A raw crisis is always revealing. The transition from “before” to “after” changes how people think about things.
Sometimes it exposes fragility, as the coronavirus pandemic has done with preparedness for a type of public health disaster that was long-predicted and well-telegraphed even in the months before it mushroomed. But clarity also comes, counterintuitively, with the reintroduction of nuance into areas of discussion that had slipped into polarity.
A few thoughts on the cultural impacts of the novel coronavirus and the outbreak of the disease it produces, COVID-19:
Not all that seems bad is all bad.
In recent years, it’s been common to read and hear laments about the intrusion of technology into our lives.
Thank goodness for technology. Through video calls and other means of instant communication, loved ones separated by social distancing can stay in contact — even those at enhanced risk, even those quarantined.
At a time when people can’t — or shouldn’t — attend church, they can continue the practice of faith by viewing services and studies online.
While schools are closed, teachers can continue educating children. And many workers and workplaces are discovering that they were better prepared than they thought for remote activities.
All of these forced discoveries come with limitations, but also with implications for how we operate in the future.
Not all that seems good is all good.
Unimpeded by geophysical barriers, the footprint of Twin Cities metropolitan area over recent decades splayed to 3,000 square miles across seven counties (or up to 11,000 square miles across 22 counties, depending on how broadly you wish to define it). Government planning, the enterprise of developers and the desires of home buyers all have arguably played a role.
Some planners and political leaders would like to change this pattern to address global climate change. Nonetheless, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the Twin Cities area’s relative lack of density — and relative unreliance on systems like mass transit — has been a benefit, slowing the pace of coronavirus transmission compared with more congested locales.
It may be a temporary advantage at best. A virus is a force of nature. Nonetheless, the crisis has become a peg for discussion of this topic. Katherine Kersten, who opposes densification efforts, addresses it in a concurrent Opinion Exchange essay, and the Star Tribune Editorial Board will offer its own further thoughts later this week. Which brings us to:
Be duly skeptical of those who would use the pandemic, too indirectly and too soon, as leverage for prior goals.
In reviewing opinion submissions, editors often note that the most meaningful analysis of any event is not necessarily that which arrives immediately. In a singular event, it may begin arriving two or three days later, and in an ongoing event like the pandemic, thinking evolves over time. There’s a reason why newspapers are referred to as providing the first draft of history.
Yet calls for change using the current crisis as evidence are inevitable.
On the large end of the scale, for instance, you might hear the case made that Medicare for All, if it had been in place, could have eased pressures. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders made that argument in a recent Democratic presidential debate. Yet as his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, pointed out, Italy has single-payer health care — and has been one of the hardest hit.
On the smaller end of the scale, you might hear about closing roads in favor of bicyclists and pedestrians. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has done so in a few cases to enhance social distancing during the crisis, and conceivably the experience could bolster a pre-existing movement.
Remember that in any such debates, prior pros and cons still apply. And that if the epidemic demonstrates anything, it’s that worst-case scenarios can come true. Systems must be devised to withstand all possible outcomes.
Nonetheless, we can expect a crisis to produce at least some sweeping change and should be prepared to give it the broad analysis it deserves.
From World War II came the GI Bill, which helped millions of returning war veterans establish themselves in their communities. Internationally, the multibillion-dollar Marshall Plan helped Europe rebuild, creating the conditions for Western dominance in the mid-to-late 20th century.
The 13-day Cuban missile crisis of 1962, during which the exchange of diplomatic messages between the U.S. and Soviet Union was dangerously slow, expedited an idea for a “hotline” between the two countries. (The result was a system for quickly sending text communications, not a red telephone as is commonly portrayed.)
Out of 9/11 came years of ostensibly thwarted terror attacks, though at the cost of war and reduced standards, including torture.
What might transpire from the current crisis?
We’re getting a sneak peak at the impact of reducing carbon emissions. We’re getting a partial test of the deficit spending that some theorists believe a country with its own currency could safely incur in the pursuit of economic fairness. We’ll need to expand voting by mail to protect elections, which can never be bypassed. And we’ll surely, before this is over, weigh new concerns about privacy as cellphone tracking becomes a public health tool.
Above all, though, the true nature of our society has been revealed.
The losses of this crisis, and those yet to come, cannot be diminished. But our scenario hasn’t been like the apocalyptic ones found in fiction, where people turn animalistic, one against all. There’s been a touch of that for sure. But mostly we’ve seen friends, neighbors and families working within the confines of the circumstances to come together and aid others.
Mostly, we’ve been reminded that humanity is the way of our world.