Column: The mechanisms of progress have been crippled

  • Steve Nelson

For the Valley News
Published: 5/22/2020 10:10:17 PM
Modified: 5/22/2020 10:10:03 PM

It will take decades, not months or years, to recover from this pandemic. The greatest damage will not be medical or economic. It will be to our society.

The medical recovery, we all hope, will be months, not years or decades. The scientific effort is unprecedented. Most reports, while appropriately cautious, indicate that a vaccine is likely and that this virus does not mutate in ways that can cause the most perplexing problems. Medical treatments like remdesivir show real promise for mitigating the most dreadful outcomes and reducing mortality.

Eventually, the economic recovery will also proceed apace, although not at President Donald Trump’s fictional gallop. I’ll bet my 401(k) that next year will not be stupendous. I guess I already have! The recession will be deep and the effects will be felt for years.

But there is something else going on that receives scant attention. The “something else” is what will have the most profound impact. While a nation copes with the many daunting challenges of the pandemic, many of the mechanisms of progress are being crippled — quite intentionally. The Republican Party is using the pandemic as a smokescreen to achieve the “drowning of government in the bathtub” that has been a decades-long goal.

The best and worst of human behavior are on display under pandemic stress. But neither will persist when the air clears.

On the positive side, many cite the blooms of generosity emerging in the midst of the pandemic. A New Yorker magazine piece by Jia Tolentino chronicles the flowering of a “mutual aid” movement around country. Compassionate souls are gathering in pods of peace and justice — delivering food to the hungry and caring for the elderly. Many examples of this are apparent in the Upper Valley. It offers a sense of hope for humanity — a new way to live and love together. But this is a broad manifestation of the way in which charity and justice are conflated. Justice requires lasting, systemic commitment. Charity is necessary, insufficient and too often fleeting.

On the negative side we see man-children in military garb, brandishing assault weapons and acting as though demanding that nail salons and biker bars open is to be Rosa Parks. I call it the Liberty Militia, an oxymoron if ever there was.

Maskless marauders defy medical guidance as if to channel Martin Luther King Jr. while shouting to the heavens, “Free at last! Free at last!” “Give me my brew pub, or give me death!” It’s happening in the Upper Valley too, suggesting that the New Hampshire motto be amended to “Live Free and Die.”

It is near certain that these freedom fighters will spread disease.

But both the “mutual aid” and “liberty to drink” phenomena will be short-lived. Mutual aid will quietly recede as earnest volunteers go back to their former responsibilities and the freedom vigilantes will be free to drink anywhere they please. Neither portends the future for the nation.

Understandably, many folks try to harvest optimism from the misery, noting that deep wounds of structural injustice are bleeding openly under pandemic stress. “Now we see!” they shout to the heavens of their imaginations. They hope seeing misery clearly will inspire a new social justice movement.

That is a romantic notion. The wounds will remain when daily life bubbles back up and takes our attention back to the NBA and the MBAs, who will tell us to shop our way back to normality. The wounds will go back underground, not heal. The holes of injustice are always deeper and more steeply chiseled than the pesky inconveniences of the privileged.

When “normal” returns, it is delusional to think that resources will be redirected toward affordable housing, eliminating homelessness, addressing systemic racism, and providing health justice and educational opportunity for all. We didn’t have the juice to do it before the pandemic, and you can be damn sure the restricted flow of capital and revenue from recovering enterprise won’t be diverted into the darker shadows of our country.

In the post-pandemic economy, fighting climate change will be a luxury we can’t afford, “health care for all” will simmer on the back burner and education will be increasingly privatized, in part because state and local governments will barely be able to keep streetlights on, much less worry about class size or music.

We are not paying adequate attention to the political right’s manipulation going on under the pandemic cloud. Every relief effort, every piece of legislation, every executive order is a Faustian bargain, aimed to reduce important regulation, erode accountability, siphon funds to wealthy cronies and ignore environmental and democratic concerns. They impose this as the price we must pay for temporary relief.

When we recover — if we recover — we won’t be returning to a “better, more compassionate” world as some claim.

We will return to a world where climate change is more ravaging, health care is less equitable, education is privatized and virtualized, workers rights are diminished and voting is suppressed.

Even voting for Democrats might not be enough, but that may be the only hope we have. If Donald Trump is reelected, our great democratic experiment may well come to an inglorious end.

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. He can be reached at

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