Hall of mirrors, house of cards with COVID-19

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My brother, who in his working life spends a lot of time in the developing world, has always said that the difference between intensely impoverished places and us “First World” nations is a paper-thin veneer.

The precarious nature of our national house of cards became universally obvious in March as we joined other nations in being brought to heel by a foe 100 million times smaller than the human genome.

A virus doesn’t discriminate. It couldn’t care less what you had for breakfast or whether you live in a tent or a mansion. Its only job is to replicate itself, and it does that masterfully.

Early in March, I visited my mother in the Hudson Valley. Now, she is confined to her apartment, and no visitors are allowed. Early in March, I planned our trip to Lake Placid to watch the Cornell hockey team in a year when they might have been national champions. Now, the team has dispersed, and no games are scheduled.

But this is not about isolation or vanished dreams. People are dying. I’m having flashbacks to AIDS in the ’80s, where first, it’s people you’ve never heard of, next it’s people you know, and then, it’s people you love.

This is about the fissures in the systems we rely on to protect us from harm that a tiny virus revealed. It is about the disparity between the imagined America we see when we look in the mirror and the realities on the ground.

We know that we spend outrageous amounts on healthcare but still have poor outcomes. Many of us can rattle off the reasons for this. Who imagined that U.S. hospitals could run out of gloves and masks? Maybe that happens in a field hospital in Ebola-exposed West Africa, but surely not in Seattle or Manhattan.

We pride ourselves on our technological know-how and skill, but we scramble to find ways to educate children in their homes and keep businesses functioning remotely because high-speed broadband remains a pipe dream across much of rural America. My brother had better connectivity in Mongolia than at his house an hour from Albany.

We enjoy our status as one of the world’s wealthiest nations, yet the number of people unable to make it through the month after being laid off has crashed unemployment insurance websites in multiple states. Our schools couldn’t close right away because school officials were scrambling to find ways to feed housebound students.

We have a newfound respect for workers who provide essential services, from nurses to delivery workers. Suddenly, a grocery stockperson has more obvious and immediate value to us than any titan of industry or Wall Street entrepreneur.

Faced with the foot-dragging failure at the top of government, mayors, town supervisors, county chairs and governors have stepped up. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who often gets flak from left and right, is at his best in crisis mode and has quickly become the voice of passionate reason on national TV.
Satellite imagery indicates that pollution is diminishing as people stay home. Cloudy waterways are clearing.

Volunteer and charitable spirit is energized. Citizens are sewing masks, purchasing gift cards, buying locally, calling neighbors, FaceTiming or Skyping relatives, recording lessons and concerts online, donating to the United Way or the Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund and paying housebound independent contractors who otherwise would have no source of income over the next few months.

The question is not whether we will survive this pandemic; it’s whether we will internalize its lessons. Will we acknowledge the value of planning and crisis management? Will we pay living wages so that families can feed their children in an emergency? Will we fix our healthcare system to no longer favor the rich? Will we get serious about broadband infrastructure, prohibit stock buybacks permanently, mandate paid leave, and forbid the trading of individual stocks by elected officials?

I’ve had pneumonia multiple times. Last time, I spent a week in the hospital and four months in recovery. I may be high-risk, but that’s not what scares me. What scares me is the thought that we might make it through this nightmare and manage not to learn a damn thing.

Kathy Zahler is the former director of communications for the Tompkins County Democratic Committee. See the committee website at www.tcdemocrats.org.

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