Has COVID-19 provided the upheaval necessary to change America?

Has COVID-19 provided the upheaval necessary to change America?
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Many have spoken and written recently about our nation’s return to “normal” from the coronavirus shutdown. Some have suggested a “new normal” that corrects America’s pre-existing weaknesses that were laid bare by the pandemic. These weaknesses include a harmful level of political dysfunction and ineffective governance; assault on facts, truth and trust for political or financial gain, even by our president; and severe inequality in income, wealth and health care that can have cruel impacts.

We need a grassroots social movement that will result in a “better normal,” a movement that is committed to accomplishing the following:

Competently and compassionately managing our way through the pandemic. Public health experts have made clear what we must do to protect the most vulnerable and our essential workers, and to begin restoring economic activity without unnecessary risk. It won’t be easy or quick, but it is not impossible. We also need to honor and bury our dead while caring for those whose recoveries are long and difficult. There’s much we still don’t know about COVID-19, and the virus undoubtedly will present us with surprises requiring adaptation.

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Feeding, housing and clothing Americans who cannot do so themselves. We don’t know how to do this. It will require federal, state and local assistance and support on a massive scale. We also need to look beyond ourselves and help people around the world where we have the capacity to do so.

Rebuilding our communities, citizenship, infrastructures and our economy. The systems of politics, economics and education that we had before the virus struck will have to suffice to get us started, but we must pursue changing them at every opportunity. All of us must vote; we need to take the money out of politics, stop gerrymandering and no longer reward partisan tribal behaviors with our votes. We must consume less, save more and invest the savings in rebuilding our physical and educational infrastructures. 

In light of our accumulated debt, we are in uncharted waters when it comes to financing this transition and rebuilding. Increasing the minimum wage, tax reform, reining in the financial sector and ridding ourselves of monopolies must be followed with changes to corporate governance that increase companies’ social responsibility. Americans don’t need a universal basic income; we need to value education, health care and the public good of a great society, a respected world leader, and start providing for them. There is plenty of work to be done.

Reforming and replacing institutions, processes, laws, regulations, systems and norms. This will be hard work of unprecedented complexity. We’ll all be required to participate in this reform and spend more time fulfilling the responsibilities of citizenship. These efforts must be voluntary and will require us to forgo entertainments and distractions, to move away from fantasyland and toward reality. We must learn to make technology a choice, and to reject the latest “bright, shiny things” when they don’t make our lives or our society better.

Creating a new American Dream. The American Dream of old was that equality of opportunity is available to all, enabling anyone to achieve the highest goals and aspirations. The goals and aspirations we most often collectively chose were wealth, material things and societal status. A great nation and a great people should dream of lives that mean more than that. COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to reimagine our Dream.

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This social movement will happen only if there is a consensus among Americans that we have had enough — we know we can do far better in protecting one another from tragedy, upheaval and disruption. Those who blame others present a useless distraction. We must believe that we are not helpless and that others can’t make the changes we need. Having reflected on what really matters, we must agree that we want to live in a country where fairness, honesty, hopefulness and generosity prevail. We must show each other we are willing to listen with respect and empathy.  We must be willing to work together, to rebuild trust, share sacrifice, be civil, respect consensus and compromise. 

Great sacrifice, compassion and self-discipline will be required of us all, but it is the wealthy and privileged who must lead. Paying more in taxes is not nearly enough; they must lead in accomplishing these dramatic changes. I am hopeful that this terrible virus has awakened everyone to what is at stake, and shown the privileged the necessity of joining with the grassroots. A return to the “normal” that we had is not what’s best for America, or them.

Is it in us to create this new America? Are we too cynical, uninformed and self-absorbed to change? COVID-19 compels us to recognize what really matters in our lives, families, relationships, communities, shared needs, mutual responsibilities — indeed, our humanity. 

Perhaps, having weathered these past few months, we will have more gratitude for those who provide our food. We will remember that fact-based decision-making and honest, competent leadership can reassure us during difficult times. We will be more aware of not just the knowledge, skills and commitment of our health care professionals but also their compassion. With grace under pressure they’ve shown us that all under their care are important, all have a life story. In the worst of times, they made time to look into their patients’ eyes and hold their hands. That alone gives me hope that we are up to the task ahead.

John J. Grossenbacher retired in 2003 as U.S. Navy vice admiral and commander of the U.S. Naval Submarine Forces, following a 33-year naval career. He directed the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory for 10 years, overseeing scientific and engineering research in nuclear and other energy resources, the environment and homeland security.