Common Decency Lives

As we slide inexorably into the tunnel of coronavirus fear and despair, here are some candles of hope.

Back in the days of Andrew Jackson, the French scholar Alexis de Tocqueville toured this country and wrote a book called Democracy in America.  Among the many remarkable things that he reported was his observation that, wherever he went, people organized themselves to deal with their problems.  They didn’t wait for higher authority to tell them what to do.  They saw what needed to be done and did it.

In these perilous times of pandemic, when our national government seems paralyzed, we are seeing just that spirit reemerge.  As this article reports, governors, local officials, small business owners and volunteers are stepping in all across the country.

Governors of both parties have taken affirmative steps to slow the spread of the virus by shutting down venues where large numbers might gather and transmit the disease, including schools.  Universities across the country have made decisions to shut down their campuses and conduct classes on-line.  All major athletic associations, from interscholastic and intercollegiate to professional, have suspended their seasons.

Just in my local area, two recent headlines (The Sunday Item, March 15) inspired me.  First, a regional medical center, Geisinger, rather than wait for the uncertain supplies of coronavirus tests from federal authorities, just developed their own test kit.  Second, faced with the imminent loss of in-school meals for needy students, as schools shut down, a local businessman and volunteers worked to make sure that those students would still get good meals.

This was the spirit that Tocqueville saw; this is the spirit that we all know.   It lives still.

That’s the good news.

The bad news.  Well, for starters, this pandemic threatens the whole country and the whole world.  There is an urgent need for national leadership that sets national responses, and coordinates responses with other countries worldwide.  To date we are not getting that.

More bad news.  The costs of this pandemic will be astronomical and widely distributed. Obviously the entire health care system is and will be severely stressed.  All kinds of supplies and equipment will be in short supply.  Medical personnel will be under intolerable strain.  More broadly, whole sectors of the economy are being shut down.  Closing retail businesses could be fatal to many of them (though very good for Amazon).  Service workers, often working multiple gigs at low wages with no benefits, will suddenly see their thin shreds of security ripped away.  These are precisely the people who often have no health insurance.

We are in short heading into a deep recession that will disproportionately hurt the poorest workers and the smallest businesses.

Only the federal government can mobilize the needed resources and get them to those who need them.  And the federal government (President and Congress) seem to date unable to agree on a remedy proportional to the threat.  We need a major and rapid federal intervention that not only bails out the airlines (as President Trump proposes) but puts substantial cash in the hands of the poorest people and the smallest businesses, because they are most vulnerable to the economic havoc that confronts us.

The “can-do” spirit that Tocqueville saw is indispensable—but it can’t do it all.

John Peeler is the former chairman (now retired) of the Political Science department at Bucknell University.