Thursday, May 21, 2020

United Front Door

Drawing by Tom Tomorrow, for a less optimistic view from last August.

"Everybody" is reading this wonderful piece in The Atlantic by Ed Yong ("America's Patchwork Pandemic Is Fraying Even Further")—well, at any rate everybody ought to be reading it—describing the situation under the controlling metaphor of patchwork: it's a patchwork pandemic in the US more than elsewhere because the virus is acting in so many different ways as it covers this very big country, at so many different tempos, that no prediction seems likely to be borne out, except the one that it will get worse before it gets better and it won't go away; it's a patchwork response, too, because Republican-style "federalism", the ideology of asking the localities to take care of themselves, is so in synch with Trump's laziness and incapacity, and the fecklessness and venality of his administration; and it's a patchwork country, as a reflex of our imperial history, in which whole communities live like neglected or dreaded colonies, amidst the islands of incredible wealth, which is being pointed out by the pandemic with a brutality we've hardly seen in recent decades, as we contemplate the Navajo Nation, where 40% of the population lacks running water for careful hand washing, among other deprivations that are literally killing them.

That inequality is also reflected in an obvious way in the way some of us live sheltering in place while others risk their lives to take care of us, providing us with food and medical care side by side with the doctors (who risk their own lives like frontier district officers leading the hospitals and clinics where the two worlds come into direct contact)—mostly people of color, and it becomes a thing for overwhelmingly white Republicans to decide that means they can live with it:

Even before the pandemic, inequalities in poverty and access to health care “were concentrated in southern parts of the country, and in states that are politically red,” says Tiffany Joseph, a sociologist at Northeastern University. Not coincidentally, she says, those same states have tended to take social-distancing measures less seriously and reopen earlier. The price of those decisions will be disproportionately paid by black people.
Yong points out that policies to mitigate the inequality—not fix it, just make it easier for the victims to bear—are things that can help control the virus, right now, as we wait for the long months before an effective vaccine becomes available, like opening up testing sites in poor neighborhoods, as is being done New York and Maryland, or letting older offenders out of prison, and more:
The pandemic discourse has been dominated by medical countermeasures like antibody tests (which are currently too unreliable), drugs (which are not cure-alls), and vaccines (which are almost certainly at least a year away). But social solutions like paid sick leave, which two in three low-wage workers do not have, can be implemented immediately. Imagine if the energy that went into debating the merits of hydroxychloroquine went into ensuring hazard pay, or if the president, instead of wondering out loud if disinfectant could be injected into the body, advocated for health care for all? “We have decades of social-science research that tells us these things work,” says Courtney Boen, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s a question of political will, not scientific discovery.”
We've been telling them for years: if you don't want to do the right thing because it's the right thing, how about doing it to protect yourself? How about providing health care to undocumented immigrants because it's good for your health? Now we're in the middle of an actual plague, can they start understanding?

I recently saw another stimulating article bringing up the prospect of mitigating inequality, from a horserace politics standpoint, a hot take piece from New York Times political correspondent Alexander Burns ("Seeking: Big Democratic Ideas That Make Everything Better") suggesting that the Biden campaign, instead of making the expected "pivot" to the "center" now that the primary is over, may instead do something for which the political correspondents don't even have a handy cliché, under the pressure of our pandemic emergency:
This was not the scenario Joseph R. Biden Jr. anticipated confronting when he competed for the Democratic nomination on a conventional left-of-center platform. Now, with Mr. Biden leading President Trump in the polls, the former vice president and other Democratic leaders are racing to assemble a new governing agenda that meets the extraordinary times — and they agree it must be far bolder than anything the party establishment has embraced before.
I've been hesitating to say much for fear of jinxing it, but I think something is going on too, in Congress in the first place, under what looked to me in March like the influence of Elizabeth Warren: instances of an interest in Big Structural Change and inequality reduction, as increasingly radical things came under consideration and getting written into the Covid response: eviction moratoriums, unemployment benefits for freelancers and gig workers, assumption of federal responsibility for medical treatment (only for Covid, but it's the principle), and so on, all at a level too low to make a huge difference, perhaps, but getting a foot in the door for social democracy.

Hence the six policy task forces Biden and Sanders announced last week, on climate change (chaired by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez alongside John Kerry), criminal justice reform, the economy, education, health care (Rep. Pramila Jayapal and former surgeon general Vivek Murthy), and immigration, explicitly bringing together the "left" and the "center". I don't read this as a desperate electioneering measure aiming at more patchwork, as pundits might expect in the first place ("The formation of those committees was aimed in part at easing divisions between Democrats that are already flaring on subjects like the size of a potential infrastructure bill and the intractable issue of health care," writes Burns), but as a recognition of an opening for the kind of thing Biden has been known to describe as "a big fucking deal" in the public fatigue and fear over the Trumpian neglect of the current administration and the health emergency, in which the factions can literally unify, like the Democrats of 1933.

Anyway it's a thought. Meanwhile, try to read the whole Yong piece.

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