Capturing the energy of the moment.
When I was 15 years old during the Cold War, and particularly during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, I felt an overpowering sense of insecurity stemming from the distinct possibility that, at any moment, the world could be plunged into a nuclear holocaust, from which there was no way to escape. To alleviate this anxiety, which was almost palpable, I would dream about an alien species invading the earth—an external threat that would unite the world in common cause, that would allow us to set us aside our differences and mobilize all the courage and generosity and compassion of which humanity is capable.
For my parent’s generation, the “Greatest Generation,” that external threat was Nazi Germany and the Axis Powers. It was a tangible threat, that unfolded before the world as Hitler devoured France and the nations of central Europe; Mussolini invaded Ethiopia; and Japan invaded Manchuria, the Philippines and attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor. World War II united our country and the Western world as it had never been united before. The issues that had previously divided the twenty-three nations of the Allied Powers were subordinated to the common war effort.
The coronavirus is the alien species of my boyhood, the exterhal threat that has united us in a common response, becasue COVID 19 does not recognize national boundaries, partisanship, political ideaology, income, race, religion or social standing. We are already seeing how the unifying power of common purpose can cut through ideology and political gridlock—the most obvious example being the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package which passed congress almost unanimously. We are hearing the words “we are all in this together” on the internet, on our televisions and radios and across six feet of distance when we pass each other in the grocery store.
We must take intentional steps now to capture this energy, to ensure that this powerful sense of community, created by the immediate threat of the pandemic, with its profound economic and social consequences, does not simply fade away once the crisis diminishes; but can be harnessed and carried forward.
Those steps must include conversations about what we need to change from yesterday in order to build a better tomorrow; about the ways in which we want to relate to one another differently; about other threats that may be less obvious and less dramatic as the threat posed by COVID 19 but which, if left unaddressed, will be just as deadly and have the same toxic impact on our communities, undermining our strength, our prosperity and our opportunities for the future. These threats include, among others, poverty, growing income inequality, an exploding national debt and a chronic and accelerating disinvestment in children, families, communities, education and basic infrastructure.
Changing our trajectory
In thinking about how to most effectively leverage the opportunity embedded in this crisis, it might be useful to organize our effort in terms of how a humanitarian response to a natural disaster is organized along a “relief, recovery, regeneration” continuum.
Relief — Managing the near-term damage and meeting basic human needs. That’s where we are right now with a three-pronged strategy to (1) manage the medical component of the pandemic; (2) provide support to struggling businesses and ensure some sense of financial security to unemployed Oregonians; and, (3) maintain social cohesion and the integrity of our communities.
Recovery — Assuming we can hold our communities together, as the near-term threats begin to recede—and as we begin to come out of social separation and businesses begin to reopen—we will have some breathing room and more capacity to think about recovery; about how to rebuild from the damage caused by the pandemic and its economic and social consequences. Those conversations need to begin now (in the relief phase) while we are still in the crisis—because the danger is that as soon as we begin to pull out of it, there will be a strong tendency to simply go back to where we were before; to “return to normal.” And while “normal” was certainly better than what we are going through right now, in many respects it was not a very good place at all.
“Normal” was a place where millions of Americans were living paycheck to paycheck; a place where one out of three families struggled to afford housing; where over 40 million Americans, including 13 million children, faced food insecurity. “Normal” was a place where rising premiums, copayments and deductibles made health care increasing unaffordable; and where nearly 60% of our children were exposed to one or more risk factors that profoundly compromised their opportunity to succeed.
“Normal” was also a place of conflict and acrimony between labor and business, between the environmental community and natural resource industries, between Republicans and Democrats, between urban and rural America; a place where partisanship, polarization, and the loss of civility made it ever more difficult to find the common ground and build the consensus necessary to effectively meet the challenges facing our nation.
In short, we are approaching a crucial inflection point—a point at which we will have to make a fundamental choice about our future beyond the pandemic; a choice between returning to the world we knew before COVID 19, with all its conflict and partisan paralysis; or to make a different set of choices that can build a more equitable and resilient future. This inflection point is at least two months away, perhaps longer, depending on how soon we are able to get the pandemic under control.
Whenever we reach this point, however, it offers a “teachable moment”—when the prospect of “returning to normal” seems realistic if not imminent; and yet the pain, trauma and uncertainty of the last few months is still fresh in people’s minds. When we reach this point, it is crucial that we have already started the conversations about what was and was not working before the pandemic; and have put in place the messages, narratives and infrastructure necessary to facilitate making a different set of choices going forward.
Building back better
It is at this point, if we have done the necessary groundwork, when we will have the opportunity to “build back better.” An analogy might be the bombing of the German and Japanese industrial infrastructure during the Second World War. After the war, modern, state of the art infrastructure was built to replace the old, giving both Germany and Japan a huge boost in terms of their industrial capacity and global competitiveness. We will soon be at a point where we will have to choose between resuscitating entrenched systems that have long failed the community; or to rebuild those systems to be more resilient and to better reflect the needs and realities of 2020.
For example, we have a health care system, the structure which has not materially changed in 70 years; a system that is far too expensive for individuals to afford, erodes the competitiveness of businesses, drives down wages, accelerates income inequality and compromises our ability to invest in education, housing and community development. Our educational system was designed in the last century, is viewed largely as multiple autonomous and competing enterprises (K-12, community colleges, higher education) rather than as a continuum, and is funded based on what happened in the past rather than what needs to happen in the future. And finally, notwithstanding the widespread understanding of, and agreement on, the need to invest in successful children and families, both adequate resources and an effective delivery model continue to elude us.
All of these systems, and many more, have been turned upside down over the past few months. As we begin to emerge from the acute crisis, there will be an understandable tendency to return to what we know; to what is familiar. If we do so, we will surely lose the energy of this moment and continue to struggle into the future.
The other choice, is to take advantage of this disruption by rethinking how we want to approach these systems as we move into the third phase of the continuum: regeneration – building back better. If we start thinking about this now, even as the crisis unfolds around us; and if we do it right and do it together, we can make our society and our nation stronger, more resilient and more capable of collective action than they were before the pandemic. We can rebuild the American community.