As COVID-19 social and economic restrictions drag on, patience is growing thin. We are social creatures after all. It’s part of our DNA. We’re also economic creatures. Livelihood is tied to the complex world of commerce in which the goods and services we need and want are produced and distributed through networks that provide jobs giving us income to purchase goods and services. We want it back, and soon.
A few elected officials, and some corporate types, have publicly argued that reopening our social and economic lives soon and quickly will increase the virus death toll, but that’s the cost of getting things moving again. Other lives, they say, depend on it. In the abstract, the additional dead aren’t particular persons, perhaps a family member or friend. They’re just statistical probabilities factored into a cost-benefit analysis. It’s the kind of analysis used in times of war when it’s possible to estimate how many will die in the battle, not as persons but as numbers. We go to war a lot. Few of them are necessary, or have any redeeming moral value, but we’ve learned to glorify battle, or at least tolerate it, as a symbol of nationalistic pride. The thing is, we’re not at war. The world has not been invaded by soldiers, but by a virus with no moral intent, no particular goal, it’s simply doing what viruses do to creatures that have no immunity to it.
The high cost of restricting the economy and social lives can be measured in dollars and emotional discomfort. Many will be dramatically less well off than they were a year ago, some businesses will fail, and emotional health will be strained. But not many will die because of it. Many will die, who otherwise would not, if we eliminate restrictions too quickly or unwisely. How is that cost measured? What moral justification is there for deliberately planning for the unnecessary deaths of people who did nothing other than get in the way of a virus? Left unsaid, but understood by too many, most of the unnecessary dead would likely be old, poor, black, brown, and really, don’t you know, of not much value anyway.
Much has been said about the desire to get back to normal, and even more about it being a new normal different from the old normal. Is it possible, and what will it look like? It’s not only possible, it’s certain. Contemporary examples of new economic and social life abound in communities battered by forces of war and nature: Christ Church after the earthquake; New York after 9/11; New Orleans after Katrina. Astounding to many, the same can be said of Middle Eastern villages coming back to life after years of warring devastation.
What it will look like for us remains unknown, but it will be a modification of the old normal, not a revolutionary change. Restaurants will open, but perhaps not the old ones. Stores will open, but perhaps not the old ones. Wealth will have been redistributed, but the rich will still be rich, and the poor will still be poor. Maybe the electorate will have figured out that right wing scare mongering about the evils of socialism was a lie, that a new system of health care for all is needed now, not later, and that long eroded labor rights must be restored. Maybe the “tax is theft” tea party mantra will die a COVID death, and we will finally understand taxation as public investment in our collective well being for now and into the future. There are lots of maybes about education, infrastructure, broad band, and systemic injustices. We shall see.
I have no idea how the governors will coordinate with one another to reopen society. Were they to ask, I would suggest starting with construction and construction related services. Move on to professional services: banks, accountants, lawyers, realtors, etc. Next restaurants and other places of social gathering, but with temporary restrictions on occupancy. Finally, at some remove: arenas, theaters, concert halls, etc. To build economic momentum: raise and index the minimum wage; enact some form of universal health care independent of employment; prohibit stock buybacks financed by any form of government assistance; strengthen labor’s right to organize and negotiate; invest heavily in new forms of public education open to all, restricted to none; invest heavily in expansion of broad band for the whole country; invest heavily in restoration of existing infrastructure, and new infrastructure for the 21st century, notably petroleum free energy.
No doubt you have your own ideas to add.