We are told that ‘we’re in this together’ by people who can afford to wait out the epidemic in the way the aristocrats of old retreated to their estates when the plague arrived in the city. It is more accurate to say that we are, as this edition’s cover puts it, ‘together, alone’. The coronavirus has revealed that people today can live in ‘connected solitude’, as Sam Leith describes. It has never been easier to retreat from society if you have the money. But it has never been more vital to sustain real-world connections. We may feel atomized but the truth is we can no more insulate ourselves entirely from other people than we can from the economic effects of an unprecedented shutdown.
It is customary for politicians to declare war — on poverty, on drugs, on terrorism — but for once, this talk has been justified. The military responded with its customary professionalism and diligence. Almost overnight, the US Navy’s hospital ship Comfort appeared in New York Harbor and the US Army Corps of Engineers turned the Javits Center into a 3,000-bed field hospital. The federal system, however, has adapted less quickly and ably. Political grandstanding and bickering between governors have hampered a coordinated response and heightened public alarm.
Business has responded with an efficiency that would be more heartening were the boom in home delivery not accompanied by price hikes and the exploitation of those doing the delivering. The COVID-19 epidemic has exposed the ugly underbelly of globalization, as Christopher Caldwell describes. The creation of jobs at a time when unemployment has reached Depression levels almost overnight is imperative. But it will not excuse the existence of a permanent gig economy underclass.
The food supply chain has not broken, but the lines at food banks are growing. After the mass hoarding of toilet paper, our common symbol of the paper-thin layer between civilization and barbarism, the shelves are stocked. But more and more Americans are struggling to afford the basics. Even before COVID-19, nearly half of Americans held no savings at all. The Trump administration’s $1,200 subvention to citizens is a drop in the swelling ocean of debt. Total lockdown is a luxury that we can no longer afford.
Some businesses have been sharp to adapt: Tito’s Vodka, for instance, is now producing hand sanitizer. But General Motors had to be shamed by the Defense Production Act before it would switch to producing ventilators. The president claimed that GM, a company bailed out by the Obama administration, had been stalling over cost. If so, GM was hardly alone. Only when the hospitals in New York City were at risk of overflowing did health insurers waive out-of-pocket costs for all COVID-19 treatment. Harvard University, insulated by its endowment, did not guarantee the wages of its sub-contracted cleaning, security and catering workers until pressured to do so. United Airlines waited for the stimulus bill to pass (with $50 billion for airlines) before telling workers to expect job cuts. Car manufacturers, health insurers, airlines and the Ivy League are habitual beneficiaries of direct and indirect government support. Their contempt for the common taxpayer has never been clearer.
No failure of commission was more shameful than that of the state and local administrators who failed to stock up on masks, gowns, gloves and other personal protective equipment (PPE). This, like the outsourcing of medical supply chains, reflects a disorder of domestic priorities. So does the failure of the Obama and Trump administrations to restock federal stores of masks after the H1N1 (swine flu) epidemic of 2009, and the Trump administration’s disbanding of the NSC’s global health unit.
Donald Trump campaigned in 2016 against globalization and its discontents: outsourcing, strategic dependency on China, the political class’s abandonment of American workers and American security. Like George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Trump finds his presidency redefined by unforeseen disaster. COVID-19 is a reckoning for the United States, and for the Trump presidency in particular.
COVID-19 is a vindication of those who, like Trump, advocate for strong borders and economic independence. Perhaps less comfortably for the president and his supporters, the response to COVID-19 is also a repudiation of those who have demonized Hispanic immigrants as criminals and cultural fifth columnists. The public servants who have sustained hospitals and civic order, and the workers who have delivered luxuries to our doorsteps, are disproportionately migrants.
Trump was also elected to break up the cozy corporatism of Washington DC and private capital. The present danger has, however, forced the president to become the inadvertent sponsor of forces he once opposed and technologies he once distrusted. The Congressional stimulus was rushed through quickly and is in significant part an Obama-style bailout. The administration has turned to Google as a public information channel. The militarization of civilian life, a malign side effect of the war on terror, is being furthered by necessity, and so is the digital snooping and surveillance that accompanies it.
As Paul Wood says, the crisis will not be the last challenge of its kind. Though the symptoms of COVID-19 are beginning to lift, the body politic still requires urgent treatment. The lockdown must be lifted as far as possible, and the lessons learned as quickly as possible. It is imperative that Americans be allowed to work. But restoring the fabric of society also means restoring trust between institutions and the people they are supposed to serve.
This article is in The Spectator’s May 2020 US edition.