There is much talk and political activity these days about reopening and getting back to “Normal.” We must resist getting back to “Normal”; we must refuse to go back to the way we were. The ideals of our democracy demand that we construct a “New Normal” and reject the former.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought immense suffering and grievous injustice and laid bare the deep chasms of structural inequity in our society.
A few glaring, shameful spectacles of injustice expose the fault lines that the country had to worsen and how thin was the safety net that was supposed to protect the working poor. The safety net ruptured early on.
Because of the massive unemployment around the country, more than nine million workers are to lose health insurance that had been tied to their jobs. Unemployment, at 25% now, is the worst since the Great Depression.
An astonishing cold-hearted decision by the Texas Supreme Court allowed evictions and debt collections to resume after having been on hold. With 1.9 million Texans now unemployed, that likely will be an unrecoverable blow to once-working families.
This callous decision reveals another fissure. The rich are not suffering or taking up their share of civic responsibility during the crisis. The working poor and minority communities are bearing the brunt of the pandemic – twice or three times as fierce as the rest of the nation.
Farm workers and meatpackers, generally minority folks, are forced to labor with the commensurate rise in their infection rate. Their wages are so low that they could never afford the airplane and cruise ship tickets of the travelers who brought the virus to American shores; yet they suffer the most. If they don’t work, then no unemployment compensation. This is as close to involuntary servitude as you can get. They are “essential workers,” but many are deemed “illegal” by the Administration. How does one rationalize illegal essential workers?
Congress’ save-the-ship legislation tilts in favor of the of the top 10% of wealth holders, pressing the foot harder on the necks of the poor. Despite paying $11.7 billion in state and local taxes and $24 billion in federal taxes, Congress excluded undocumented workers from any benefits, even those who voluntarily paid taxes (as much as $4.5 billion) under a special IRS program.
With hundreds of thousands of people searching out food banks to sustain their lives, the Administration’s pandemic priority is to spend $500 million to paint the border wall black.
We are bereft of any unifying call to shared sacrifice. Rather, rife individualism and astonishing selfishness have become legitimized. Indeed, the not-so-subtle subtext is to sacrifice people’s lives for the economy.
The pandemic has exposed the ruptures in our system. The education of minority kids, already systemically inferior, is being shredded, as the “at home” system deepens the divide, while their parents scramble to put bread on the table, living in cramped apartment complexes that intensify Covid-19 risk.
No doubt fearing citizen redress at the polls, governors have joined the Administration to make voting more difficult, rather than easier. These ugly scars will last.
The pandemic’s “Great Pause” has given a glimpse of who are helping build the New Normal: dedicated medical providers, helpful police, charitable neighbors, people opening their pocketbooks, healing musicians, food bank volunteers, and so on – the list is long.
So, the question is what do we do now? Each of us should dedicate ourselves to participate in this work of rescue and reconstruction.
The pandemic, painful and deadly, points to the direction of how we must fundamentally alter our structures if we are to reclaim the path toward a vibrant and just democracy, well within the framework of our constitution.
Our duty as decent people, if that we are, is to reject going back to “Normal,” turn it on its head and move forward to building a society of which we can be proud and of which we dream.
James C. Harrington is a human rights lawyer in Austin and founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project.