Time to think our way out of our ills

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

Shakespeare and Newton did some of their best thinking holed up during the plague, I read while holed up the past few days trying to avoid the coronavirus.

No apple has hit me on the head as I work from my living room or walk the dog along the lakeshore, greeting other dog walkers from 12 feet. But I did watch a few episodes of Rawhide, which leads one to wonder where Wishbone got his ingredients (sanitizer, toilet paper and cooking oil) out there on the trail.

We are far better off than Rowdy and the boys. At this early stage, we can stay optimistic in the knowledge that clinicians at the University of Nebraska Medical Center are on the case of a drug therapy for coronavirus. Researchers elsewhere are making daily discoveries that will help produce an effective vaccine faster. If old duffers like me stay out of the way and maybe stay out of the hospital we can get through this thing with more knowledge and capacity to fight new viral pandemics.

The USA could make some other big breakthroughs during this trial:

Thanks to the leadership of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, most American workers will get two weeks of paid sick leave and longer family leave, paid by employers and reimbursed by the federal government. This program, awaiting approval by the Senate (which of course took the weekend off so they could ride on airplanes), will remain in force for a year. It is hard to take something away (like health coverage for pre-existing conditions) once it has been around long enough for people to appreciate its value. We could be on a path to permanent paid leave, like the rest of the developed world. It would be a great relief to workers and employers, and will prove a boon to productivity because of workplace stability.

The coronavirus exposes fully the holes in our healthcare system. People worried that even if a test were available (which they are not because of President Trump’s incompetence and malicious delay) they could not afford it. Thanks to Speaker Pelosi, the tests will be free. Universal health care would allow more patients to be plugged into the health care system without worrying about the costs of tests, deductibles or copays. Joe Biden is comfortable with Medicare for All during a crisis. That’s movement. Bernie Sanders points out that working-class Americans have been living in a health care crisis for a long time because they lack an insurance policy that actually delivers for them. We might finally get universal health care if this gets as bad as predicted.

The reduction in needless travel has greatly cut carbon emissions. This episode should help businesses understand how much money they are wasting on air fares and hotels for conferences that could have been held over Skype or not held at all. Air travel is increasingly unbearable and unproductive in the best of times. Maybe this plague will reorder and rationalize it.

The economy is rewiring as this is written. The nation is coming to a sober reckoning about borrowing with abandon, cutting taxes when you can’t cover basic public functions like health and safety, and that government is the cause of our problems. Regulation has its place — such as, putting stops on stocks and commodities as they dove repeatedly over the past two weeks. A public safety net has its place — God forbid, what if Tyson has to shut down and put thousands of meatpacking families out of work in our little rural community, even temporarily? Public health has a relationship to economic activity, we should have learned by now. Climate change will lead to a rise in infectious diseases around the world. We might come out of this with a public consensus that to save ourselves, we need to make a big pivot that sets our prosperity and health as a goal, and not just our productivity. This pandemic could shock us enough to believe in climate science and actually do something big enough to meet the challenge — creating a new energy economy in the process. And do it with China, Latin America, Brazil, Europe and Africa, because that is what it will take.

This period of quarantine also should finally reveal what a feckless President we have in Donald Trump, who sends a shudder through markets every time he speaks his nonsense. This plague could deliver us back to a sense of sanity and community. We should be able to figure out that toilet paper is not the answer to our problems.

It’s quiet in Storm Lake now. The main drag is empty. School is off for a month. No reported cases yet. Like a blizzard day without the snow, but an unseen virus hovers within six feet of that unseen someone’s snoot. So I keep my distance hoping for an epiphany, where for art thou. Perhaps a musical, maybe a sonnet, more likely just this as we all abide best we can. Whatever, we can hope to make something better from it. That’s what Americans do.

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