Pandemic and political change in America

US reaction to Covid-19 was to greatly expand the role of govt and the govt’s presence in the lives of people

Shahid Javed Burki May 04, 2020
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and has served as vice president of the World Bank

Do pandemics that take a lot of lives, make millions of people sick and cause major disruptions in their lives bring about lasting political change? Do they change the relationship people have with their government? Historians are debating the answers to these questions but have not found those on which they can agree. To take one example: “If history is any guide, not much will change in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis,” writes Nancy Bristow, chair of the history department at the University of Puget Sound who has written a book, American Pandemic: The Lost Words of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic. “During the influenza scourge of 1918, disorder was everywhere: As one American letter writer suggested, ‘The whole world seems up-side down.’ Roughly one in four Americans caught the disease, and as many as 2.5 percent of them died. Almost half the fatalities were people between 20 and 40 years old — the very adults relied on as parents, breadwinners, leaders.” This was indeed a major event that touched everybody but nothing much changed. “The pandemic did not disturb the social and economic inequities it had made visible. And yet, while knowledge of the past is essential to understanding the present, history is rarely a reliable predictor of the future. We need not repeat the mistakes of those who came before.”

However, other historians and academics have come to an entirely different conclusion. According to Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American, the change that is coming will be profound and palpable. He wrote one of the several articles The New York Times assembled to have academics and policy analysts reflect on how the Covid-19 pandemic might or might not change America’s social fabric and with it that of the world. “If anything good comes out of this period it might be an awakening to the pre-existing conditions of our body politic. We were not as healthy as we thought we were. The biological virus that afflicted individuals is also a social virus. Its symptoms — inequality, callousness, selfishness and a profit motive that undervalues commodities — were for too long masked by the hearty good cheer of American exceptionalism, the ruddiness of someone few steps away from a heart attack. The America as we know it can hardy emerge unscathed.”

Nguyen’s view of America — the opportunities the country, and, yes, its society offers — can be reduced in scope by short-sighted and bigoted leaders such as President Donald Trump. He has fixed his hostile gaze at all those who do not fit his view of what American and Americans should be. Nguyen understands this but believes that America and the Americans would not succumb to the President’s designs. “But if our society looks the same after the defeat of Covid-19, it will be a Pyrrhic victory. We can expect a sequel, and not just one sequel, but many, until we reach the finale: climate catastrophe. If our fumbling of the coronavirus is a preview of how the United States will handle that disaster, then we are doomed.”

It is revealing that while the Trump administration was making a mess of the way it was handling the crisis, unable to develop a national approach towards testing and tracing in order to understand the extent to which the pandemic had gripped society. Trump did what he does well: he tried to change the subject from anger at the government to anger aimed at outsiders — first China and then immigrants to the US. He announced a major change in the country’s immigration policy. On April 26, he issued a presidential order that banned the issue of “green cards” that allowed foreigners to enter the country in the hope of eventually becoming citizens. Stephen Miller, his adviser who had lasted the longest in the White House, was the architect of this policy. In a talk with the press, he promised that more would follow.

In order to understand the mood of the population as a background for the essays it published on how America might change, The New York Times joined hands with the Centre for Experimental Research on Fairness, Inequality and Rationality and surveyed 8,000 Americans between March 18 and April 2. The exercise produced a number of surprising results and a paradox. The pandemic had increased feelings of solidarity with others, but people also accepted that inequalities were caused by luck. Solidarity may sharpen the focus on the more vulnerable groups in society but the assignment of a big role to luck may undermine efforts to support public policies aimed at reducing inequalities. To understand how the people’s moral perspective influenced their thinking about the crisis, researchers used the technique called “priming” by psychologists. They asked half of the group surveyed how the coronavirus crisis had affected their communities. Those primed to think about the crisis were more likely to focus on society’s problems.

The study did not clearly conclude whether the effect on people’s moral perspective would prove to be lasting. But related research on wars, natural disasters and economic shocks has shown that people internalise moral perspectives that emerge in crises. Exposure to violence makes people show more solidarity in the long run, even once the violence has abated.

The American reaction to the coronavirus crisis was to greatly expand the role of the government and the government’s presence in the lives of people. By April 24, Washington had authorised more than $2.35 trillion to help the workers and industries affected by the lockdowns. This came in the form of bills passed by Congress and signed by President Trump. Congress approved three bills and more were on their way. These included an $8 billion emergency measure to finance vaccine research and local preparedness; the Families First Coronavirus Response Act costing nearly $200 billion; and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act that will cost more than $2 trillion. Together these measures equal slightly more than 10% of America’s GDP. This effort, which is still not complete, is considerably greater than the one made to rescue the economy after the Great Recession of 2008-09. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Bank had resurrected and expanded the playbook it had used to handle the 2008 Great Recession. The central bank was injecting an estimated $4 trillion into the economy. It also appears that the fixation for reducing the size of the government and its reach to the people society had left behind that president Ronald Reagan brought to Washington and the approach that Donald Trump and his associates have pursued may have run its course. Even the Republican Party may be willing to provide a more active role to the American state.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 4th, 2020.

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