The party’s over

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

“The party’s over.” That’s what the governor of Florida said when he ordered all the local public beaches shut down.

He did that, as you know, because hundreds, if not thousands of college students were celebrating Spring Break with their usual mix of alcohol, party and play time when most of us (particularly in Florida) were essentially sheltering in place literally as a life or death precaution.

The contrast could not have been more striking. Who would have thought college students would imagine themselves impervious and carefree as they cavorted on Florida beaches in deliberate obliviousness of the national, if not global, emergency surrounding them?

This whole “social distancing” (do you think anyone could have come up with a more soul-less euphemism?) practice, though literally worldwide, has certainly brought out the best and the worst of us – and the best was far better, and the worst was far worse than I could have imagined.

Besides a moral divide, we are seeing a generational divide we never would have foreseen.

Did you hear for example of the teenagers seen on a store security camera deliberately coughing on produce in a grocery store?

Besides the division, there is a unity rare in our times – perhaps any times.

Who among us does not have a new appreciation for doctors, nurses, pharmacists, teachers, caregivers, store clerks, utility workers, delivery people, postal workers, small-business owners their employees and first responders of all kinds?

As the gaps in our systems, from health care to job security become ever more evident, we just might reorient our politics and make substantial new investments in public goods—for health, especially—and public services like transportation and education.

Who among us has not dramatically increased their use of the internet and online streaming? Our use of the internet has become just one aspect of our “new normal” – will we tire of it, or will our lives become even more dependent on it?

Will we ever again take for granted our immediate access to shopping and entertainment? That quick trip to the store to pick up a single item or a quick snack will seem like a luxury from a different planet. Toilet paper shortages will become the topic of jokes and urban legends for years.

Who would have imagined any escape from our 50-plus year pattern of escalating political and cultural polarization we have been trapped in, and what would help us to change course toward greater national solidarity and governmental functionality?

COVID-19 is presenting us with a common formidable enemy that will not distinguish between so-called reds and blues – and altruism, compassion and generosity of spirit and action also do not fall along political lines. No one has a monopoly on contributing to the health and safety of our community.

Tom Nichols, professor at the U.S. Naval War College and author of The Death of Expertise observes that this whole experience might – must – restore faith in professional expertise. Terrorism, and almost every catastrophe from war to unemployment and oil shortages, have receded from our collective memories. We have become skeptical of government and other authorities and susceptible to conspiracy theories. Perhaps, if enough of us are directly impacted by the economy or disease, we just might move back toward the idea that government is a matter for serious people, and voting (or running for office) might be with a sense of being of service instead of promoting a personal philosophy or agenda. He hopes that more of us will want, and work for “something from government other than emotional satisfaction”.

Many of us, against our will, are being forced to become reacquainted with scientific concepts like germ theory and exponential growth.

Unlike with tobacco use or climate change, science “truthers”(which has become a euphemism for believing anything crazy in place of anything observable and obvious) will be able to see the impacts of the coronavirus immediately.

Could any of us imagine a return to the recognition that government institutions—including those entrusted with protecting our health, preserving our liberties and overseeing our national security—need to be staffed with experts (not political loyalists) and that decisions need to be made through a reasoned policy process and predicated on evidence-based science and historical and geopolitical knowledge?

We just might be forced to get back to fact-based policies instead of agendas, personal vendettas or ideological purity.

I’m very biased here; enough with the finger-in-the-eye posturing, it’s time for some good old-fashioned competence.

In something we trust

Can we even imagine a renewed trust in government? It won’t happen unless they earn it. And deserve it.

As historian John M. Barry wrote in his 2004 book The Great Influenza—a chilling chronicle of the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide—the main lesson from that catastrophe is that “those in authority must retain the public’s trust” and “the way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one.”

In our era of muddled evasions and glowing self-congratulations from our politicians, can we even begin to trust our leaders again?

Five states so far, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland and Ohio, have postponed their presidential primaries (now 15 at the time of publication). Will we ever have an uncontested election or a universally acknowledged free and fair voting system again?

Maybe, just maybe, thanks to problems with personal access and mobility, we just might have a consistent federal voting system. More states just might offer what Washington has done for years – mail-in voting.

Perhaps we will finally see the demise of the widely accepted idea that government is inherently bad. We might even see a rebirth of the patriotic honor of working for the government – and not to serve an anti-government agenda.

Previous public and political “solutions”, once considered unrealistic or unaffordable, were actually possible, if not reasonable all along. Evictions were avoidable; the homeless could’ve been housed and sheltered in government buildings; water and electricity didn’t need to be turned off for people behind on their bills; paid sick leave could have been a right for all workers. Paying your mortgage late didn’t need to lead to foreclosure; and debtors could’ve been granted relief.

President Donald Trump has put a freeze on interest for federal student loans, while New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has paused all medical and student debt owed to New York State. Democrats and Republicans are discussing suspending collection on—or outright canceling—student loans as part of a larger economic stimulus package. Why did it take an emergency to get us to set these fair and decent policies?

In the future, universal basic income and mandatory paid sick leave just might move from the margins to the center of policy debates – for both parties.

A time of crisis shows us that these policies could have been in place years ago – and could have saved us millions of dollars and years of urban and personal crisis.

These are just a few of the ways, we, our country and the world, could, and maybe should, be different after our encounter with COVID-19.

The party might be over, but a whole other party, one that is closer to the vision that made America possible, and desirable – if not exceptional – just might be beginning.