COVID-19 Is A Nightmare, But A Bigger Breakdown Looms

May 18, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic dominates the news.  How could it not?  Millions of infections, hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and deaths, highly stressed health care facilities and medical caregivers, lock downs and myriad restrictive public health orders, business closures and historically unprecedented levels of unemployment and financial disruption, trillions of dollars in questionable corporate bailouts and economic stimulus efforts, surges in both essential-worker strikes and gun-toting protesters threatening elected officials and demanding the lifting of restrictions…; the list goes on.   It’s surely no exaggeration to say that the normal globalized social/economic/political order has “broken down.”

Still, despite the cascading reasons for gloom, a dominant optimism persists, energized by the reasonable expectation that the pandemic will pass – sooner rather than later, hopefully – but it will pass, eventually, with or without a vaccine or a treatment that can effectively stop the virus in its tracks.  Surely no one of sound mind could long for anything else, whether the goal is simply to return to “normal” as rapidly as possible, or, far better in my view, to demand some substantive correction of the many social/economic/political deficiencies exposed by the virus, and which have most surely exacerbated the severity of the breakdown we’re now forced to endure.

More than one wit has averred that the pandemic has put the entire human race in “time-out,” mandating that we step off our neo-liberal hamster wheel, reflect on the many errors of our ways, and discover a renewed motivation to put things right.  That too is a pretty optimistic perspective.  There’s no more guarantee that the breakdown caused by COVID-19 will result in a more robust global order (e.g. better planning and stockpiling of medical equipment, more investment in public health, more resilient global supply chains) than that time-out will cure the tantrums of a three-year-old.

Moreover, if it has any chance of proving correct, the pause-to-put-things-right perspective will need to go far beyond just trying to avert the next pandemic breakdown.  It will need to address a topic rarely mentioned in this period of (understandable) coronavirus absorption – the climate crisis.  That crisis, building over decades of neglect, denial, and outright deception by the beneficiaries of “business as usual,” does not pause, does not take a time-out.  Instead, it promises a much bigger, much more radical breakdown of order than a single infectious virus ever could.  It advances relentlessly forward, and we are not ready.

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