrute, assistant to the regional manager, prided himself on slashing benefits “to the bone” in an effort to save the company money. He rationalized his decision-making with the following thought: “In the wild, there is no health care. In the wild, health care is, ‘Ow, I hurt my leg. I can’t run. A lion eats me and I’m dead’.”
Dwight Schrute is, of course, a fictional character, and his attitude is an extreme one. Nevertheless, his mentality reflecting the notion that health care is no guarantee and the idea he needs to select a plan for his Scranton office at all are indicative of a very real issue facing Americans to this day. If health care is a right, why does it feel more like a jungle out here?
To this point, the Declaration speaks against discrimination based on any identifying characteristic. It opposes slavery, torture, and unfair treatment at the hands of law enforcement and the courts. It asserts that all persons have the right to a nationality and to seek asylum from persecution. They also possess the right to marry, the right to their property, freedom of expression/thought and religion, and freedom to peaceably assemble and participate in government. Other stated liberties include the right to work for equal pay, the right to leisure, the right to health, the right to education, and the right to appreciate culture.
What is striking to Gjelten and others is how the UDHR is designed to be applicable across cultures, political systems, and religions. It is truly meant as a universal set of standards, one with secular appeal. That is, it is a human document, not a God-given list of commandments.
Then again, in some contexts, this last point might be a bone of contention. As Gjelten explains, Saudi Arabia abstained from the original unanimous United Nations Assembly vote because of issues with the Declaration’s views on family, marriage, and religious freedom, in particular the idea that one can freely change religions, which can be considered a crime. In general, some of the strongest objections to the language of the UDHR have come from the Islamic world, though this does not imply that Islamic law and these rights are incompatible.
There were others who abstained from the vote in 1948 as well, though. The Soviet Union and its bloc states were part of the eight abstentions, presumably because of the stipulation about people’s right to freely expatriate. South Africa, a country then predicated on racial segregation, was also part of the eight. Even some American conservatives at the time had their qualms about the UDHR’s wording, convinced the sentiments about economic rights sounded too socialist. Actually, that probably hasn’t changed all that much. In certain circles, socialism is indeed a dirty word.
The thrust of Gjelten’s piece is more than just admiration for the Declaration’s principles and the work of Eleanor Roosevelt as chair of the UN commission responsible for drafting the document, though, deserved as that admiration is. 70 years after the fact, America’s commitment to upholding its articles is not above reproach. Furthermore, in an era when a growing sense of nationalism and resistance to “globalism” pervades politics here and abroad, the UDHR’s spirit of universality and international fraternity is seriously put to the test.
Gjelten cites two areas in which the country “still falls short” as a subset of the “struggles for civil and political rights that were yet to come” subsequent to the UDHR’s approval vote. One is equal pay for equal work, a topic which deserves its own separate analysis and, as such, I’m not about to litigate it at length here. Suffice it to say, however, that I—alongside many others—believe the gender gap is very real. It also disproportionately affects women of color, occurs across occupations and industries, and is frequently mediated by employer practices that rely on prior salary history as well as policies enforced in individual states designed to specifically disenfranchise female earners. Do with these thoughts as you will.
The other area in which the U.S. has fallen short, as alluded to earlier, is universal health care. Article 25 of the Declaration states that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”
As a fact sheet on the right to health from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the World Health Organization elaborates, the right to health includes access to health care and hospitals, but it’s more than that. It includes safe drinking water, food, and adequate sanitation. It includes adequate housing and nutrition. It includes gender equality, healthy environmental and working conditions, and health-related education and information.
But yes—it does include the “right to a system of health protection providing equality of opportunity for everyone to enjoy the highest attainable level of health.” It doesn’t say this is a privilege only for those who can afford it.
This is an essential point in the health care “debate.” Should health care be a right for all? While you’re entitled to your opinion, Mr. or Ms. Schrute, if you say no, it’s hard to know how to continue the conversation beyond that. This applies both for naysayers on the left and on the right. Don’t hide behind the idea “we can’t afford it.” Don’t hide behind the Affordable Care Act, which is no guarantee to survive given repeated attempts to sabotage it. If you believe health care is a human right, let’s work backward from there. I mean, all these other countries have some form of single-payer health care. Why shouldn’t we—and don’t tell me it’s because we spend too much on our iPhones.
Tom Gjelten’s piece is more concerned with the history behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its formation. Like any good historian, though, he’s got a mind for the Declaration’s larger implications and its potential impact in the years and decades to come. Getting back to that whole growing nationalism thing, Gjelten notes how playing identity politics often draws strength from ethnic or religious conflict.
To be clear, this trend in increasing strife between different groups isn’t just an American phenomenon. Around the world, political leaders have risen to power by aggressively promoting division and/or appealing to a sense of national pride through brutality and curtailing human rights. Rodrigo Duterte. Xi Jinping. Narendra Modi. Viktor Orban. Vladimir Putin. Mohammed bin Salman. The list goes on. There will be more to come, too. Jair Bolsonaro was recently elected president in Brazil. His mindset carries with it a promise for a regressive shift in his country’s politics.
Still, even if we’re not the only ones coping with societal change, if America is truly the greatest country in the world, we should be setting the best example in terms of adherence to the UDHR’s principles. Meanwhile, even before Trump, our country’s commitment to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has been uneven.
Criminal sentencing/policing disparities and states’ insistence on use of the death penalty. The lack of a universal health care infrastructure. Failure to protect the rights of vulnerable populations, including women/girls, people with disabilities, and the LGBT+ community. War crimes overseas and at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay. Surveillance of global communications. And since Trump has taken office, our performance on these fronts has only gotten worse, notably in categories like foreign policy, the rights of non-citizens, and safeguarding First Amendment rights. If this is “America First” and “making America great again,” there’s a piece of the puzzle missing.
A lot of this may sound a bit too SJW for some. We should all respect one another’s rights. Everyone should be afforded the same opportunities to succeed. Let’s all hold hands and sing songs together around the campfire. I get it. There are practical considerations which complicate implementing solutions to global ills as well. Agencies and nations have to be willing to work together to achieve common goals, and who pays what is always a bother. On the latter note, I tend to think some cases are overstated or represented in a misleading way by politicians and the media. Cue the myriad “Bernie/AOC doesn’t know what he’s/she’s talking about” articles. Let’s all move closer to the center because it has worked so well for us until now.
The thing is that many of the principles covered by the UDHR reflect policy directions voters want and can agree on. When Republicans came to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, they were unsuccessful in part because of the public outcry in support of the ACA. Turns out people like being able to afford health care—who knew? Regarding equal pay for equal work, that shortfall for working women is one that whole families could use if given a fairer salary or wage. Not to mention it’s, you know, the morally right thing to do.
Though we may be susceptible to the words of political figures that would keep us at odds with each other (and secretly may even like it that way), we must continually put the onus on our elected officials to authentically represent all the people within their jurisdiction. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a good place to start. As suggested before, let’s consider the change we hope to see before capitulating or saying “no” outright. A more equal America is one which will benefit all its inhabitants—from top to bottom and over the long term.