Monday night I peered out my window at the little Mexican restaurant across the street as the sunset in Chicago. There were a couple of kids hanging out on the corner in front of the place, but not a single soul inside. Like every other restaurant across Illinois, they shut the lights out later that night with a sense of uncertainty as to when – or maybe even if – they’ll ever turn them on again.
Over the weekend Illinois Governor JB Pritzker gave the order that all bars and restaurants – save the ones that have a drive-thru, can do food delivery service or curbside pickup – will close until at least the end of March. It was the right call, particularly after watching so many people both young and old flaunt warnings from government and public health officials to not crowd into places to help prevent the further spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus. Business as usual, indeed life as usual, has pretty much ground to a complete halt.
There’s no uniform way small communities or large cities in America are dealing with taking precautions to prevent the pandemic from spreading. Some places like the Bay Area in California are taking extreme measures, almost totally locking down and only allowing residents to leave their homes for “essential” reasons like buying food or visiting a doctor. Meanwhile in places like West Virginia, the governor told residents “If you want to go to Bob Evans and eat, go to Bob Evans and eat.” In a lot of places it seems like things are somewhere in the middle. The messaging coming from officials in the Federal Government changes multiple times a day, but the one constant is the seemingly required praise and worship of President Donald Trump.
As the days and weeks progress, whole industries are likely to be wiped off the map.
It didn’t have to be like this, but this was probably almost inevitable. The COVID-19 pandemic has totally laid bare the toxic combination of American exceptionalism, capitalism, greed, and authoritarianism. For as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve watched politicians get elected after campaigning on a platform of “running government like a business,” and now we’re all experiencing first-hand the end effects of what happens when putting profit before people meets a public health crisis.
The poor, houseless, unemployed, and underemployed people are going to feel the effects the quickest and hardest, right alongside service workers, freelancers, and other gig economy workers. For most of us life has already been precarious – many live one or even less than a paycheck away from complete and total financial ruin, if we’re not already living in it now. Nearly 70 percent of Americans had less than $1,000 in savings as we rang in the new decade, and 45 percent had nothing at all.
Meanwhile the majority of elected officials in the federal government – Republicans and Democrats alike – are busy prioritizing who to bail out first, and Wall Street and big business are at the top of their lists. In what feels like a Shyamalan twist, the Trump administration is getting ready to cut every American a check for $1,000 while a big chunk of Democrats are obsessing over how to means test that money, because what’s the suffering of a few hundred thousand single people or gig workers if it keeps a millionaire or two from putting some chump change in their couch cushions.
The Trump administration has spent every moment since inauguration day siphoning as much cash out of the government as it can, making only brief stops once and awhile to put more CEOs in charge of regulating their own industry. The majority of Democrats meanwhile, have spent their time shouting “this is not normal,” as if no one was living on the edge of a cliff the day before January 20th, 2017.
The number of COVID-19 infections in the US and across the world rises every day and we’re already seeing our healthcare system overwhelmed. That’s going to continue no matter how hard naysayers shut their eyes and how far they stick their fingers in their ears.
None of this had to be this way, but thanks to the way we set up our society, it was inevitable.
It’s hard to find even a sliver of a silver lining during all this, but we’ve got to find the small places where light peaks through the curtain if we’re going to keep up our wills to continue. While plenty of people have trotted out the Fred Rogers “look to the helpers” truism, it’s true – we need to look to the helpers. Moreover we need to become the helpers as our abilities allow us.
Where both the free market and government have failed us, we’re building mutual aid networks to help those that we can who are most impacted by this crisis. Those networks – be they getting food or other necessary supplies to people, arranging to get people medical care when they need, or simply checking in on the mental well-being of our friends, family, and neighbors – are going to be vital to our survival.
“We can all start small,” Andy Ratto, an organizer with NYC United Against Coronavirus told Teen Vogue in a story about mutual aid networks. “With the people who live on the floor of our apartment, or the people who live next door and across the street from us on our streets, and check in and exchange contact information.”
While most of us aren’t medical or healthcare professionals, we all can find ways to help each other, and that will be crucial in the coming weeks as we see resources become even more scarce. Just as crucial will be the recovery effort.
“There’s nothing new in America about people not being able to work, being laid off or not having a job, or not having access to food, or not having access to reliable transportation, or facing any of those problems,” Ratto continued. “It’s important to keep the mindset moving forward, [and] that the lessons we learn from this about how communities can take care of each other and how neighbors can come together [are] a potential solution to some of the hardships of coronavirus, but also a potential solution to some of the hardships that will continue to exist.”
As more crises, particularly economic and infrastructure related ones, begin to spin out of control, we need to think about how we change our world to help ameliorate them right now and to avoid them in the future. That means leaving behind profit motives. That means universal health care. That means protections and a social safety net not only for all workers, but all people. It means things like forgiving all student debt and medical debt. It means not only giving folks a break on their mortgages, rent, and utilities but figuring out how to move forward where millions of people don’t have to struggle to meet basic needs in the future. It means not only working as a nation, but with every other person across the globe to fix this. Disease cares not for borders and nations, and assistance in curing it is best served when we work together, which means rejecting xenophobia, racism, and bigotry and working to end them immediately.
None of this had to be this way, and we need to work together to not only end the current crisis, but stop future ones from ever starting.