American Fecklessness in the Time of Pandemic

by on March 16, 2020 · 5 comments

in California, Health, Under the Perfect Sun

By Jim Miller

After waiting a week for California’s and San Diego’s glacial election returns, I had planned to write a post-election column.  Then the COVID-19 pandemic got real and everything changed.  As a professor at San Diego City College and as the father of a high school student, I was thrust into the chaos that “social distancing” brings to educational institutions and family.

In between planning for teaching virtually for three weeks (or perhaps the rest of the semester) and dealing with the contradictory stew of confusion, panic, fear, hostility, sadness, as well as with the personal courage, compassion, and community solidarity that arose all around me, I talked to friends and family who were slow to respond and watched their retirement and/or college funds collapse before they had time to act as the stock market went on its manic roller coaster ride.

Poof! the markets were gutted.  Would they come back in time?  Nobody knows.

As for my working-class students, mostly of color, the scary thing was not the stock market, but their lack of healthcare and their need to work for survival despite the potential peril, and that many employers are still disregarding the necessity of adequate sick days.  That and the fact that there is still a significant digital divide in this country will make both my students’ and many others’ economic and academic lives even more difficult.

Nationally, the news cycle was insane as Trump’s bizarre, narcissistic incompetence and cruelty was on full display.  People were getting sick and starting to die in the United States while the commodity spectacles of sports and entertainment that keep us distracted went dark before our eyes.  In sum, the bubble burst and we were left to see the poverty of our collective political and social lives.

As Mike Davis recently observed of the present crisis :

The outbreak has instantly exposed the stark class divide in healthcare: those with good health plans who can also work or teach from home are comfortably isolated provided they follow prudent safeguards.  Public employees and other groups of unionized workers with decent coverage will have to make difficult choices between income and protection.  Meanwhile millions of low wage service workers, farm employees, uncovered contingent workers, the unemployed and the homeless will be thrown to the wolves.

Even if Washington ultimately resolves the testing fiasco and provides adequate numbers of kits, the uninsured will still have to pay doctors or hospitals for administrating the tests.  Overall family medical bills will soar at the same time that millions of workers are losing their jobs and their employer-provided insurance.  Could there possibly be a stronger, more urgent case in favor of Medicare for All?

But sadly, as we know, the champions of universal health care as a human right, have been vanquished in the name of a political pragmatism largely rooted in fear.  Of course, the irony of this is that even if Biden rides into office in the wake of Trump’s inability to deal with his first national crisis, Joe is not the man for the job. The majority of Democratic voters may have voted to restore normalcy, but normalcy in the form of the neoliberal status quo is part of the problem.

The hard truth is that “normal” is what helped get us here. Younger primary voters 40 and under, who are used to getting the short end of the stick, understand this, but they didn’t show up in the numbers needed to help Bernie Sanders. Older primary voters may agree with Sanders’s goals, but can no longer imagine anything outside of the current hegemony. As one of the smug, Sanders hating talking heads on MSNBC gleefully put it, “this is a post-hope election.”

Indeed, if crisis is opportunity, this chance to move the ledger in the direction of big progressive change that might actually address our systemic problems has been lost for the short term despite the fact that, as Davis again notes:

The current pandemic expands the argument: capitalist globalization now appears to be biologically unsustainable in the absence of a truly international public health infrastructure. But such an infrastructure will never exist until peoples’ movements break the power of Big Pharma and for-profit healthcare.

And this painful reality sits side by side with our looming climate catastrophe that will, as David Wallace-Wells documents in “The Uninhabitable Earth“,  unleash a host of new diseases as the temperature rises.  Hence, if you are digging this pandemic, you’ll love the future we have in store unless we miraculously act with a boldness and courage we seem unable to summon.

As a friend of mine ruefully observed about last week’s news that the polar ice caps are melting six times faster than they were in the 1990s, we’ll act on that problem as effectively as we are now with the coronavirus pandemic — we’ll get fired up once Miami is underwater.

Never has it been clearer that our problem is much bigger than Donald Trump–and we simply don’t seem up to the challenge.

Once, we stumble our way through this national emergency, if we are lucky, we’ll elect Joe Biden who will surely bring a basic decency back to the White House, but will require a lot of external pushing to get even close to where we need to be if we want the dystopian feeling many of us have at present to give way to a reasonable shot at building a more just, sustainable future.

In the end, our current political reality is on the fast track to colliding with a whole range of grim truths that most of us simply don’t want to face.





{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank Gormlie March 16, 2020 at 1:18 pm

The market dropped nearly 3,000 points today (the DOW). Worst day since 1987 – a generation ago.


retired botanist March 16, 2020 at 3:29 pm

Wow, Mr Miller, I simply couldn’t have summed it up better. The fact that your view is my view was really the only bright spot in an otherwise depressing day.
First, of losing (currently) over 30% of my IRA (which had clawed its way back from a 50% loss in the 2008 Wall St debacle) which will now take more years to recover than I have left until kicking the bucket.
Coupled with sitting through clown show after clown show of the “Pat-yoself-on-the-back” Task Force, who has seemingly done nothing so far other than relegate our healthcare to the parking lots of big-box retail companies, and now told States to go find their own supplies (what? dig them up in the back forty?).
Tripled when I read that the airline Industries now want a 50Billion dollar bailout!
So which part of Bernie has the rest of the Nation not heard?! Apparently, none of Bernie, since we’re now going to put kindly nice guy, dementia Joe, into the driver’s seat of “more of the same”
Super hard to see an optimistic landscape ahead, whether its Trump or Biden…
Thx for lifting me up, even if just for a moment!


Geoff Page March 16, 2020 at 7:08 pm

As an “older” voter, I have to take issue with one line in an otherwise well written piece.

“Older primary voters may agree with Sanders’s goals, but can no longer imagine anything outside of the current hegemony.”

I don’t know how old the author is but this statement is not true for a bunch of older voters. Having lived a decent amount of time, some of us are being purely practical at a time when being so is crucial. I lived through two elections of Richard Nixon and the twenty year negative legacy from his time in the White House. Same thing with George Bush, Jr. and that negative legacy is still playing out.

This country has elected some destructive people in my years but what I’ve seen with the current president dwarfs the works of Nixon and Bush and Reagan for that matter. I like Sanders too but he is too far to the left. The important thing is to get t-rump out of there, that is the goal, not all of Bernie’s lofty ideals. If this president gets another term, the destruction of much of what we cherish will be much worse than the first term as the idiot will not have to worry about re-election.

No, accusing older voters of not being able to “imagine anything outside of the current hegemony” is completely wrong. Many of us know what I’ve said here and we know what needs to happen. We are being practical and our actions are based on a lifetime of watching politics. Give a little credit, there is no lack of imagination of the future horrors the current administration can inflict on the old, the infirm, people of color, women, the environment, it precisely because of that imagination that we vote for Joe.


Frank Gormlie March 17, 2020 at 9:23 am

Hey, it’s not just older voters – it’s the mass of African-American voters who were / are unwilling to take risks right now. They have voted overwhelmingly for Biden.


retired botanist March 17, 2020 at 5:22 pm

Yep, I truly get your points. And its clear that with Trump, we don’t have four more years to waste and deteriorate. I’m just not convinced that with Biden, we can afford that “skate-along” time, either. True, Biden gets Trump out of the WH. But that also completely endorses systems and government functions that we just do not have time to embrace any longer. To use Trump’s recent, favorite hyperbole “It’s got to be bold”. This is his answer to the economic fixes he’s recently trumpeted (no pun intended). I say its got to be bold with respect to BIG fundamental changes, and no one is willing to try that except Sanders.
What have we got to lose? Everything, if four years of Biden does not bring sweeping, fundamental political change in our country. At the moment, I don’t think it will. And that disturbs me, and my vote, mightily.


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