We may be lacking toilet paper and crucial medical gear, but we've no shortage of crisis. It's a good thing that humans have so much experience bumbling through disasters. We'll do it again, provided with the courage to face realities, good leadership, and human solidarity: the cooperation of 7.5 billion creative people, a global village with instant communications.
I see five major crises. Foremost today is the coronavirus pandemic. Suddenly, 190 countries are struggling with a new, fast-moving contagion. Add in the psychological stress, inconvenience, and side effects of quarantine, recorded in the Bible and used ever since to slow the spread of disease. Apartness goes against the human grain, but we adapt.
Most people everywhere are doing their level best to act for the common good even as they cope with personal anxieties and griefs. You hear many stories of mutual help, innovative solutions, quiet heroism. People sew masks at home. Others sing their gratitude to emergency workers. Turkey sent PPE to the U.K.; Cuba sent a medical team to Italy; warring gangs in South Africa called a truce to deliver food to the poor.
Pandemic brought out the flaws of many national leaders. Some deferred to public health experts, but some had other agendas. Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore adopted widespread testing and containment measures early, leading to relatively few deaths. The East Asian countries were even able to keep many factories, malls, and restaurants open. Meanwhile, leaders in France, the U.K., and U.S. denied and delayed for weeks or months, allowing the disease to get a foothold. President Trump's response to the pandemic has been contradictory and haphazard. Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro still ignores reality as Brazil's death rate climbs.
Measures to slow down the first crisis have led to the second crisis: closed businesses and widespread loss of jobs. Unlike the Great Depression, which lasted a decade, this one is hopefully temporary.
I have childhood memories of the 1930s: a woman on the street corner selling apples for a nickel; armies of men riding the rails, looking for jobs or traveling because there was nothing else to do. In Dust Bowl states, including Arkansas, drought drove many small farmers off their land. From 1932 to 1935, the unemployment rate was above 20 percent, and in 1933 it was 25 percent. Unemployment compensation did not yet exist; neither did Social Security. We had soup lines, bread lines, and "relief." FDR's New Deal was an answer to dire conditions and may have prevented a civil rebellion.
Even before the current pandemic, some countries had extremely high unemployment, such as Kosovo 28 percent, South Africa 29 percent, Gaza Strip 52 percent. You have to wonder how they cope. In wealthier nations, rapid automation is around the corner. It threatens many jobs. Under current economic circumstances, Universal Basic Income (UBI) makes sense to some. Spain just became the first European nation to adopt UBI.
Coronavirus has shed light on existing social inequities. People of color are dying at much higher rates than others. Those losing jobs also lose their employer-linked medical insurance. Those still employed often have no sick leave. We have seen funds to help small businesses being garnered by bigger businesses, and the self-employed are left out entirely. New York's Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked, "Why is it that the poorest people always pay the highest price?"
Meanwhile, a third grave emergency, climate change, waits in the wings. The ice is still melting, droughts are spreading, and wildfires are more destructive each year. We can't postpone real action much longer. This one is an existential crisis.
Crisis four, ignored at our peril, is the urgent need to reduce the world's stockpiles of nuclear weapons and develop the networks of peace. Nuclear disaster can come about by accident as well as intention.
Fifth is a crisis of democracy at home and abroad. In America, voter suppression threatens the validity of elections; hyper-partisanship destroys the ability to compromise that makes democracy possible. Right-wing protesters carrying semiautomatic weapons remind us of the tactics of 1930s fascism. Meanwhile, there are growing numbers of authoritarian governments across the globe. Once lost, democratic government is terribly difficult to bring back.
We've got crises galore, but crisis is also opportunity. Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang says that "we are going to see 10 years of change crammed into 10 weeks." Humanity is learning fast from history, scientific research, and also from each other in all our individuality and diversity.
This is our wake-up call. It's time to evolve a little.
Coralie Koonce is a writer living in Fayetteville. Her latest book is Twelve Dispositions: A Field Guide to Humans.
Editorial on 05/01/2020