An American flag in pieces

State of Disunion

COVID Hasn’t Changed Us Enough

The pandemic has exposed how threadbare is the fabric of our nation. Can we build back better if the systems in place have been dysfunctional from the start?

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For the last 18 months, the United States has been unmade. The mass death wrought by the coronavirus pandemic and the desperate measures instituted to mitigate it have fundamentally altered how we celebrate and mourn, what we connect with and consume, how we work and where we seek satisfaction. Life in the nation neatly segments into a “before” and an “after,” as existing under the pandemic warps and shifts everything that we knew. But for all of this change, it is still not enough: We remain a country in crisis.

The Delta variant—ravaging the remains of our overburdened and understaffed healthcare system and shattering the late illusion of a “post-pandemic” paradigm—is merely the most obvious sign of our national malady. The new strain of the virus has only taken hold because we left it so many avenues to exploit: dysfunctional state and local governments run on magical thinking by power-hungry ideologues; social insurance programs too small in scale or too long in the tooth to keep pace with a rapidly evolving catastrophe; an economy so thoroughly dedicated to consuming people to sustain itself that it grows decadent on the death and destruction of its own citizens, and a population so desperately yearning for an illusive status quo ante that it cannot desire a future.

The pandemic has revealed layer after layer of rot and decay in the American machine, and our response—from the top of the government to the person on the street—has been denial. COVID has exposed our need for national healthcare, childcare, and direct aid programs. In return, our polity has largely offered the sacrifices of healthcare workers, caregivers, and service employees positive platitudes and little else. Discussing the grotesque distortion of our economy is an impossibility, and economic relief is practically a pipe dream, as the nation busies itself with boosting new billionaires into existence and old ones into the upper atmosphere. Moratoria for evictions and student loans are premised on the idea that debtors are short on time, not cash, while we delay dealing with the inevitable truth that we have levied debts that impoverished millions cannot afford to repay. Even our late-arriving cavalry, President Biden and the Democratic Party, promised the country that we could reconstruct our near past by saying that we must “build back better.” We are obsessed with returning to what we have imagined ourselves to be.

On the right, it is an “America First” identity that is based on the memory of primacy and supremacy in the wake of a war that left the world shattered in front of us. On the left, it is a curiously toxic mix between the pomposity inherent to “the end of history” thesis at the close of the Cold War, and the naïveté of a progressive movement that is permanently trapped in a defiant zeitgeist now more than half a century old. And so our national conversation is trapped in the past, held hostage by retrograde views of what must be done and what has succeeded in the doing. We immerse ourselves in political fables about how we met our previous challenges, and so forget that we are a new century marked by rage and paranoia, manipulation and surveillance, instability and precarity—even before the arrival of a global pandemic. We have become a country dying of our own mythology.

The pressures of the pandemic have caused this desperate cultural nostalgia to curdle into a kind of national nihilism, where each day lives in isolation from the next and continuity is merely a personal preference. The crisis has us treating systems of, by, and for people as infinitely consumable, whether that’s the constant grind of ICU shifts or the staffing deficit at local eateries, or the plain and essential work of running a classroom or managing an election. In this way, human ingenuity and skill have joined ecological systems in being fed to the bottomless appetite of American society. We run up our tab because we believe there is no cumulative cost; we expect no compound interest on our bill of pain. To the degree that there is a future, it is for someone else to worry about; we must first and always protect the now.

This stubborn hold on false normalcy has prolonged our agony in this public health crisis, as we insist that the problem is a pandemic and not the systems that were too weak to survive it. Rather than try and resolve our present mistakes, we demand reversion, repeating the cycle of error and suffering with graver and graver consequences. The virus has no moral pith to receive our appeals, no mind to consider our arguments, no conscience to be moved by our plight; if we insist that our society require human sacrifice to remain intact, coronavirus will take the lives without hesitation or regret. 

It is for us to learn then, to change in response to the virus, to build a structure that it cannot assail. There is no way back to better; there is only a way through to an uncertain future. We must choose to transform, to become a place where the unexpected can be surmounted rather than endured, where a crisis doesn’t create panic, but resolve, where resolution is not memory, but aspiration. This young millennium has been a long argument over what elements of our past we must preserve to stay in power; the pandemic has demanded that we abandon it all. Because the virus lives by the truth of evolution, one that we must accept: not the survival of the fittest, but a collective push to adapt—or die.


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