My Turn: Even in this time of despair, there is opportunity

For the Monitor
Published: 4/26/2020 6:30:06 AM

So here we are, physically isolating from one another, hunkered down, and waiting for the return of our familiar economic and social lives.

However, there is severe disagreement among our leaders and our citizens over life after the pandemic. Some are holding out for the day when life will be like it was back in 2019: familiar, predictable. However, many people are looking beyond the pandemic to the building of a better America.

The pandemic is revealing some serious flaws in our country’s economic and social infrastructures. I’m not referring to the discussions about the lack of preparedness and slow response of the government to the spread of COVID-19. The pandemic is revealing a failed form of capitalism, favoring wealth accumulated by the wealthy, and a shaky democracy threatening the social contract of equality among all human beings.

“The coronavirus pandemic may have reminded Americans that they’re all in this together. But it has also shown them how dangerously far they are apart.” (“The America We Need,” New York Times, April 9, 2020). Government economic policies, tax structure, and the easing of environmental regulations benefiting employers and corporations have left millions of low-income working Americans vulnerable. Any interruption in their paycheck-to-paycheck existence or any illness is disaster.

These people do not have the resources to stock up on food and other necessities needed to ride out a pandemic. And when they do go to the store with a small amount of money, the more wealthy have already emptied the shelves with bulk buying to overstock their already adequately filled cupboards.

The security of physical distancing is impossible for people who have to ride buses, live in impoverished neighborhoods, risk homelessness for lack of rent money and must shop one day at a time. Also, without health insurance they experience more serious illnesses and reduced longevity. And online education is inaccessible to many children while some more affluent communities provide laptops and wi-fi connections for every student.

Governmental involvement in this economic disparity, ethnic and racial bias, for-profit prisons, unequal access to quality education, and for-profit health insurance is responsible for the overwhelming economic stress during this COVID-19 pandemic.

The government and the general population could more easily have weathered this trying time if there had been less focus upon maximum profits and more robust support for significant wages and opportunities for the hourly worker. Also contributing to the weakness of the virus economy is a federal budget financing the building of “The Wall,” upgrading nuclear armaments and maintaining worldwide military domination.

Congress and the executive branch are ignoring these systemic conditions that are limiting options for responses to COVID-19, resulting in a more severe national crisis. They have only exhibited reflexive desperation; debating ill-considered stimulus package bills that offer only quick temporary fixes to pacify citizens into a false sense of security. Also, beneath the surface of these bills are pages and pages of support for the very policies and institutions that are complicit in the foundational causes of the nation’s plight.

COVID-19 has come and will sooner or later go. But the crumbling foundation of the country’s democracy and economic disparity will continue to decay – unless we learn the lessons from the pandemic. When the virus is controlled or eliminated, we may risk letting our relief lull us into complacency. However, an alternative is to let our experience lead us to strive for a better American.

Even while we’re still practicing physical distancing, we are still able to practice social connections through the multiplicity of internet and phone communications and even letters through the mail. We can initiate conversations about new forms of democracy and economic justice among ourselves and with our elected officials. And we can insist that candidates for office in the upcoming election discuss comprehensive structural governmental changes to create a more just society.

It’s time to take an imaginative look across our land from the New York Island to the red-wood forests, from the tip of Maine and the White Mountains of New Hampshire to the tip of Florida and the waters of the Rio Grande. See a country that truly embodies equal rights for all people. See a country proud of its population of Native Americans, 10th-generation European Americans and immigrants from throughout the world; and see where asylum seekers are welcomed and there are no walls on the borders. See a country structured for cooperation and support between employee and employer; where people come before exorbitant profits. See a country where every person has a meaningful choice and a vote for skilled trustworthy leadership. See a country where there are clothes, food, shelter and health care for all. See a country that insures equal access to education for all children and youth. See a country where the distressed are given comfort and support and where imprisonment in government facilities is a last resort and there are no not private-for-profit prisons.

And see a country with a foreign policy of negotiation, food security, leadership in environmental health, and a sense of cooperation among nations.

Even confined to our homes right now, we can show people this land that is our land. Talking together we can devise revised structures to support the view. Together we have the heritage, the ingenuity and the courage to make it a reality.

There will be an end to the pandemic. In its wake, there can be a better America. And when the next pandemic comes, America will be ready. Spread the word!

(The Rev. John Buttrick, United Church of Christ, lives in Concord. He can be reached at johndbuttrick@gmail.com.)


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