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America After the COVID Crisis

Updated: Mar 16, 2021

Why we'll need each other more.

Either it will end or we will. If it’s the coronavirus that is drowned in a tsunami of masks, sanitizers and vaccines, the outgoing tide will leave us a different country.

Just as the virus can only be contained and conquered by international cooperation, that truth itself will leave us all more aware of how much we are interdependent. And this new reality will show up in four ways.

First, a greater appreciation for equality. Instead of wealth as a common, convenient definition of success and self-worth, most of us will have learned that the stars of merchant princes shine no less brightly in the firmament than the nurses, grocery cashiers and fast-food workers who kept things running at great personal peril.

Second, an end to the venerable debate over small government vs. Big Government. The coronavirus will have shown that when we clamored for millions of face masks, we needed a large national stockpile to furnish them promptly. We demanded expedited development of vaccines that only a robust National Institutes of Health could spearhead. Lost in the noisy impatience for government action was the recent boast of a right-wing politician on Fox and Friends that his passion was to “make government so small that I can drown it in the bathtub.”

Rather, we’ve learned that agencies with initials like CDC, FDA, USDA, FEMA, FDIC, FCC and FTC are all threads in the fabric that keeps us safe from the harm some do to many. And rather than starve their budgets, we will realize that we do need a “deep state” in the same way that an NBA team needs a deep bench if it hopes to prevail over a long season.

Third, a trend more towards a “group persona.” We’ve seen how China moved quickly to shut down the entire city of Wuhan, ramp up production of facemasks and order people to wear them. This is because China has had this group ethic for five thousand years - from emperors to Mao Tse Tung to Xi Jinping. Perhaps you glimpsed that truth last year if you saw the massive parades in Beijing marking fifty years of Communist party rule: mannikins marching in lockstep and snapping their heads in unison beneath the saluting president-for-life. To a greater or lesser degree, it’s the same mindset that has ingrained Japan, the Koreas and most of Asia for generations.

Today you can punch up dozens of Asian city profiles on You Tube and see more lasting results of disciplined, mass-mobilization. You’ll see well-planned cities with large parks, squeaky-clean streets and efficient public transportation.

Rather than overhauling our own creaky infrastructure, we simmer like frogs in a cauldron of free speech, croaking about defunding our police and toppling some Confederate statues.

Yes, yes, our democracy is to be cherished. But in the eyes of others abroad, America is no longer Ronald Regan’s envisioned “Shining city on a hill.” They see our press petty, our politicians deadlocked, our streets unruly, our elections comically cacophonous, and our voters so fact-less and feckless as to question the very tenets of “American” democracy.

Fourth, more environmental connectivity. Just as Covid 19 showed how China’s crises became ours as well, we will emerge more sharply aware that the Great Garbage Patch floating past California reminds us that much of Central and South America is too economically helpless to stop the outflow of raw sewage and plastic packaging. The worldwide explosion of smartphone technology lets us see with our own eyes that the lack of clean drinking water and sewage treatment facilities in too many developing countries is beginning to overwhelm the oceans.

Is the tide of filth inevitable? Maybe not. Just suppose that we the people could employ our cherished democratic rights to cause a retrofitting of the world’s most overweight military machine.

America’s greatest contribution to the progress of humankind may be this: after centuries in which waves of Julius Caesars, Genghis Khans, and Adolph Hitlers invaded territories merely to aggrandize their own glory, the U.S. was the first nation to conquer, give back sovereignty, then provide reconstructive aid. We were loved and respected for it.

What if we could regain respect by keeping the same “robust” military spending level, but converted a third of it to building water purification plants, trash treatment and wastewater facilities where desperately needed?

Don’t fret, hawks. We’d still spend over $500 billion A YEAR on enough missiles and guns to repel foolish aggressors.

Don’t worry Pentagon. You’d merely reshuffle and retrain. Just as the Army Corps of Engineers once built lighthouses and dredged waterways, it could be repurposed to build environmental control facilities.

Don’t shudder, military contractors. Instead of building bases and bombers, you’ll make just as much money by focusing on sewage treatment solutions and building utilities that make rivers clean. And then with beaches that are free of garbage and fecal coliform, America will be safer and more secure than by spending on excess weapons. People might even see us again as that “Shining city on the hill.”

The four post-Covid outcomes – all forms of a new interdependence – will drift in like rising seas whether anyone likes it or not. Not quite so for revamping the military machine. Any attempt to move the idea through a thicket of protest – including shouts of “Treason!” – would require a mass-mobilization of public opinion.

Well, everything begins with an idea.

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