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Will The Coronavirus Push Us From Cruelty To A ‘Politics Of Care’?

Will The Coronavirus Push Us From Cruelty To A ‘Politics Of Care’?


“Epidemic diseases are not random events that afflict societies capriciously and without warning,” writes historian Frank M. Snowden in his most recent book, “Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present.” To the contrary, “every society produces its own specific vulnerabilities. To study them is to understand that society’s structure, its standard of living, and its political priorities.”

What does the growing coronavirus pandemic teach us about the United States? About our vulnerabilities and priorities? In the Boston Review, Yale Law School professors Amy Kapczynski and Gregg Gonsalves assess that, here, the virus “is a crisis of social solidarity and social investment,” one that “shine[s] a light on the cruelty of American life as it has been constructed for much of our lifetimes.”

That cruelty is reflected in how we divide, blame, punish, and exploit the vulnerable, pushing people down while at the same time screaming at them to get up. Our healthcare system is “rapaciously profit-driven” and excludes huge segments of people. We are, Kapczynski and Gonsalves write, “austerity-ravaged,” without an adequate social safety net or investments in public health programs. And we use a racist system of mass incarceration to deal with widespread health problems like mental illness and addiction. On the whole, it’s a system that leaves people to fend for themselves and then punishes those who falter.

That’s a terrible state of affairs when a public health crisis exposes our shared vulnerability. Successfully fighting or preparing for an epidemic disease requires understanding “that we’re all in this together, that what affects one person anywhere affects everyone everywhere,” Snowden told the New Yorker. “We need to think in that way rather than about divisions of race and ethnicity [and] economic status.”

The good news is that, according to new polling, American voters are thinking that way now. A new report from The Justice Collaborative and Data for Progress (I co-authored the report) shows broad bipartisan support for responding to the pandemic with aggressive government intervention to protect the most vulnerable and at-risk. That includes paid sick and family leave for all workers, along with free testing, vaccines, and comprehensive care. Some of these policies are included in the federal relief bill that cleared the House of Representatives over the weekend, though the polling supports relief that goes further—for example, by providing no-cost vaccines in addition to testing, and extending paid leave protections to freelance workers and employees at large corporations, two groups currently excluded from the relief legislation.

This broad demand for care in response to crisis echoes what Rebecca Solnit described in her book “A Paradise Built in Hell,” about how disasters—whether fires or earthquakes or epidemics—can unearth a spirit of collective good buried beneath a prevailing politics of individualism and unbridled capitalism. Ordinarily, she writes, we give in to the economic presumption that “we seek personal gain for rational reasons,” and we “refrain from looking at the ways a system skewed to that end damages much else we need for our survival and desire for our well-being.” But when disaster strikes, and “all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up—not all, but the great preponderance—to become their brothers’ keepers.” In the process, “our sense of what is possible” can change. “If paradise now arises in hell,” she writes, “it’s because in the suspension of the usual order and the failure of most systems, we are free to live and act another way.”

Indeed, each day with the coronavirus yields new proof that we are free to live in a different, more caring way. In Slate, Dan Kois compiled numerous examples of governments and corporations discarding punitive policies because of the virus, revealing how there was no good reason to enforce them in the first place. All of a sudden, some corporations are providing paid sick leave to low-wage workers, cities are protecting people from eviction, and utility companies in some places are leaving the power and water turned on despite nonpayment.

“As long as COVID-19 remains a health concern,” said Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, “no Detroit resident should have concerns about whether their water service will be interrupted.” Well, Kois writes, “why in the hell should any Detroit resident have concerns about their water service being interrupted, ever? Shouldn’t clean water be the absolute base level of service delivered by a city to its residents?”

The criminal legal system is also being scaled back. County jails are releasing people early and police departments are reducing arrests. Los Angeles has cut back from an average of about 300 arrests per day to 60. That’s because, according to BuzzFeed News, “those who can just be cited without being booked at local jails are being released,” which sounds a lot like a reason that could apply all the time, not just in the midst of a global pandemic.

“In every single one of these cases,” Kois writes, “it’s not just that most of these practices are accepted as ‘standard.’ It’s that they are a way to punish people, to make lives more difficult, or to make sure that money keeps flowing upward. Up until now, activists and customers have been meant to believe that the powers that be could never change these policies—it would be too expensive, or too unwieldy, or would simply upset the way things are done. But now, faced suddenly with an environment in which we’re all supposed to at least appear to be focused on the common good, the rule-makers have decided it’s OK to suspend them.”

The question now is: Will this last?

Will more policies that tear people down be replaced by measures to provide support, giving people access to housing, food, and healthcare when they may have no other income? Will we truly learn from this crisis and commit to long-term social and political change? Can we dispense with cruelty and promote, as Kapczynski and Gonsalves call for in the Boston Review, a “politics of care”?

It’s an ominous sign when the president assembles a group of CEOs at a Rose Garden coronavirus press conference to lavish them with praise, and meanwhile our inboxes are flooded with emails from seemingly every corporation with which we’ve ever interacted, assuring us that they are monitoring the situation, adhering to best practices, and have our best interests in mind.

In “A Paradise Built in Hell,” Solnit recalls that, after Hurricane Katrina, she “heard the infamous former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Michael Brown tell a group of disaster experts that business was the best leader of recovery because business had the best interests of the community at heart—a curious statement, to say the least.” After Katrina and other disasters, Solnit saw permanent change stymied because of “the men in power who provided some relief and got the city going again but also reinstated the old injustices and discriminations. They acted in their own self-interest as often or more often than in the public interest and sometimes viewed the public as an enemy to be conquered, controlled, and contained. The brief solidarity and harmony ended in part because the business community pitted its interests against those of the majority.”

Right now, the majority is calling for change, and we have seen, in myriad examples across the country, that change is possible—that policies of care are both popular and pragmatic, even necessary to the common good. It is true, after all, that we’re all in this together, and that will remain true whether we learn from this or not.

Kyle C. Barry is senior legal counsel for the Justice Collaborative. The Daily Appeal and The Appeal are editorially independent projects of the Justice Collaborative.