The mightiest Empire ever to have existed is being brought down by a bug. Aesop had nothing to say about this, but someone out there will know whether the situation is unique. (I breathed a sigh of relief upon learning that the former British Foreign Secretary, one of the ubiquitous Cameron brothers, is heading the International Relief Center for the Corona Response in camps where refugees from Turkey end up, and in Gaza. I wouldn’t want him to be without a job.)
Hand-washing will serve in future as the ideogram representing the most devastating epidemic since the Black Death wiped out an estimated 75 to 200 million people in Medieval Eurasia, however this one is worldwide. China, with one point four million people, got control over the scourge in just a few months, while the land of the free must find ways to bring emergency funds to workers and small businesses without appearing authoritarian! (In the same vein, the Republican leader of the Senate ruled out ‘socialistic’ nationalizations of vital medical industries.)
The link between the rejection of authoritarianism and the ancient principle that captains must go down with their ship is individual responsibility, now applied selectively: the American congress has been arguing for days over how to divide the financial pie between industry and workers idled by the virus. Progressives want to make sure that the lions’ share doesn’t go to big business, as it did after the 2008 economic meltdown. Surely workers should come first? Under free market capitalism, that’s up for debate.
Notwithstanding America’s lofty founding principles, several members of Congress benefited from early information about the virus by selling affected stocks. However, they can’t agree on the amount individual workers will receive, how it will be calculated, or even how to get the money to them as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, it can only plead with landlords and mortgage holders to put their legitimate claims on hold until they figure this thing out.
As the last few states to hold primary elections scramble to enable people to submit absentee ballots, there are fears that in November, a virus rather than a malicious adversary could prevent the presidential election from being ‘free and fair’.
I’m old enough to remember the ‘home front’ during World War II, when even children did their part, selling US Savings bonds, knitting socks for GI’s, rolling bandages or loading food trays in hospital kitchens. The only thing today’s children can do is stay at home and watch Donald Trump affirm one false fact after the other. Luckily, he is corrected by the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, who speaks as a president should, and is also carried on all three networks. Cuomo also has the added advantage of being a decade younger than the two Democratic contenders, whose legislative experience cannot compare with running the most populous state in the nation.
This brings me to my last point: power in the United States is shared between the federal government in Washington, and the states, whose highest official is the governor. Since the days of the country’s founding, the ethos of individualism has been formally embodied in jealously guarded “States’ Rights”, which often pit the periphery against the center. Suddenly, the Corona crisis shows the advantage of ‘authoritarianism’ — or even the undisputed central authority that most modern states enjoy. Medical workers need to change their masks between patients, but the federal government cannot requisition the two or three billion that will be needed without prior legislation, leaving the states to compete by bidding up prices, and appealing to industrial workers to surrender their protective devices to hospitals.
Unlike other advanced countries, the US does not mandate paid sick leave, so the Senate must decide how much of their salary employees will get while they are idle. It is taken for granted that the government will provide emergency funding for unemployment insurance, and subsidize employers, who normally would be allowed to let workers go.
Tens of thousands have died in the West’s century-long battle against socialism’. Finally, the Corona Virus is forcing cowboy capitalism to admit that rugged individualism must be balanced by a commitment to community. All it needs now is a safe way off the sinking ship.
Deena Stryker is a US-born international expert, author and journalist that lived in Eastern and Western Europe and has been writing about the big picture for 50 years. Over the years she penned a number of books, including Russia’s Americans. Her essays can also be found at Otherjones. Especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.