Of pandemics and protests, democracy’s renewal

Is there a connection between the corona crisis and the protests in response to the murder of George Floyd by police officers?  Well, certainly one can’t prove causality.  But I do believe the pandemic has served as a microscope of festering social ills, inequities, and discrimination in American society, just as Floyd’s killing has highlighted institutional racism.

The pandemic put into sharp focus the fact that many Americans work paycheck to paycheck, gig to gig.  They are a broad mix of servers, retail workers, musicians, travel agents, babysitters, fast-food cooks, etc. For a man, losing a job in February can mean eviction in March. The US lacks robust social safety nets, unemployment insurance, let alone a decent minimum wage to allow workers to accumulate savings.  Americans also lack universal healthcare, so once they are unemployed, they often lose health insurance.

“Shelter in place” in itself embodies privilege. Working from home is a luxury, and for the unemployed, staying home requires savings.  So the pandemic is not the “great equalizer” some have touted.  It is unequal in its impact, hurting the waitress more than the hedge fund manager, and ballooning the population of the poor and vulnerable.

As the economic fallout is unequal, so is the pandemic’s impact on elections. Just as communities of color are disproportionately targeted by voter suppression efforts insincerely aimed at “preventing fraud” during elections in non-pandemic times, they have also been more likely to face long lines, fewer poll workers, and unsafe conditions during recent elections in Wisconsin and Georgia.

The disease itself also does not affect people equally. We are witnessing a horrifying discrepancy in the number of African-Americans hospitalized and dying from the virus.  Though representing only 13% of the American population, one-third of deaths from corona are African Americans. Experts attribute this to poor pre-existing health conditions, but this is linked to systemic factors like a lack of universal healthcare, sub-standard access to care, and deeply entrenched (and well documented) racism in health service delivery.

As my father often said, the worst folks are those who “were born on third base but think they hit a triple.”  We are not all on first base here with an equal opportunity to hit the ball and round the bases. Baseball metaphors aside, we, of course, knew this before corona,  but the pandemic has brought all these gaping inequities and system failures to the surface.

The social contract in the democratic process is broken. Democracy has failed to deliver.  The deal was that we would elect representatives who would represent us, the public, and pass legislation to ensure our well-being, opportunities, and equal protection under the law. If they did not, they would not be reelected. The elite capture of our system has thwarted that elegant theory. Our representative bodies do not look at all like our country. Congress is mostly comprised of old, white men, many of whom are millionaires. Voices of women, communities of color, youth, and the poor are absent. Add to that an electoral college, and egregious gerrymandering, that allows the minority to rule the majority.

Political parties, the traditional gatekeepers of power, are also not inclusive and stuck in another century, which is simply meaningless to many younger Americans. The influence of money has shifted accountability from voters to the Koch brothers and others who fund campaigns and lobbyists to ensure their tax cuts and deregulation.

Americans have been bubbling with a combination of fury (“drain the swamp!”), which was successfully manipulated by, and led to the Molotov cocktail of, Donald Trump, and despondent apathy – democracy ain’t working for them.

The world watched aghast as a police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd for almost nine minutes, killing him in broad daylight while the other officers aided and abetted. Did the coronavirus make this happen?  Obviously not, as extrajudicial killings of black men and women by law enforcement happens regularly and deep systemic racism in our institutions – particularly, though not exclusively, police and justice systems – is a long-standing reality.

The protests that have erupted are also not entirely new – we get angry and then somehow attention is diverted. The broken system churns onward, we continue to elect leaders, despise Congress, and so on.

A man holding an American flag stands on Seventh Avenue in New York during a Black Lives Matter protest against police brutality. EPA-EFE//JUSTIN LANE

But I am hopeful that this combination of the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd has struck a demand in all of us, that we will not go back to the way things were.  I wonder if the frustration about the pandemic’s unequal impact didn’t help motivate protesters?  Or perhaps being stuck at home spending more time watching the news could have galvanized some. Either way, could it present an opportunity to rebuild (build for the first time, really, given that it has never been there for large swaths of the population) the social contract between state and society?

The fact that even the GOP passed socialist policies such as unemployment insurance, minimum basic income, and access to free coronavirus health care was quite something.  (Albeit, many have already shifted to a “law and order!” agenda.) Another crisis will certainly come, and perhaps we realize now we must have a responsive, representative state, strong safety nets, and a resilient population to weather it.

This requires not just “addressing” social and economic inequality and racism with modest, trim-at-the-edges reforms but full-scale democratic renewal. It will require finally committing to political finance overhaul, rethinking political parties, and electoral reform.  It’s a call to enhance accountability, oversight, and public participation in legislative bodies to deliver responsive policies to citizens. Yes, that could lead to wiping out existing policing as we know it.  It could Andrew Yang’s universal income. It should most certainly mean universal health care. It is also an opportunity to energize the demand side of the democracy equation through resilient communities – ones with social cohesion, trust in local leaders, and resistance to disinformation and manipulation.

We could explore new types of community safety bodies, investments in local social infrastructure from girl scouts to recreation centers, and comprehensive civic education and media literacy campaigns.

The optimist in me needs to believe that all this pain, the pandemic and sustained protests, whether linked or simply overlapping, will jolt us out of complacency and inspire us to fight for democracy.

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