Medical authorities tell us that people with pre-existing health conditions are more likely than healthier persons to succumb to COVID-19. It’s a tragic reality. But just as pre-existing health conditions are a challenge to physical viability, sociological and cultural pre-conditions are onerous to society. Here are five socio-cultural pre-conditions that influenced why the pandemic in America took hold and how it has evolved.
LACK OF PREPAREDNESS
For decades, America has underinvested in public systems that support society’s welfare. Worse yet, the current Federal administration has devolved and de-structured agencies and programs. The combination is a toxic stew that goes well beyond the domain of public health. It also applies to roads and bridges. Water and sewer systems. Housing. Early childhood and child care programs. Public education through college. Climate change. The list goes on.
We undervalue those domains by design. Prevailing political preferences make it so. The government is too big. Deregulate. Cut taxes. Let the non-profit sector do it. Free up financial markets to operate and expand. Everybody benefits from trickle-down. Nurture entrepreneurship. If people can’t make it on their own, they deserve the consequences.
As a society, we are reaping what we have sown. And what we’re experiencing today will happen again unless we commit ourselves to a profoundly different way of thinking and proceeding. This is how the editorial board of Financial Times put it (April 3): “Radical reforms—reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades—will need to be put on the table. Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure. Redistribution will again be on the agenda…and policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix.”
People living in poverty are affected disproportionately during natural disasters, especially populations of color. We saw that happen in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It happened during the deadly Chicago heatwave of 1995. It’s happening again today with COVID-19.
Michigan is an example. As of April 5, Michigan is overrepresented nationally by population size in terms of the impact of COVID-19 on its people, ranking 3th both in the number of confirmed cases and deaths. Economics is one reason that’s happening. “43% of Michiganders in 2017 were either below the federal poverty line or the ALICE threshold (Asset Limited, Income Restrained, and Employed), meaning that almost half of the state’s households were unable to meet their basic needs,” reports Susan Demas in Michigan Advance.
COVID-19’s impact on Michigan isn’t a one-off. It’s part of a pattern. “Natural disasters are an act of God,” a physician told a documentarian not long ago, “but humans created poverty.” Now is the time for humans to respond firmly to the pandemic called ‘poverty.’
Confirmation bias has gripped America. With beliefs/conclusions held tightly, many people seek information and perspectives that reinforce what they already believe. Cultural and market forces contribute to the malaise. Americans don’t read as much as we once did. When they do read, many read materials that reinforce, rather than challenge, their thinking. Social networking platforms, like Facebook, feed ideas and thoughts from like-minded friends. 24-hour news networks have displaced descriptive reporting with full-throated commentary.
When a crisis hits, and people are desperate to decipher facts from speculation, they often find ‘news’ that’s slanted and attenuated, if not adulterated.
The outcome? When a crisis hits, and people are desperate to decipher facts from speculation, they often find ‘news’ that’s slanted and attenuated, if not adulterated. Based on a study of news in America over the last 30 years, the RAND Corporation labeled the outcome “truth decay.”
In this environment, the best alternatives are non-commercial sources, such as the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio, and outlets that have a tradition of uncompromising investigative reporting (e.g., ‘in the public interest’ sources, such as ProPublica). Also impressive are a number of national newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, and municipal/regional newspapers, like The Buffalo News.
UNDERDEVELOPED CLAIM-EVALUATION SKILLS
For weeks, not a day has gone by that I haven’t had to evaluate a claim I’ve received about Coronavirus and how we should respond. I started taking notes about why. Here are four sources of dismay.
First, nonsense is coming from those who unilaterally reject science as a way of knowing, spurn scientists, and discredit scientific communications. A second source comes by way of politicization. Crafty perpetrators create ‘it looks to be authentic’ posts designed to sway opinion in a direction they prefer. They do it by mixing claims substantiated claims with claims that aren’t. Third, there are examples of people ‘jumping on” and sharing partial information, but not the complete story. And, finally, there is the matter of science literacy. Some people find it challenging to read/interpret data and understand terms that scientists/researchers use to describe/explain their work. That challenge also afflicts general-purpose reporters who have limited, if any, science background. Without well-developed capacity to decipher data and information appropriately, sometimes the general public and reporters share information they should not.
Because the internet is a portal to source documentation, anybody can fact-check assertions. But many people don’t have access to the web and/or know how to fact-check claims. To address those issues, colleges/universities and the public library system should use the pandemic as an opportunity to teach the public and reporters about science and the scientific method, including how to use data/information to evaluate claims and what constitutes a defensible conclusion.
In the meantime, here’s something we can all do. Don’t share material drawn uncritically from public platforms. Only share posts that can be verified independently. And do not accept claims uncritically, even if it comes from a source you trust. Doing otherwise can infect society with another form of virus—mistruth.
UNBRIDLED FAITH IN ‘THE SYSTEM’
For me, the biggest takeaway from experiencing the pandemic is how quickly our seemingly immutable system came to a halt. America shut down. And the standstill wasn’t a result of conventional war or a new threat via terrorism or cyberwarfare. It came by way of the oldest of all human combatants, communicable disease.
Today isn’t the first time disease has brought society to its knees. “The Black Death” of the 14th Century reportedly killed 60% of Europe’s population. In the early 20th Century, 50 million people worldwide died during the Spanish Flu pandemic—675,000 in the U.S.
Despite making huge scientific and technical advances, in 2020 we’re facing the very same fate. And only hubris and arrogance say it won’t happen again.
Of course, we need to do everything possible to protect ourselves. But here’s a companion option—and an extraordinary one, too. We need to embrace the fact that we are vulnerable.
Americans don’t like to use that word because it’s anathema to the ethic of American Exceptionalism. But accepting it could produce national soul-searching about what life in society should mean, especially if we believe and act as though ‘we are all in this together.’ The problem is that America hasn’t had a serious conversation like that for quite a long time—not since the 1960s with the influence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, and LBJ’s “Great Society.”
It’s time again. But will we seize the opportunity? The answer depends on how we frame ‘we.’ All too often we frame ‘we’ at the national level, and look to national politicians to lead the way. But ‘we’ is also your household, extended family, social network, neighborhood, community, and affiliate institutions and organizations.
Nothing is stopping us from having ‘that conversation’ here, there, and everywhere. And who knows? If that happens enough, the outcomes may trickle-up. And wouldn’t that be a welcome change?
You can listen to this article—and other contributions from Frank Fear—via Frank’s podcast, Under the Radar. Hosted by Anchor.FM and available there for listening, it is also available at Breaker, RadioPublic, Pocket Casts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, and Spotify.