The response to COVID-19 has in many ways played out to our expectations. We are seeing the responses we’ve grown to expect in a crisis: intensification of surveillance, rolling back of protections, and financial support for irresponsible industries, to name a few. And this is amid inadequate protection of workers, monopolizing of mask equipment, anti-labor retaliation, industry opportunism, staggering unemployment, and more.
At the same time, other responses have revealed something most of us already knew (or at least suspected) – the arbitrariness of American misery. Regressive policies and enforcement procedures are being scaled back in surprising numbers. While sectors under federal control – immigration policy, higher education, healthcare, election reform – have had few COVID-related changes, those controlled by city and state governments – criminal justice, housing, transportation, utilities – have had many.
These changes were put in place to slow viral transmission and stabilize the economy, not to benefit social welfare. But what’s interesting is how much overlap there is between them. Sector by sector, the pandemic has unintentionally sparked changes pushed by reformers for decades. What couldn’t be done in years has now happened in a matter of weeks. Policy changes that before COVID were dismissed as unreasonable are now seen not only as reasonable but as necessary.
It shows us how absurd so many of our rules were to begin with. But does it also show us how easy they’ve been to change all along?
Many of these changes still don’t go far enough, come with caveats and fine print, are subject to absurd means-testing, or are only temporary. For those of us who believe that America needs serious change – and that this is the time to do it – what will it take to make many of these temporary changes permanent? These aren’t necessarily the changes we want, but they give us a glimpse of what’s possible.
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