This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis
by Craig Calhoun (Tempe, Arizona)
The novel coronavirus was prototyped in China but mass-produced in the US. It has now been exported globally.
That’s an ironic reversal of clichés about China’s long struggle to grow richer by bringing cheaper labor and larger scale to manufacturing and selling products based on American designs. But it is a much more telling comment on what has become of US global leadership.
Until recently the US was the clear global hegemon, even if its dominance was declining. Its leadership was symbolized by Hollywood movies, sleek Apple phones and computers, and universities that drew students from all over the world. This gave the US ‘soft power’ to complement the ‘hard power’ of its military and muscle in international trade. But the US was also attractive as a destination and a model.
But now, America leads the world in infections. There are twice as many cases on US university campuses as in all of China. Even while growth becomes more rapid in other countries, a fifth of the world’s coronavirus cases are in the US (though it has only just over 4% of global population).
The US leads the world not just in infections, but in denial, trying to blame others, and politicizing response. It leads the world in promoting medical misunderstandings and unproven drugs. It leads the world in contradictory and ineffective policies. It leads the world in damaging institutions needed to deal effectively with pandemic diseases and economic crises.
This is bad news for the US. It is bad news for a world in which the US still wields massive if sometimes unfortunate influence. Inept and politically pernicious US response to Covid has cost lives domestically and internationally. But, sadly, the US has no monopoly on misguided Covid response.
The disaster in America points to hard truths about Covid that matter everywhere. Covid strikes rich countries as well as poor, powerful as well as weak. Vulnerability that does not map neatly onto old divisions of developed from underdeveloped or imperialist from post-colonial. Its impact is shaped by pre-existing social conditions and it is uneven inside each country as well as internationally. Politics readily compromises response and sometimes all but completely derails it.
Pre-Existing Social Conditions
Just as lung disease or obesity increase individual Covid risks, so pre-existing social conditions shape population risks – and also policy response. Many countries have suffered because of poverty, crowded living conditions, or lack of hospitals. But the conditions that matter are not all so straightforward.
The US is one of the world’s richest countries, yet it faced the Covid pandemic unable even to test all its health workers or to provide them with personal protective equipment. Racism and inequality, corruption, distrust of science, and politicization of public health response all increase risks and undermine effective policy. So do the rise of neoliberalism, market fundamentalism, drastic over-reliance on debt, and extremes of inequality. Covid suffering is worsened by lingering effects of deindustrialization and decisions during the financial crisis to bail out banks and not citizens. The world faces Covid with weakened social institutions.
Strong institutions contribute directly to success in response to Covid. Health services are among the most important. Universal health care is crucial not just for meeting the needs of those suffering, but for early detection of outbreaks, effective monitoring, and keeping infection rates down. Higher levels of investment in private, unevenly available health care does not offer the same benefits – as the US has sadly learned.
Institutions of the mid-20th century welfare states have been under attack for fifty years. Neoliberalism, tax revolts, diversion of funds to police and prisons, and the sense that there was more glamour and opportunity in the private sector all contributed. But this meant institutions confronted Covid in a weakened condition. Nonetheless, they proved how very important they were.
Provisions for unemployed workers and unexpectedly stressed businesses proved vital. There was renewed appreciation for state media like the BBC. But the importance of some institutions was clarified by their very disruption. Covid brought glaring attention to issues in the provision of old age care. Inquiry into why they were such centers of infection brought attention to problems with their administration – and in some countries including the US, the organization of many on a for-profit basis. Schools are another prime example. Debates about whether and when to open them have been contentious. But behind this is recognition of their importance to children – and to parents.
One of the most ubiquitous experiences of Covid has been the substitution of online for in-person communication. As people ‘sheltered at home’, Zoom meetings replaced sitting around a table. Children who couldn’t visit aging parents scheduled calls. If new forms of sociability emerged, there was new attention to what people missed: the experience of personal contact, even touch; of public sociability; of community. And if people missed relationships and sought ways to keep them alive, at least some also realize how much they appreciated place – familiar places to gather, many now closed, and also a relationship to their physical environment.
People realized they valued their workplaces as communities, schools for sociability as well as education, churches for shared worship, and theaters for shared audience participation. It remains to be seen how many businesses will tell office workers to keep telecommuting and try to save some money on facilities. It seems likely that experience of the pandemic will speed up the process by which more university teaching moves online.
More than one commentator remarked that physical distancing didn’t have to be social distancing. But it was also remarked that resources for participation in the new online communications were very unevenly distributed. Even in casual conversation – online – middle-class people prefaced complaints about aspects of their situation with recognition that “of course, I am privileged”.
Inequality shaped who experienced Covid as social isolation and online communication and who experienced it as risks in face-to-face work. Health care could not go online, nor care work generally. There was new demand for home deliveries that depended on warehouses and drivers. For some who lost their regular jobs, the chance to get work, even at minimum wage, was a lifeline. Yet this was also a demonstration of split labor markets that predated Covid. And it was no accident that service and care workers were and are disproportionately women, minorities, and immigrants.
Political and economic contexts shape every experience with Covid. UK handling of the pandemic has been complicated by the evolving upheaval of Brexit – and the social divisions and resentments it revealed and sometimes exacerbated. Suffering in Spain has been shaped by recent austerity cuts to public services. Religious and ethnic nationalism has biased India’s response; chronic disregard for the plight of the poor has exacerbated suffering. Ethnonational divisions have undermined prevention and containment efforts in Ethiopia. Large populations of migrant workers and neglect of their health and living conditions have been a major factor throughout the Persian Gulf and even in Singapore, which has seemed initially to do well. Corruption is a problem in many settings, criminal violence in others – and both in some, like Mexico and Indonesia. Sharp inequalities and internal labor migration have been issues for South Africa and Russia. Ugandan risks are increased by long-distance trucking routes. Extreme political polarization is a growing problem in Europe, not just the US, shaping battles over whether to wear masks or accept lockdowns. Fantasies about immunity, cures, and both dubious and dangerous treatments are widespread. So is hostility to refugees and immigrants.
The pandemic is worldwide, but its spread is not uniform. Specific local settings produce high-infection clusters which in turn become vectors of spread elsewhere. Cruise ships were an early example. A Swiss ski resort attracted tourists from dozens of countries and sent many back contagious. Nursing homes are often incubators. Evangelical churches disaffected from the government played produced dangerous clusters of infections in South Korea where government action had been generally effective. Certain ultra-orthodox Jewish communities in New York city and nearby suburbs were key nodes in the US. They also had links to Israel, which now has one of the highest per capita infection rates in the world. Colleges and universities are leading a surge in new infections as students return for Fall classes. This is a huge problem for universities, which have switched with varying success to online instruction. But students don’t stay put. They visit home for holidays. They may catch Covid in bars, and parties, and dormitories, then they carry it to their families and hometowns.
In the US and many other countries regional disparities have undermined cohesive national response. Covid looked at first like a disease of cosmopolitan urban centers, but then it spread more widely. Florida’s governor mocked New York and New Jersey as infections soared in April and refused to implement protective measures. By summer, Florida had among the highest number of infections in the US. By contrast, when Northern Italy was hit hard, the country took measures to limit travel and minimized spread to the South. Other countries have targeted regional clusters, as Australia locked down Melbourne and the state of Victoria. Indeed, China did the same early on by blocking travel from Wuhan. The capacity to carry out such policies without disruptive rebellions against national authority is a key variable.
A society with more solidarity than division helps not only in facilitating compliance with public health policies, but in promoting a policy focus on the good of all. Good governance is obviously crucial, with New Zealand a prominent example. This is not just a matter of whether there is a better or worse individual in office at any one time, but of norms and structures built over many years. These are not just efficient; they engender trust, which is itself important in confronting a pandemic. Yet solidarity is a double-edged sword, valuable when it is inclusive; dangerous when it is linked to xenophobia or excludes significant parts of a country’s population.
Division, exclusion, inequality and other pre-existing conditions have shaped America’s response to Covid. So has a President who chose to exacerbate conflict rather than bring the country together.
Donald Trump campaigned saying he would ‘Make America Great Again’. Instead, he has hastened US decline. There is no more compelling demonstration of this than his disastrous response to Covid.
Trump lied and sought to deceive Americans about the genesis and nature of the virus, about treatment, and about economic consequences. He took the necessary early step of restricting travel, though the policy was poorly implemented. But then he undermined development of an effective, coordinated public health response. He knew the disease was serious but told the American people it was little more than the flu and would quickly be over.
Always suspicious of science and expertise, he contradicted his own top medical advisors and interfered with the work of federal health agencies. A freeze on government hiring left the Centers for Disease Control 700 staff members short when Covid struck. This delayed research on how Covid – a new disease – actually worked. Enabling scientists to advance knowledge is as important as listening to scientific advice on what is already known. But, of course, Trump wanted to do neither.
He promoted untested and sometimes dangerous treatments. Repeatedly promising vaccines would be available on implausible timelines, he created widespread doubt about whether a future vaccine would be distributed when proven safe or just when he thought it politically expedient.
In all this, Trump was aided and abetted by a Republican party that had lost connection to its one-time conservative ideals. It had replaced these first with neo-liberalism and market fundamentalism, then increasingly with cynical defense of wealth, militarized hyper-patriotism, racism, and advocacy in ‘culture wars.’ In the midst of Covid, Republican legislators resisted needed stimulus funding. Senators argued that extending or expanding unemployment benefits would keep workers from taking jobs – but of course, what they really meant was taking jobs on employers’ desired terms. Republicans steered funds to large corporations, refused calls to make clear who received the funds, and worked to minimize independent government oversight over these funds.
Nominating a far-right justice to the Supreme Court, Trump held a ‘super-spreader’ reception at the White House. He became ill himself, along with dozens of his senior staff – and then tied his apparent recovery to dubious claims both that he was a “perfect physical specimen” and that the disease was readily cured. He resumed massive face-to-face rallies even though these led to infections and deaths. Trying to hang on to power, he has attacked the electoral process itself, suggesting mail voting will be fraudulent, refusing to promise he will peacefully give up power if he loses, threatening to call in the military for support.
In addition to being vain and authoritarian, Trump is venal. Refusing to separate his private business from public affairs, he entertains visiting dignitaries at his golf club, insisted that official visitors stay at his hotels, and asked ambassadors to seek business for Trump, Inc. from foreign governments. He built what the New York Times called “a system of direct presidential influence-peddling unrivalled in modern American politics”. His administration channeled massive contracts for Covid response to companies owned by those with political or personal connections. Their failure to deliver the goods left health workers without personal protective equipment. Plans for rapid vaccine rollout now depend on tiny, untested, but connected companies to meet demand for syringes and other key supplies.
This all may be reminiscent of a tinpot dictator, but like all of America’s disastrous failure in the face of Covid, it is happening in one of the world’s richest and most powerful countries.
Not Just Leaders, Not Just Populism
Trump really has been a disaster for America and the world. Jair Bolsonaro has been equally bad for Brazil, though with less global consequence. Rightwing populist leaders from Boris Johnson to Victor Orban have made the Covid pandemic worse in their countries, but without the same flamboyant disregard for truth or lives.
But blaming only an individual, even one who deserves the opprobrium, obscures history and social causation. It diverts attention from how longstanding many of the social conditions for pandemic disaster are, from how widely they are shared, and from challenges societies will face even after these bad leaders have passed.
Take racism. This predates Covid in America. It’s a reason for Trump’s election more than just a result. And while racism has been distinctively basic to American history, it is not absent elsewhere. Bolsonaro’s attacks on indigenous peoples have been crudely and deeply racist. Indigenous Australians suffer some of the worst health conditions in the world and Covid has hit them much harder than white Australians. France refuses to collect statistics that differentiate by race, but this has not stopped differential impact of both Covid and government policies. In South Africa, Covid has been extreme in impoverished townships and informal settlements that are almost entirely Black.
In every society, longstanding inequalities shape how much different groups suffered from Covid. In the US, the impact of race and class is apparent not just in Trump-supporting ‘red states’ but in states governed by Democrats. In New York, Covid death-rates have been dramatically higher at public hospitals in disproportionately Black and Hispanic neighborhoods than at the better funded private hospitals serving the middle and upper classes. The reasons lie deep in political economy as well as in contemporary policy.
Trump rose to power because of deep divisions in American society, degenerations in American democracy, and decades of damage to the communities, livelihoods, and social solidarity of many citizens. These took place while apparently empowered elites looked the other way, at shiny new technologies, rising prices for their homes, the benefits of globalization, and the moral superiority of cosmopolitanism over local commitments.
Versions of this occurred in all the Western countries touched by ‘neoliberalism’ during the last fifty years. Even countries with strong national health care systems – like Britain – saw these undermined by budget cuts and reorganization aimed at making them run more like businesses and less like services for the public good. Britain confronted Covid with half the number of hospital beds it had thirty years before and a critical shortage of emergency care facilities.
Covid cast a glaring light on long-standing failures to prioritize the public good. The US is an extreme example. American failure to make health care universal is almost unique among the world’s developed countries. It not only leaves close to 10% of Americans with no coverage at all. It makes the quality of care Americans receive dramatically unequal (like everything else in America). The poor, Blacks, Latinx and indigenous Americans all confronted the pandemic with more problematic and untreated pre-existing conditions. Coronavirus tests were very unequally available, which put many people at more risk and also made it harder to fight the disease.
American health care is organized distinctively as a private rather than public good. Big parts are explicitly for profit – like the drug companies allowed to charge higher prices in America than anywhere else in the developed world. Even many official non-profit services are run with a goal of maximizing revenue.
This has also led to huge investments in technology and care for relatively rare diseases, much less in providing basic care. To pay for high-tech medicine, many hospitals prioritized profitable elective surgeries – even medical tourism – over emergency rooms and general medicine. When the pandemic hit this meant they lacked the emergency room and other facilities that were urgently needed, and which would have helped more people at any time. It also set them up for financial crisis when elective surgeries had to be put on hold.
Close to ten percent of Americans lack insurance and thus access to health care –even after the Affordable Care Act passed under the Obama administration. The numbers have shot up in the pandemic because many people have coverage only on the basis of employment – and millions lost their jobs.
America’s staggering acceptance of unequal health care is not just a problem for individuals and families who get substandard treatment or none at all. It is one of the reasons for more Covid cases and also deeper economic damage. But again, the US case is extreme but not without partial parallels.
Is Democracy the Problem?
Under Xi Jinping, China has sought to portray the Covid pandemic as a test case for the relative virtues of democracy and its authoritarian and not very egalitarian version of communism. The comparison seems damning for democracy, but it is misleading.
China bungled early detection of Covid partly because its authoritarian state impeded the flow of information and punished those who spoke honestly of the disease. But then that same authoritarian state showed its capacity for large-scale response, building new hospitals in a matter of days, and effectively locking down travel to isolate the disease in Wuhan. Unfortunately, this did not happen before substantial international spread. But it kept Chinese infections to a tiny fraction of those in the US. Indeed, there are more than twice as many Covid cases on US university campuses as in all of China.
China is not only authoritarian but also more administratively effective than most other similarly undemocratic states. This is underpinned by high social cohesion (among the ethnic majority) and willingness to be compliant with administrative directives. This may reflect culture, but it also reflects relatively high trust in government and where this is lacking, repression. In any case, the point is clear: it is not authoritarian rule that seems to be the crucial differentiator. It is state capacity and citizen compliance.
Disastrous Covid response in the US and elsewhere stems not so much from democracy as such as from the degeneration of democracy. This is manifestly the sense of many citizens, that they have been deeply disempowered, both in the sense of being able to influence the government and in the sense of being able to provide for one’s own life and family by one’s own efforts.
Degeneration of democracy has been fueled by deindustrialization without adequate compensation or support, rapid growth of service and logistical economies at low wages and without job security, government collusion with employers to undermine unions, new technologies without adequate regulation, and intensified inequality, not just by class or racial identity but by region. Incomes have stagnated overall, which masks relative declines for many, increases for some elite professionals, and the production of more billionaires than ever before. As important, the prospect of improving life chances has vanished for much of the population. They cannot expect their children’s incomes, or housing, or health to be better than their own. Covid is one more manifestation of disempowerment. And then governments impose restrictions.
During the pandemic’s first acute phase, Americans had to queue for toilet paper and other daily necessities. Personal protective equipment was not available for health workers, nor ventilators for patients. The US is still having a hard time providing needed tests for the virus. Wearing masks and opening schools have become foci of political contention.
Degeneration produces polarized politics, demagogic leadership, and clinging to old racial or ethnic national identities instead of developing more inclusive ones. It is behind the rhetorically violent claims to liberty – to own guns, to refuse to wear masks – that come from citizens who are not so much unfree as disempowered. Such oppositional assertion of individual freedom to social solidarity has a longstanding history in the US. It is more surprising that in the era of Covid they appear in Spain, Italy, France, Germany, the UK, Canada and Australia.
The temptation to manipulate Covid response for political advantage is sadly widespread. It’s evident as Vladimir Putin hunkers behind layers of disinfection while telling the Russian population not to be afraid – and boosting national pride by promoting an untested vaccine. Narendra Modi has made Islamophobia a hallmark of India’s Covid response, bolstering support for the BJP even while increasing national suffering. Brazil’s politicians have tried hard to show they can be just as bad as those of the US. Governments in Britain, Spain, France and elsewhere have pursued inconsistent policies and made their citizens suffer more. Boris Johnson belittled Covid and repeatedly but falsely declared victory – only to become infected himself and then claim a wave of public sympathy after he survived. He moved quickly to encourage public gatherings – even offering government subsidies to eat out – only to reverse course and lock down major cities.
Democracies supported by more social solidarity have coped better with the pandemic. Citizens have been more willing to wear masks and engage in protective behavior, prioritizing the public good but also responding to peer pressure. But the issue is not just more versus less solidarity; how it is organized is crucial.
Solidarity is not just a sentiment. It is expressed in institutional forms. The contrast between US and European approaches to protecting workers during the Covid recession is instructive. Closure of businesses and general economic upheaval threatened the livelihoods of many workers everywhere. In Europe, government funding was organized to protect their jobs, supporting businesses that might otherwise have laid them off. In the US, workers had to become unemployed in order to receive benefits, which were distributed to individuals.
Crucially, countries that acted promptly and decisively have fared better. Losing months to denial or complacency has been disastrous. Clear-headed rather than dithering leaders are helpful. Jacinda Ardern is preferable to Donald Trump or Boris Johnson. But the capacity to make and follow-through on decisions also reflects government willingness to listen to expert advice, clarity and consistency of government policy explanations, citizen trust in government decisions, and administrative capacity for consistent administration. New Zealand exemplified all three. Somewhat less democratic, so did Singapore. The UK government has been remarkable for its vacillation over expertise, policy reversals, inconsistent enforcement. More generally, governments sensitive to public opinion have shown both the tendency to change course unwisely and eagerness of politicians to manipulate response to serve their power rather than the public good.
Both democratic and undemocratic leaders have been eager to embrace speculative strategies for herd immunity and unproven treatments. This is no doubt largely because shutting down borders, public spaces, and many workplaces is hugely disruptive. Yet it is the one thing that has most clearly reduced the Covid risk. Next come social distancing, wearing masks, and improvements to hygiene. Even though all are more easily managed, they have been subject to controversy and politicization. Here too, though, the issue is not just democracy versus authoritarianism. There are authoritarian rulers unable to generate widespread compliance. There are democracies that readily displayed care for public safety and democracies where large groups of citizens angrily flouted guidelines.
Lockdowns have been effective, but they are extremely blunt measures to address Covid. They are made necessary when societies lack capacity for more targeted measures, like curtailing travel and implementing universal testing, tracking, isolation of infected individuals, and tracing of their contacts. They respond to low levels of citizen compliance with less draconian instructions – and simple concern for fellow citizens; to insufficient institutional support like hospitals without beds or PPE; and to political objections to narrower, more targeted actions. They have made the economic impact of the pandemic much worse.
Societies have to recover not just from the pandemic but from the economic upheaval in its wake. Democracy – especially mere formal democracy – is clearly no cure-all. Perhaps there is no need to emphasize this in an era when so many elected officials and election campaigns have manipulated popular anxieties and encouraged nationalist display and conflict as a substitute for effective policy. But if democracy is not by itself the cure, neither is it the cause.
The first wave of Covid infections is still swelling in many countries. In others, second and third waves are underway, encouraged by overeager attempts to ‘return to normal’. The overall lesson seems to be that Covid is tenacious and human beings – and their governments – are prone to illusions about the safety of relaxing precautions. But there are specific patterns, and these point to the extent of politicization, trust, and pre-existing social conditions.
As I write in late October 2020, the US is currently hitting a third peak with more new infections daily than at any time before. Several Latin American countries including Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Peru are among the most similar, both in scale of pandemic and in the extent to which new infection rates have stayed persistently high. Israel, Kuwait and Oman also sustain high infection rates as do several small island states.
In most of Europe, it seemed like a hard first wave had been brought under control, but now rates of new infection are setting records and overwhelming health care systems again. There have been ebbs and flows in many countries. The pandemic seems to have abated somewhat in India and become more intense again in Russia. Despite Trump’s persistence in calling Covid the ‘China flu’, it has nearly disappeared from China and most of East Asia (and of course it isn’t influenza).
Covid has spread more slowly in Africa than other regions, though numbers are rising. This may be partly because the population is younger than in hard-hit Northern countries. It may be partly an illusion based on undercounting by overtaxed statistical services. South Africa has seen more cases than most of the continent perhaps because it more resembles and is connected to some of the Northern countries that have been hard hit.
Africa points us to another important but troubling feature of the pandemic: economic catastrophe can be severe even where medical cases are minimal. The economic damage comes partly from restrictions needed to stop the virus spreading. It is worse when governments lack the capacity for nuanced response and must rely on blunt measures. But it is worst of all where governments fail to act effectively to bring the disease under control, thus allowing it to spread more widely and disrupt life much longer.
Medical advances and stopping the damage done by leaders like Donald Trump will be helpful. But they will not end the Covid pandemic. The disease has spread too widely. Even effective vaccines and treatments are likely not so much to end it as to reduce it to manageable proportions.
Treatments are improving. These are mostly mitigations, not cures, though politicians commonly overstate their efficacy and the speed with which their societies will “turn the corner on Covid.” But better treatment is bringing down death rates, even though with more infections the number dying keeps climbing.
Eventually there will be vaccines. But in some countries, vaccines will be rushed into mass use without adequate testing – to boost national pride, or political careers, or corporate fortunes, or just to placate anxious citizens. New reasons to think them risky will build on a longer-standing anti-vaccine movement that combines genuine concerns with conspiracy theories. Trust in vaccines as in science, medicine, and public health guidance, takes years to build but is quickly lost. It needs to be rebuilt now.
Capacity for effective delivery is a particular issue for vaccines. It will be limited, both by inadequate supplies and by shortage of medical personnel, facilities, or free access. Yet vaccines derive their maximal effect by eradicating disease in a population not just preventing it in individuals. This doesn’t happen if too small a percentage receive the vaccines, leaving the disease endemic and likely to mutate, producing new hard-to-eradicate strains.
Economic damage will persist for years. There will be permanent changes: restaurants and shops that never reopen, supply chains that are never rebuilt, jobs that are lost forever. There will be transformations in higher education, in work-life, in personal habits. Politicians will take the occasion to tighten their grip on power if they can. Authoritarian regimes may be consolidated. Democracy and rule of law may be deeply damaged. Certainly, this last possibility looms large in the US.
Yet, there is also hope that the shock of the pandemic will stimulate positive social change. The US can undertake a deep renewal of its institutions. It can seek to build social solidarity rather than exacerbate division, neglect, and scapegoating. It can restructure its economy to maximize human flourishing. And it can fundamentally renew democracy, not just at the level of formal political processes but in its deep foundations. Other societies can do the same.
For this to happen, response to Covid must be combined with response to all the problems that have made it worse. This would mean going beyond repair of health care institutions or simple economic stimulus funding. There would need to be action on the pre-existing social conditions of inequality, racism, the impulse to exclude rather than include in building national identity, weakened social institutions, polarized politics, pervasive resentment, citizens who feel they lack the power to organize their own lives, and an economy that undermines social well-being as much as it provides for it.
That’s already a tall order, and those are just the domestic issues that would need to be tackled by transformative social movements in each country. Every country presents its own specific issues and offers its own social, cultural, and historical resources. But every country also faces global challenges – like Covid itself. Other pandemics are likely and global cooperation will be important in dealing with them. There are a host of other global issues, from the new wars and superpower conflicts that have emerged in the midst of the pandemic to accelerating climate change.
But though there are no guarantees, it really is possible that the Covid pandemic will prove a stimulus to progress. It has called people’s attention to how much they value family and community. Though it revealed deep divisions, Covid has produced a desire for solidarity. It made inequalities glaringly obvious and perhaps less tolerable. Those living in relative comfort and security have searched for ways to show their solidarity with delivery workers, even if only in the small gesture of tipping better than before. European neighbors joined in singing, banging pots, and applauding to celebrate health care workers. This doesn’t by itself bring safe working conditions or higher pay, but perhaps it’s a start.
Many Americans drew inspiration from the Black Lives Matter protests that flourished during the pandemic. Action to reduce racism can be the other side of clarifying its reality. Despite the harshness of partisan political rhetoric, citizens in many localities have shown new commitment to simple civility in public interactions.
In the US there is also a remarkable determination to vote. Turnout is likely to surpass all recent precedent. This is partly, no doubt, in order to rid the country of Donald Trump. For some, it may be to keep Trump in power. But beyond the partisan dimension it seems also to demonstrate desire to share in citizenship itself, and to reunite a country torn by divisions.
Widespread job loss and business failure will encourage governments to make massive investments. There is at least a chance that these will be organized not only as transfer payments but to transform economies, build greener and healthier infrastructure, and strengthen social institutions. We could build public health capacity in recognition that Covid will not be the last threat. We could renew local community. We could renew democracy itself in struggle for a better society. We may even advance the capacity to deal with climate change. I suspect the pandemic has not really obscured that threat. It has made more people realize more viscerally what a serious crisis can mean for them, for the people they care about, and for the world.
Still, this is an optimistic reading of how disaster might lead to consciousness, struggle, and progress. As Karl Polanyi stressed in The Great Transformation, a wave of disastrous disruption brings response. There is no guarantee it will be good and effective response. It can be reactionary nationalism, misguided populism, crime, drug use, or just potentially, effective work building new and better institutions.
Craig Calhoun is University Professor of Social Sciences at Arizona State University and Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics (where he was previously Director). His newest books are Degenerations of Democracy, with Dilip Gaonkar and Charles Taylor (forthcoming 2021) and an edited collection on The Green New Deal and the Future of Work (with Benjamin Fong). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @craigjcalhoun