Coronavirus Reminds Us of the Need for an Empathetic Society

The politics of cruelty are proving ineffective against a global pandemic.

Flyers at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport wearing facemasks on March 6th, 2020 as the COVID-19 coronavirus spreads throughout the United States. Courtesy of Flickr by Chad David. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Dire circumstances call for extreme measures, and it seems like under the threat of COVID-19, our society has collectively agreed upon the necessity to express forth an unusually kind view of the other, that even though we might harbor disdain for them, we’ll have to stomach it for the survival of all. Coronavirus, if its effect on people depends largely on the quality of care they can get, is going to hurt the most vulnerable in our society. But more egregious than the reticence of some governments to enact policy alleviating the plight of the needy under what seems like an economy heading towards recession, is the sustenance of a system that ensures only the privileged will be able to come out of this unscathed.

So much of what has ailed Western society since the dawn of modernity has been an embrace of individual triumph over collective prosperity. Italy’s response to the recent outbreak is emblematic of this–fueled by hubris, the government chose to scapegoat its issues onto immigrants by lacing so much of their response with xenophobia, just as Italians were transmitting the disease to each other from within, until costly repercussions forced authorities’ hands into a compulsory nationwide adoption of social distancing. The United States is currently heading towards a similar trajectory–the CDC refusing to replicate WHO’s testing was a rocky start, and the Trump administration initially downplayed the threat of the virus, masquerading it as Democrats seeking to sabotage the incumbent president’s chances of re-election.

What this gave is a recipe for imminent disaster–it wasn’t until mere days ago that calmer heads started to prevail, as the threat of the virus was crossing over partisan lines. What Republicans are advocating for right now is nothing short of what they would’ve dubbed Democrats as socialists — or even communists — for doing, which is essentially a temporary strengthening of the welfare state in an effort to curtail an economic downturn. Now that the markets are starting to emulate the themes of the 2008 recession — with JPMorgan predicting something similar will happen by July — many are wondering if the political will to aid the poor, disabled and elderly is even present. Those necessities have been known to vary culture by culture, but it’s where reckless attitudes by both public and governance that individualistic values are really starting to show their weakness.

Even those who’d typically resent the notion of a socialistic society are starting to yield–Research Director at the ‘American Economic Liberties Project’ Matt Stoller said that it would mark the end of affluence politics, wherein the insatiable lust for free markets —even when they work against the interests of the populace — would soon become unfashionable. “Affluence politics is not the politics of being wealthy, though, but rather the politics of not paying attention to what creates wealth in the first place. That is to say, it’s the politics of ignoring our ability to make and distribute the things people need,” Stoller writes. “A pandemic disease outbreak would only hasten this progression and force us back into the politics of production.”

As this view is starting to take hold, those who’ve long advocated for further government involvement in the lives of everyday people have just had their theses validated by the horrid of corporate greed–as paid sick leave is a foreign concept to America on the federal stage, many have come to realize that they can’t rely on the discretion of their employers to allow them to follow sensible guidance on reducing the spread of coronavirus. If staying at home has become of the essence, not being able to afford to do so is only an extra vector for the virus to exploit and cause further damage–as it turns out, a society tending well to the needy happens to be one perfectly equipped to handle the plights of a viral outbreak, whereas any deviation from that ideal is a surefire way to impede its efficacy.

What’s further puzzling, is the demographic that has overwhelmingly voted against universal healthcare by opting for Joe Biden instead of Bernie Sanders, would be the one most served by the policies of the latter. To say that boomers and up have resigned themselves to death instead of voting for their own interests would be an understatement–and that’s only taking into account the Democratic base, not the millions of senior Republicans who think the scarcity of welfare is playing to their advantage.

If an immediate threat like COVID-19 proved wartime solidarity couldn’t escape the claws of political polarization, one has to wonder if climate change will be any easier to deal with. Since the threat there is even more abstract and less immediate, the potential for catastrophic outcomes is impossibly-high–the current frontrunner in the Democratic lane has a climate plan that is far less ambitious than the Green New Deal, and it calls to question whether our society’s slow descent into chaos wasn’t easily avoidable, and isn’t the result of a short-sighted quest to throw Donald Trump out of the oval office, only to inherit a mess that can’t be incrementally improved upon.

The coronavirus has written capitalism’s eulogy, the people have been reciting it, and it’s up to governments globally to ratify the masses’ wish for a more equitable society. No one should be gripped by fear of bankruptcy to know whether they, or someone else is under a reasonable threat of suffering fatal consequences–to have this be a reality in the first place, is an admission that the politics of cruelty have long dominated the global stage, and if we’re to ever escape the vicious cycle of universal punishment for the mistakes of the privileged few, empathy for the struggling many has to take precedence.