Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress
Many are comparing our current outbreak to the Spanish Flu. But the Dust Bowl may be a more accurate predictor of what’s to come.
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Before the Great Depression, there was the Charleston and bootleggers and an entire decade that roared. It roared with excess and unmitigated, unregulated greed, and the stock market, which Americans were sure would only ever go up, came crashing down, in October 1929.
That crash is what most people associate with the misery that filled the next decade, the hunger and hopelessness of the Great Depression, and the eventual need for massive government intervention. The economy cratered, and by 1932, 25 percent of American workers were jobless. Without the social safety net that was eventually put into place by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, there was no real way to effectively stop or slow the fall.
And then natural disaster struck.
The Dust Bowl is what we came to call that disaster, the combined result of drought and years of destructive farming practices that caused the topsoil covering parts of Colorado, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico—some 300,000 square miles—to literally lift up in the wind and blow across the country in “black blizzards.” Americans were killed by the very earth that had once been their livelihood, crops failed and could not be replanted, livestock died. One storm was so bad that the soil blew across the plains and through the Midwest, dropping four million pounds of dirt on Chicago, all the way to New York City and over the Atlantic Ocean to a ship fully 300 miles at sea, where the dirt was described as falling “like snow.” The dust storms went on for five years.
Thousands died of “dust pneumonia,” families were reduced to penury, and a wave of immiserated refugees all but overwhelmed California and the states through which they travelled. Dubbed “Okies,” after those who came from Oklahoma, the homeless and destitute actually hailed from all over the afflicted region, and their suffering fundamentally changed the face of America.
What finally mitigated the horrors of the Great Depression was massive government intervention, the first of its kind and certainly of its scale; in the Great Plains, federally funded programs halted and reversed the wind erosion, not least by introducing better farming methods. The Depression didn’t truly end, however, until 1941, when the country entered World War II and military spending jolted the economy back to robust growth.
Which brings me to COVID-19.
Though most people are very naturally drawing comparisons between our current pandemic and the so-called “Spanish” Flu of 1918, it can be very difficult, not to say impossible, to separate that global disaster from the one that immediately preceded and in fact overlapped it: World War I.
The flu of 1918 burned so ferociously through soldiers arrayed for battle that it likely altered the trajectory of the war; in that year alone, more American soldiers died from disease than in four years of fighting. Those who unwittingly carried the flu home with them, spreading it yet further, returned to a healthcare system that was already under considerable strain from the war effort and which did not yet have access to the vaccines and antivirals that we now take for granted. In short, society was already reeling, and there’s no way to locate a clear demarcation between the toll of war and the toll of disease. An epidemiological comparison is clearly apt, but the social analogy is harder to draw. For that, we’re really best served looking at the Dust Bowl.
Even before the novel coronavirus hit, Americans were living in an era of near-unprecedented income inequality; in 2013, the Pew Research Center reported the gap was the greatest it had been since 1928. Much as during the Roaring Twenties, today’s Americans live at two very distant ends of the income spectrum, a result of nearly unmitigated, nearly unregulated greed that has enriched the top 1 percent at everyone else’s expense. The Great Recession knee-capped the 99 percent, but left the uber-wealthy untouched, and here we are, 12 years later, barely recovered, millions upon millions of Americans with neither leeway nor resources to draw on should anything unexpected happen to their finances.
Into this precarious economy, on March 9, just as the United States was beginning to acknowledge the enormity of the coronavirus outbreak, world markets saw an historic collapse of oil prices and as a result, a bottoming out of energy stocks; between that and growing coronavirus fears, trading was so frantic on the New York Stock Exchange that it triggered a “circuit breaker”—a forced 15-minute halt on trading—for the first time in more than a decade. Three days later, stocks fell so far, so fast that trading was halted again. And then again on March 16.
The razor-thin edge on which millions of Americans were already living has come crashing, without warning, into both the sharp downward trajectory of the stock market, and a natural catastrophe that has been made far worse by human actors. Like droughts, viruses show no fear or favor—but the destruction wrought during the Dust Bowl years was a result of much more than a drought, just as the coming COVID-19 disaster will be a result of much more than a virus.
What we see in the example of the Dust Bowl is a very sudden twist of fate that resulted not just in a mounting death toll, not just in staggering financial loss, but in massive and widespread social collapse. Entire systems simply failed; whole communities were destroyed; no one knew where to turn because there was, quite simply, nowhere to turn. A historic drought would have been dire, but when combined with the destructive farming methods that had been encouraged by a government eager to settle the plains and increase wheat production during and immediately after the war, the 1931 drought very quickly went from dire to cataclysmic. Similarly, a brand-new virus, one to which no human being is immune, would have been deadly; when combined with the craven incompetence of the American federal government, it is poised to prove catastrophic.
Current best-guess estimates put the expected number of American deaths from the novel coronavirus at anywhere from several hundred thousand to more than two million —and that doesn’t take into consideration the other deaths that will occur simply because hospital beds will already be filled, or, indeed, if the healthcare system itself collapses from the strain, in whole or in part.
How many people will die—for any reason—is largely dependent not on the virus itself, but on our capacity to do things we have not yet begun to do: Test aggressively; isolate those carrying the virus effectively; expand healthcare capacity swiftly; and ensure that our medical professionals are adequately protected from contagion so that they may continue to care for the sick and the dying. Because of the inaction, mishandling, and conscious misleading of the public at the federal level—not to mention Trump’s outright lies—we have, as a nation, done none of these things. None.
The only good news lies in the fact that at about the same time that the NYSE was hitting its first circuit breaker, other leaders around the country came to understand that waiting on the White House would lead to even more deaths. Governors, mayors, hospital administrators, school superintendents—people with any degree of authority and foresight—began to step into the breach, creating a patchwork of ad-hoc responses to the crisis, leading with the one tool for which no federal help is necessary: social distancing.
In quick succession, schools, businesses, and places of entertainment have begun to close down—some willingly, some by government fiat, and still, somehow, not everywhere—and here many millions of us are, in our homes, praying our lives will be spared, even as many of us rapidly lose any remote possibility of paying rent or even buying food.
When, in the next few weeks, people begin to die in numbers unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, and city morgues become overwhelmed, and faith communities are unable to perform funeral rites because there are too many bodies to bury—that will only be the start of our woes. Will there be another Dust Bowl–like mass migration, from the worst-hit areas to the least? Will people once again starve in American streets? Will there be anywhere to turn?
Congress is discussing and raising and rejecting and proposing bill after bill after bill, some of which would provide immediate support to every American family, but only one of which has been passed as of this writing; in a best-case scenario, some version of even the temporary and insufficient fixes is still weeks away—and countless Americans have already been without a paycheck for two weeks or more. There is no leeway, there are no resources on which to draw, and hardworking people with years on the job are already on the verge of homelessness and hunger. Now. Today.
Because of Roosevelt’s post–Dust Bowl interventions, our situation is not as dire as it might have been. Though desperately tattered, the social safety net is still there, and there also exist mechanisms that can be used to, for instance, cut and mail checks to every American adult with a permanent address. Perhaps the most important reason we should look to the Dust Bowl at this point in American history is because we will have to take steps as creative and as drastic as FDR’s if we are to build a new and more resilient America after COVID-19 runs its course.
And yet, even as we shelter in place and monitor our loved one’s health and bury our dead and petition our government to do its damn job, we must also take care to look to the past with clear eyes. The New Deal was marred with America’s systemic racism, whether willfully or not, and the Depression didn’t fully lift from the American people’s shoulders until we were literally at war—and it was very soon after we declared war that the federal government first demonized and then imprisoned Japanese Americans as enemies of their own people.
Whoever is leading this country in six months, a year, or a year and a half, as we live through and then attempt to heal from the coming cataclysm, we will have to pay close attention to what is being asked of us in return for recovery. Grand plans will be proposed and undertaken; we must not be so grateful for salvation that we fail to ask what it costs us. We will have already paid far too excruciating a price.
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