Coronavirus has exposed all of America's ancient evils

We are not discovering some unguessed consequences of the spread of a novel virus

Uncle Sam.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

The most despair-inducing thing about the crisis stemming from the coronavirus and the associated lockdowns is that nearly every aspect of it has been predictable. When we read that two thirds of Native Americans in the remote and desperately poor Upper Peninsula of Michigan are unemployed or that fentanyl overdoses are surging again in Ohio, we are not discovering some unguessed consequence of the spread of a novel virus: we are being reminded that most of the evils in the life of this country have been hiding in plain sight for some time.

More than half a century after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the most widespread and appalling disparities in American life are racial. Black Americans, who have suffered from the pandemic out of all proportion to their numbers, were already earning less for doing the same work, suffering more from the same illnesses, and living shorter lives than the rest of us. Why would things be different now?

The same goes for nursing homes, where at least a third of all deaths during this pandemic have taken place. We already knew that these places, the vast majority of which are run on a for-profit basis, are often dens of misery, as cruel as the madhouses of yore. We likewise knew that shutting down schools would be a problem, less because it interfered with learning than because public education in this country has become a babysitting service. It is, in fact, a disaster that millions of parents are incapable of feeding their own children without help from local public schools. It remains one now.

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We knew, too, that "the economy" was a mirage: a lot of numbers going up on a screen as if of their own volition, with virtually no meaningful relationship to what is happening in the world. We knew that we could never do what the Germans and Koreans have done with their native industries, which were seamlessly converted to medical supply production, because we have no native industries to speak of. We don't make things here — we just train economists to explain why it is better for other countries to do so, advice they are happy to take. We knew that millions of Americans were lonely and spending far too much time on their computers and their mobile phones; now this is the only thing millions more are able to do. We knew that there are too many guns in the hands of people who should not have them; now even more are being sold in record numbers. We knew that drug addiction and alcoholism were rampant in the post-industrial Midwest; now both are increasing. We knew that suicide was on the rise, especially in the military, where record-high numbers of active-duty servicemen were taking their own lives as of last fall; now calls to suicide hotlines are going up by as much as 800 percent as experts predict 150,000 additional deaths from drug abuse or self-murder. What exactly is new here?

The same is true of our institutions, formal and otherwise. We knew that Congress existed largely for the purpose of showboating "oversight" hearings, not for passing meaningful, well-advised legislation in a timely manner following a period of reasonable good-faith debate. We knew that our president was an irrational voluptuary, a would-be tribune of the plebs whose only redeeming quality is that he is rude to journalists. We knew that our idiotic patchwork of competing federal and state and municipal authorities, justified with lofty concepts like "federalism" and "laboratories of democracy," was anarchy in practical terms. We knew that our wonderful free press was made up of self-aggrandizing dilettantes.

Now we find all of these things coming to a head at once and we tell ourselves that we are going to solve them because we have arrived at a "crisis." This seems to me hopelessly mistaken.

If our leaders and our institutions are unable or perhaps even unwilling to address racial inequality, the plight of the elderly and other vulnerable populations, the breakdown of the family, the collapse of meaningful education, and industrial decline under what passes for ordinary circumstances, why should we expect them to rise to the occasion now? There are no political or economic incentives for our elite class to solve any problems. All they need to do instead is what has been asked of them since they were children — "show your work." They will tell us how hard they have tried; they will blame the other team, dismiss or reframe questions, and cast aspersions on anyone who objects. They will do what front-row kids always do.

Where does that leave the rest of us? Attempting to console ourselves with the knowledge that at least some of the evil around us lacks the additional horror of novelty.

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