In a post-Covid era, the dividing line between Americans who cared during the pandemic and those who didn’t, compound existing divisions, writes Lincoln Mitchell.
New York (Brussels Morning) In the last few months, the news on COVID-19 in the US is looking a little better. In the days leading up to his inauguration, Joe Biden set what seemed at the time to be an ambitious goal of vaccinating one million Americans a day. In the last few weeks, we have substantially exceeded that number. Positive cases and deaths are significantly down from a month or two ago, and Americans are beginning to think about their post-pandemic lives. To the relief of millions of parents, schools are reopening, and it is very likely that almost all classes will be substantially or fully held in-person by the beginning of the next school year.
The virus is still dangerous, however, with illness and death continuing and good health protocols remain important, such as wearing masks and social distancing. The curve, however, is clearly in the right direction. These changes are not coincidental; they reflect compassion and competence, rather than denial and disinformation, coming from the White House.
When the US emerges from the pandemic we will have to reckon with the decisions and mistakes we made and with the cost in death and suffering brought about by America’s mishandling of the pandemic. The most obvious place to start is with former US president Donald Trump whose willful ignorance, disinformation campaign, contempt for expertise and sheer incompetence qualifies his handling of the pandemic as a possible crime against humanity. Trump and his Republicans enablers at the state, local and national level are largely responsible for turning a public health crisis into a catastrophe that has cost more American lives than any US military conflict other than the Civil War.
There is no shortage of politicians who must be held accountable, not for honest mistakes, but for deliberately ignoring science, downplaying the gravity of the disease, therefore, making the pandemic worse. However, the blame does not lie with politicians alone.
Throughout the course of the pandemic, a substantial proportion of Americans, whose political allegiance lay mostly with Trump and other Covid-denying Republicans, have also chosen to ignore the guidance of scientists and public health experts. Those Americans who hid behind cowardly and sophomoric ideas of freedom and refused to wear masks, or who continued to ignore health guidelines on group gatherings are complicit as well.
We will never know how many people died because other Americans didn’t bother to think about the others in this pandemic, but the number is probably quite substantial. In addition, it is apparent that those who refused to wear masks and ignored social distancing protocols not only directly contributed to the deaths of Americans but were free riders who took advantage of an America that was safer because of the sacrifices of others.
Those of us who wore masks, remained at home as much as possible, avoided unnecessary crowded indoor spaces and the like not only made ourselves safer, but reduced the spread of the virus to essential workers and those who had to go out, but also to those who selfishly decided to ignore the health protocols. Many who refused to wear masks cited a somewhat surreal claim it had something to do with rights or freedom, but what they were really doing was taking advantage of the goodwill, common sense and decency of others.
New dividing line
Thus, in an America that is increasingly defined by divisions and polarisation, a new dividing line is emerging as we approach the post-Covid era. As we gradually get back to normal, or something approaching it, we are faced with the difficult reality that some Americans made sacrifices to try to control the disease while others willfully spread the disease.
This new division reinforces existing ones and has for almost a year now been another wedge between red and blue America. Many will want to ignore this as we move past Covid, but we cannot do that. Ignoring the misdeeds of Trump and his followers may, in the short run, begin to smooth tensions over, but in the bigger picture make it impossible for the US to meaningfully move forward.
Covid has had a traumatic effect on the US. Over half a million lives have been lost. We still do not know how many who survived Covid will have long term health consequences. The indirect impact of COVID-19 can also be seen in the rise of substance abuse, mental health challenges, domestic violence and for many young people almost a year of not being able to attend school in person. America’s year of Covid has also ripped apart an already very damaged social fabric.
The task of bringing America together in some way was always going to be difficult, but the grim reality that out of some warped sense of personal freedom millions of Americans contributed to the deaths of thousands of their fellow citizens, makes a bad situation much worse.