We all participate in a social contract, the collective agreement to protect each other, and the modern world with its safety net and cooperatively produced technology is what makes pandemics like coronavirus a thing that can be survived by most of the population.
First published in March 2020.
America has finally woken up to the reality that we are a part of a globe, and we are having to deal with the implications of a public health crisis — a crisis that we fear, as opposed to the crisis of people who lack adequate healthcare that we tolerate. Given the lack of guaranteed healthcare, we are being told to stay home if ill, to keep our distance from our fellow human beings, and to wash our hands while we wait for the government and for-profit corporations to come up with tests that they will accept.
What workers who live from paycheck to paycheck are supposed to do in this splendid isolation is anyone’s guess.
Donald Trump called for a national day of prayer, and in the view of Lauren Green, chief religion correspondent for Fox News, this should be done in houses of worship. “To close the churches where people go for comfort and spiritual strength — as an act of fighting against this biological scourge — seems like a surrender to Satan.”
Lauren Green: This is the power of a National Day of Prayer. / Fox News
I am reminded of Bertrand Russell’s observation about all the people during the bubonic plague who gathered in cathedrals to infect each other, but association is natural for our species, no matter how much the libertarian right wing would like to push us into brutish anarchy. Given the lethality rate of Covid-19 at somewhere between 1.4 and 2.3 percent, as compared to the 1918 flu rate of more than 2.5 percent, the social costs will be high, but not existential, and the world will be left with the opportunity to decide consciously how we move forward, rather than letting events drift along outside of our attention.
Since the Enlightenment revolution in political thinking, the assumption among many philosophers has been that we all participate in a social contract, the collective agreement to protect each other with the promise of achieving some progress. Marxists and others among the socialist left tried to narrow the bargain to members of one’s class, and the Objectivists tried to toss out the whole notion of group responsibility, but the general sense of the people was, as Robert Reich puts it in The Common Good, that we all owe something to each other.
But the Republican Party in the 1950s decided that this was anathema, either because they saw the churches as exclusively being the appropriate foundation for society or because they wanted the rich to be free of social obligations — oddly giving truth to Marx’s analysis, though Americans by and large have refused to see this. We have, instead, allowed the One Percent to convince us that we are only free if they are not taxed too much.
Healthcare is an illustration of this. When I point out the many people in America who suffer or die due to our for-profit system, I am asked over and over, “whose fault is that?” The implication is, of course, that the fault does not belong to the person I am talking to. And no, it certainly cannot belong to insurance companies, or so I am told. We have shifted from a sense of collective responsibility to an urge to assign individual blame, leaving the right wing free of any sense of guilt or duty. If you have the misfortune to come down with something — childhood leukemia, major depression, or viral pneumonia — well, you should have chosen better parents. And woe be unto you if you smoked some cigarettes or ate potato chips to get you through the day as a wage slave.
By contrast, the left tends to look for programs that solve problems. We can blame the drug addict and let some die, and others go to prison, or we can offer rehabilitation and end up spending less money. We can blame people for their poor health and let emergency rooms cover needs, or we can guarantee healthcare access to everyone that includes preventative medicine, and again pay less. And we can offer thoughts, prayers, and conspiracy theories when a pandemic approaches, or we can devote the resources needed to testing and treatment to contain the outbreak.
There is a powerful motivation to assign blame, and it can be emotionally satisfying to do so, but if the ship is sinking, the more important matter is to get the pumps working or to load the lifeboats. And as the history of various financial crises reminds us, the right wing is selective about punishing those who actually did the wrong. The approach that we have taken to social problems in the last several decades, however, does a poor job of solving those harms.
To me, the reasonable strategy would be to reduce the number of people who need to be shamed. To do this, we have to restore the belief that we owe each other some measure of support. We have benefited from living in an advanced nation — as I point out to libertarians on social media, the platform we are using is the product of government research laboratories — and to go forward without giving back would be an act of gross ingratitude. A state of nature may sound appealing, but its reality is that the lack of ready-made tools, the lack of doctors, and the lack of toilet paper makes the experience a lot less glamorous than it is presented as being.
Once we get past Covid-19, we on the left need to remind everyone that the modern world with its safety net and cooperatively produced technology is what makes pandemics a thing that can be survived by most of the population. We cannot allow the heightened attention to sink back into complacency.🔷