Opinion: After the pandemic

At some point, the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic will have passed us by and we will be outside together enjoying the daffodils, tulips, greening grass and the warming rays of the spring sun. Unfortunately, no one knows what the next few weeks or months will bring; yet I am optimistic that we will end up on the other side of this calamity stronger, more unified and resilient.

It may seem macabre to see the good in a pandemic which will bring pain and suffering to many. But I believe that we must find the good and transformation in events that test us. If we do not learn and grow from tragedies that befall us or mistakes that we make then we are failing as humans and as citizens of our country. I am optimistic about what our world will be like on the other side of this pandemic. I know that in our current state of political chaos that seems like a ridiculous thing to say but please allow me to explain my thinking. 

For many years now many have felt that our nation has been looking not at a bright future but a dark and foreboding one. It is not hard to see why many have felt that way. Consider a short list of all the calamities that have befallen us in the past 40 odd years: climate change, the widening wealth gap, the increasing power and consolidation of corporations, the insidious growth of the security state, the slow and agonizing death of print and local journalism, the loss of local community. 

These social degradations created a political stasis and crisis, the culmination of which led to the election of the current occupant of the White House. The past 40 years of political and economic unraveling were in fact what produced the presidency of Mr. Donald Trump. Most Americans who voted for him did so not because they were simply racist, misogynistic or xenophobic (although some certainly were). They voted for him because they, like myself, have seen our country become a place where the rich get richer, the powerful get more so, and the poor and the middle class get marginalized and steamrolled.  

This great unraveling was a byproduct of the political philosophy known as neoliberalism that took hold in America starting in the early 1980s. Its central tenet is that there is no problem man has that cannot be solved by the market. It seeks to allow market economics to rule every aspect of human life. It does this at the cost of considering the public good; it has ushered in, in the words of the economist Kenneth Galbraith, an “era of private opulence and public poverty”. The three policy pillars of neoliberalism are, as per author Naomi Klein, “privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector and the lowering of corporate and income taxes paid for with cuts to public spending”.  

Consider three examples of neoliberal policy and the chaos they unleashed. The repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which allowed relatively conservative consumer-oriented banks to become more lucrative yet far riskier investment banks, led ultimately to the 2008 financial meltdown. NAFTA, which in the apocryphal words of Ross Perot caused a “great sucking sound” as jobs rushed out of our country and into countries where labor was cheaper and regulations were scant. The 1996 Telecommunications Act, which deregulated ownership rules on media properties, led to the virtual elimination of small media organizations with six corporations owning 90% of the country’s media outlets.

How is all this relevant to the COVID-19 epidemic? Here is where we see good can come from a catastrophe; or more precisely, how a catastrophe can rapidly lead to necessary and overdue change in a society that had been unable to change prior to its occurrence. Let’s consider some brief historical comparisons between our current age and some other episodes of American history.

In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) took office as the Great Depression ravaged the nation. Similar to our current age, the deregulation and excess of the prior decade led to that nadir. FDR worked tirelessly to push and pull the economy forward. He did so with some limited success, but it was not until we joined the war that the nation finally began to turn the page and become an economic powerhouse, producing the “Arsenal of Democracy” and the Marshall Plan.  

In 1865 the Civil War commenced. Out of that awful carnage came the breaking of the chains of bondage for millions of African Americans along with the beginning of an era of unrivaled economic growth and territorial expansion for a newly industrialized and reunified United States. 

These two historical precedents were transformative catalysts for change. They revealed the rot underlying the systems that preceded them. They upended the status quo and allowed for near immediate and lasting political change. They allowed Americans to put aside regional or class-based animosities and differences. The effects are not everlasting and it wasn’t entirely clean or simple, but change did occur, and the country ended up the better for it.

I am hopeful that this pandemic can do something similar. It will reveal the shortcomings of our current political and economic system. We have for far too long allowed the market and business interests to dominate our government. We have abandoned the notion that the government can do good. More must be done to rebuild our public infrastructure; more must be done to protect the poor, the elderly and, it is clear now, the health of our citizens. 

Most importantly, I am hopeful that it will reveal once again that we as a nation of citizens share so much more in common than we do in difference. By forcing us to see the frailty and humanity in all of us I am hopeful that this pandemic, as it fades, will leave behind a wiser and kinder nation. One ready for real meaningful and permanent political and economic change. 

Matthew Scott is a physician assistant and is an assistant professor in the School of Health Professions at Rutgers University. He is the mayor of Cranbury.