Is COVID-19 America’s reset button?

Coronavirus disease 2019 is wreaking havoc upon the world. It has affected every aspect of life from home to work to travel. Many once busy streets are now quiet, many grocery store shelves are empty and many people are avoiding contact with the people they love most.

No matter where you stand in society, COVID-19 has almost certainly affected your life. In one way, it’s the great equalizer, hitting humans across the social spectrum, from the infirm in a nursing home to powerful political leaders.

One day, COVID-19 will not be the monster we fear today. It is seeming more likely that a drug will be developed and cut down the fatality rate within the coming months. After that, a vaccine. But even if there is a cure, the changes to our society will linger even longer than the disease.

Dysfunction exposed

COVID-19, more than anything, has exposed the American — as well as much of Earth’s — social system as being dysfunctional. Dysfunctional as in unprepared for threats that hit Americans at all walks of life. These threats not only include pandemics like Ebola and SARS, but also asteroids, supervolcano eruptions, potential famines and freshwater shortages across the globe that brought on by climate change. No matter where any of those threats originate, Americans will eventually feel the ripple effect from them.

In the U.S., it exposed the weakness of its constitutional system. For weeks, COVID-19 was dismissed by U.S. President Donald Trump as a hoax and virtually ignored by Republicans. Many Democrats took the threat seriously, but even then, they set those worries aside so that the primary process could take place on March 17.

The U.S. government as a whole didn’t take COVID-19 seriously until its citizens began to die. Even then, when the president took action, it was too little, too late. The virus was here and now it may be here to stay.

Thanks to the president’s ineptitude, the lack of action from both parties and administration-friendly media’s dismissal, there is still a lot of confusion. Many people are defying recommendations about eating out, mingling in crowds of more than ten and general hygiene. People ignoring the recommendations tend to fall into two camps: People under 65 who think it won’t harm them and right-wing voters who think it’s a hoax. Sure, there may be a few kooks who turn to naturopaths or any number of conspiracy theorists for solutions, but they are significantly fewer in numbers.

At this moment, the U.S. economy is looking grim for the near future. Unlike the Great Recession of 2008 and Reagan Crash, it looks as though this could be a fatal blow to the ideology of laissez-faire capitalism. This extreme ideology, held by the likes of Ayn Rand and Ron Paul, is essentially Social Darwinism for shallow and smug individuals who willfully adopt stupid rationales instead of admitting its flaws. This time around, they can’t blame it on bad investments, lack of saving, deficits or anything else on the list divided between “government is to blame” and “poor people are stupid.”

System shock

All of that is out the window now, with Trump and Republicans scrambling to give American adults $1,000 each in an attempt to lessen the blow. That’s a very progressive idea, similar to the Universal Basic Income proposed by former Democratic Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang.

Of course, it isn’t Yang’s idea. Once they declare the virus “defeated,” they’ll stop sending those checks. Plus, if you’ve got no other income, $1,000 a month isn’t going to go very far after you pay for rent, utilities and groceries.

Trump and the GOP have let the genie that they have tried to keep in the bottle out. Or, in reality, the genie forced its way out. Now, it doesn’t look possible to put that genie back in.

The economic recovery under Obama and Trump’s white-hot economy still left millions of Americans out in the cold. For every success story, there are dozens trapped in debt, even though they worked hard and did everything the right way. These payments are going to raise the question “how am I supposed to stimulate the economy when most of my income is going to student loans, medical bills and credit card debts?”

And there will be much in the line of credit card debt.

Even with the $1,000 payments, millions of people without work are still going to rely on their credit cards to fill the gaps. That will leave much of America in a deeper hole of debt than ever before. At that point, it could be another situation where the government will have to give its own citizens debt relief. Economies require citizens to spend their money on a diversity of things. Credit card and student loan debt kill that diversity.

Plus, there are other items that millions of Americans are going to fall behind on. One, of course, will be their mortgage payments, resulting in thousands of Americans losing their homes, like 2008. Many Americans are also paying for cars, which are a necessity in almost the entirety of America outside of its largest cities where public transport is nonexistent.

The negative effect of the COVID-19 virus in regards to the economy will snowball for years to come, especially in our society. You’ll see even more Americans hold off on starting families until they’re older. Animal shelters will begin to fill with animals people have given up because they can’t afford them. Unhappy marriages will stick together because a divorce could end up with both losing their home and other possessions. The trauma and fear left behind by the virus may lead to an increase in alcohol and drug abuse by people. It just goes on and on.

Hitting reset

If America doesn’t want to repeat the past where economic recessions lead to recoveries for the rich and everyone else either running on a treadmill and staying in place or finding themselves in a worse place than before, something has got to be done.

This doesn’t mean that Americans need to adopt socialism. But they are going to need a system that both makes it easier for them to recover and be more prosperous than before. One that protects the most vulnerable instead of the richest.

How that will (and if) it will be done remains to be seen. America is already in a state where it needs to be rebuilt. Rebuilding could take the form of starter grants for lower-income people who want want to create a business. Creating new income tax brackets for the richest Americans and removing them for those who make less than a certain amount. Creation of more civil services for Americans, particularly young ones, to work in. Expanding the government workforce on a state level. Tying the wages of the highest paid person in the company to the lowest paid person. So on and so on.

There are lots of options, but they don’t fit the mold of what many people consider the “American” way of doing things. But sticking to the “American” way of doing things could hurt our future even more. That way of thinking needs to be done away with and a new openness to creative and progressive thinking needs to be embraced.

If America wants to come out of COVID-19 stronger than before, then a reset button on its economic system is going to need to be hit. If it isn’t, then we’re going to be back in the cycle where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Weirdo who writes futurist-tinged columns about technology and science’s impact on society by night. Unfortunately, 2020 compels me to do politics too.

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