It has a very long history–the idea that a plague must reflect divine displeasure with human goings-on. The ancient Hebrews popularized the notion, first with regard to their oppressors, the Egyptians, and then, through the prophets, as a punishment for their own disobedience. The spread of the Black Death in the 14th century was attributed in part to collective sin in Christian society–although also to the Jews, a reminder that specific scapegoats were always welcome–and later Puritan ministers were not above suggesting that contagion was a sign of God’s judgment on a sinful people. (Nor did Cotton Mather’s advocacy of smallpox inoculation prevent him from sharing this remarkable example of God’s hostility towards sinners.) Of course non-Christian peoples suffered for their heathen savagery, and pestilence providentially cleared them from both North and South America (leaving an awkward labor shortage).
Thankfully, the belief that epidemics, let alone the deaths of individuals, can be explained as God’s response to sin has passed, to be replaced, at least in the ‘modern’ world, by absolute confidence in medical science. An entire generation, my own, has grown up in the antibiotic era, witnessing the conquest of one age-old plague after another through vaccination and other public health measures. But this understanding has come with a sting in the tail, especially when a new outbreak occurs. If we possess all the tools that are needed to stop such a contagion, why has it taken root, seemingly undetected? Why are dear members of our families, apparently well on one day, dying in agony the next? In short, what has become of the control we are accustomed to exercising over our environment, a sway so complete that progress must prevail, and which only culpable ‘human error’ can derail? People will look for someone to blame. Why else would legislation for coronavirus relief be held up over concerns that everyday business institutions need shielding from charges of negligence or malpractice?
Even in a State like mine, where over 90% of identified deaths from coronavirus are in those of advanced age or compromised health, we have forgotten the resonance of the phrase, “pneumonia–the old man’s friend.” Not that the symptoms of Covid-19 are in any way benign, or that we should be indifferent to the passing of elderly loved ones (especially if lifespans had been rising otherwise). But the desire to “solve” the current crisis of mortality–because we believe it is within our power to do so–has almost distracted us from the business of making ordinary life more worth living, for everyone. To be sure, preventing another Great Depression is a big part of that, and that’s something all parties can get behind. But this emergency has also revealed a lot of “underlying conditions” in our everyday lives.
For the moment, let’s leave aside the younger generations–why not, we’ve gotten in the habit–and focus on the people that really matter: us, the Boomers. As a group we have a lot of money, and wealth still counts for something, even in a Covid world. About half of us are already retired, many of us on pensions that are funded by the labor of others. But those for whom retirement already seemed like a remote prospect have suffered another reverse. As one financial advisor puts it, “the truth is that baby boomers are better prepared to die than to live. Among middle-income baby boomers, 81 percent have formally made at least one preparation for when they pass away, usually in the form of a will or trust, while only 32 percent have a plan as to how they will receive retirement health care.”
It also turns out that having a health insurance system based on employer-provided coverage is less than ideal in a situation of sharply rising unemployment. Leave aside the 2 million poor adults who were left without insurance by the failure to extend Medicaid in some States. If we estimate that there are about 45 million Americans of Boomer-age (55-64), and that their labor force participation prior to the crisis was 65%, that means about 30 million potentially were insured through work. But if they suffer from 15% unemployment now, that’s 4-5 million looking for insurance in an environment where Covid symptoms could be considered a hidden “pre-existing condition.” Is this really the right time to repeal Obamacare?
We Boomers could be forgiven for thinking that we can shrug this off pretty easily. Even in our aging cohort, though, not everyone is equally comfortable. The self-employed, those living on Social Security alone, and those caring for younger family members on a limited income face all the same difficulties as before but now with added insecurity. It might seem like the perfect opportunity to take some steps against widespread and unequal suffering the next time around. We’ve certainly discovered the will to spend! But it seems clear that the non-partisan moment has passed. Proposals that go beyond funnelling money to consumers and the recently unemployed are characterized as “non-serious” or “aspirational,” in contrast to “practical” and reasonable. If you happen to be a low-wage worker who can’t afford rent but must report to the job regardless of risk, another person’s “normalcy” might be your “aspiration.”
This pandemic–and the others still to come–should logically remind us of our shared human weakness. But in an age of scientific expertise, it also raises a subtle temptation to think that “it’s someone’s fault” if the problems it creates don’t go away quickly. On the one hand, there are those who look askance at 20-somethings who cavort outdoors without wearing masks. Yet rather than seething with righteous indignation against selfish Boomers, Millennials are mourning the loss of parents and grandparents in group homes. On the other hand, the President believes the continuing economic damage is “a political thing….If it’s up to some people, let’s keep it closed for a long time. And watch the United States go down the tubes.” No one wants that, but crowded urban communities, with high concentrations of poor and minority families, have proved to be special targets of the virus. In our collective response, do we simply ignore this undisputed fact? If so, then the experience of Covid-19 will not only prompt ‘physical distancing,’ it will deepen and reinforce social isolation.