This week’s Extra! Extra! COVID-19 looks at what’s happened with the stimulus package and protests against social distancing in the US, and how countries the world over are thinking about reopening. The entire situation is full of all sorts of different risks, with each decision being a trade-off of one risk for another. These reflections are inspired by this brilliant essay by scientist Joseph Osmundson.
Osmundson contextualizes the world’s collective anxiety in terms of risk. As he writes:
“We have to reframe the very notion of risk, of fear. It can never be zero. The more we minimize risk, the less there is to fear.”
Human Toll of the Virus
There’s no downplaying what’s at stake right now. Over 150,000 people have died because of COVID-19 in just about five months since the first likely case. The horrifying stories continue; here are just two that stood out to me from the US.
The measures being taken to slow the spread of the virus are critical, but they too invoke risks, just different ones. In some cases, as in Spain – which has experienced one of the worst outbreaks in the world – the strict quarantine measures are taking a serious toll on people’s mental health. In others, as in the US, local governments are using the pandemic as an excuse to restrict privacy and increase surveillance.
The Responsibility of Government
One of my favorite passages from Osmundson’s essay discusses risk as a tradeoff:
“The risk is not, and can never be, zero. Could I order groceries, have them delivered? Sure, of course I could. And that would push some of my risk onto another person, a shopper in the store, a delivery person on a bike. That person is more likely to be a person of color and more economically at risk than I am. My risk may be lowered, but the overall risk remains, and will always remain, as long as my body has needs, which is to say as long as I live.”
And it’s exactly this idea of “overall risk,” or I would even call it “collective” risk, that brings us to what governmental responsibility is and should look like. Part of the government’s responsibility is to ease other burdens so people can reduce some of their risks and adhere to social distancing measures. Otherwise, as we saw last week, in many parts of the world people risk starvation because economies have shuttered.
In the US, the stimulus package that was passed just over three weeks ago was intended to reduce the economic burden of social distancing on everyday people who have been laid off and small businesses that have been forced to close. And yet, as always in America, it’s billionaires and corporations that cashed in first. Republicans included a change to tax law in the stimulus package that would largely benefit millionaires. Banks are using stimulus checks to pay off debts. Hotel and restaurant chains are cashing in on the fund that was earmarked for small businesses which, by the way, is already out of money. And private corporations are stealing money that was supposed to go to indigenous people.
It looks like things are beginning to turn out, just slightly. Six tribal governments are filing a lawsuit to prevent corporations to try to ensure that indigenous people get the money that was supposed to support their needs during this time. Some of the corporations that profited off stimulus checks and the small business fund seem to be returning that money. And, there seem to be signs of another deal making its way through the federal government to grant additional aid to small businesses.
But, in addition to providing economic security, I also believe it’s the government’s responsibility to impress on people the severity of the situation. Instead, in the US we have a president who’s egging on people protesting state-imposed social distancing measures. Does it come as a surprise to anyone that the far-right has completely co-opted those protests?
What Comes Next?
As the global economy continues to take a nosedive and people become increasingly restless, the question remains – when can we risk opening countries back up? Countries like South Korea, which took COVID-19 seriously from the start, are already beginning to resume regular life, with people returning to work and some restaurants and parks reopening. Angela Merkel in Germany, which was among the most proactive countries in the West, recently announced cautious measures to slowly reopen its economy. Both countries are able to do this because they tested aggressively for COVID-19 and have the capabilities to continue to do so. But in the US, testing is still not anywhere near the scale it needs to be at. Countries around the world are taking markedly different approaches to reopening their economies. And, of course, America is taking its own disjointed approach based on the decisions of individual state governors.
At the end of it all, there’s no guarantees about anything, or as Osmundson says,
“The risk is not, and can never be, zero. … The more we minimize risk, the less there is to fear.”