Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, articles have explained that—now, more than ever—we should listen to serious experts, shop locally, think globally, appreciate teachers, practice self-care, look after our brand’s identity, foster a positive workplace culture, and donate to [highly endowed university X]. The list, of course, goes on.
The rise of now-more-than-ever-ism is an understandable reaction to crisis. When the world is falling apart, it’s a relief to hold onto the familiar. And there are plenty of instances where the last few months have either brought into focus or accelerated preexisting trends. Long before COVID-19 was a glimmer in a pangolin’s eye, Americans were laying the groundwork for a response that would sacrifice supposedly “essential” workers, keep the stock market booming while employment cratered, and still couldn’t stop a wave of mass death. The virus didn’t break the United States. It found a broken country, and then dug its boot into cracked glass.
But it’s not a sign of intellectual weakness to acknowledge that a once-in-a-century (we hope) catastrophe might not fit precisely with the way you thought about the world six months ago. Double-digit unemployment rates that toss millions of people off their healthcare plans are a tragic illustration of the need for Medicare for All. Yet as I’m writing this, the U.S. per capita death rate is still lower than in much of Western Europe, despite our bungled response and their comparatively generous welfare states.
And coronavirus has done more than clarify what’s already here. It’s transforming the country, too, in ways that nobody can predict. Just think about the race for the White House. Maybe the crisis will open the gates for a new New Deal, with Joe Biden as our unlikely FDR. But it’s just easy to picture the former senator from Mastercard following in the footsteps of Warren Harding, a seat-filler who tried to put history on pause after promising a return to normalcy in the wake of the Spanish flu. And somehow, it’s still possible to imagine Donald Trump sticking around for four more years.
Whatever happens next will require courage—the courage to face the world as it is, even when it breaks our hearts. I know, I know: It’s easy to say, and almost impossible to do. But it’s the type of thinking that we need now more than . . . well, you know the rest.
Timothy Shenk is co-editor of Dissent.