Is This the End of Our Second Long National Disaster?

New vaccines to counter COVID-19 are welcome. We must also change our conduct.

Posted Jan 02, 2021

As we awaken to find, potentially, that our second “long national nightmare is over,” what kind of world do we want to accept—or change? The first nightmare was Watergate. We leave it up to the reader to decide what was the second.

2020 marked a terrible year in public health; but as hope crests in January 2021, so does the number of infections and deaths. And the long-term impact on us is yet to be determined.

We can say with certainty that this has been a “good” pandemic financially for some, notably on-line vendors of goods and services, from Amazon to Netflix. It will probably become so for various pharmaceutical companies. The crisis has also drawn viewers back to network television. Despite a necessary halt in drama production, viewers returned last year to live and time-shifted TV, watched on TV sets rather than hand-held toys.

For those working in supermarkets, mass transit, medicine, deliveries, and pharmacies, it has been a frightening and sometimes lethal time. For children in education, it has been disruptive in ways we may not understand for decades. For families decimated by distance, death, and illness, it has been devastating. For those dis-employed during the pandemic, for whatever reason, worry about the immediate, medium- and long-term future is an everyday thing. That applies to one of us. And as parents, we both worry about the economic future of the young. The American Psychiatric and Psychological Associations have dedicated many resources to help deal with these problems and others.

How many individual, rather than national, nightmares have we woken up from? Some of them assuredly concern the environment. We have all read reports of cleaner water and air, diminished traffic congestion, noise, and pollution, and reductions in air travel (but not by the military, of course—no one knows the real environmental impact of massive, obsessive flying by the major culprits, the US and China).

But we are also aware of cuts to investment in green technologies, increased food insecurity, horrendous impacts on the informal sector of the labor market—and that the benefits of reduced economic activity are only a blip on the radar of climate change; a blip that will swiftly be obliterated with the resumption of what is glibly termed "recovery." Even now, carbon dioxide emissions continue to carve away our living world.

Where are the alternatives, the attempts by committed scientists, activists, and policy experts to draw upon our current crisis and find a better future?

UNICEF has published a manifesto written by Italian teenagers on the post-pandemic future. It calls for solidarity, justice across generations, and education, the environment, and health reconceptualized as public rather than private goods.

Degrowth: New Roots for the Economy is a charter signed by prominent intellectuals and organizations from dozens of nations. It insists on meeting basic needs for all while protecting the environment. So universal guarantees of health, housing, and nutrition must take priority over accumulating capital. The group seeks a shift towards degrowth, which will also diminish the spread of diseases such as COVID-19.

The World Health Organization’s Manifesto for a Healthy Recovery from COVID-19 links the need for coordinating response to the virus to acting against longer-term, slower-moving environmental crises as well as future, dramatic pandemics. It calls for a focus on healthy urban spaces, sustainable and secure food, improved sanitation and water, and universal healthcare.

These statements of principle link what is happening to the Earth with COVID-19 and socio-economic justice. In order to move forward to a safer and healthier future, we must pay heed to their words. This is true not only for the people of today, but for populations yet to come into life—and the natural world itself.

We’ve quoted it before, but it seems reasonable to refer to the formidable 18th-century Irish philosopher and politician Edmund Burke, who opposed taxation of the American colonies and the French Revolution with equal vigor. He recognized that each generation was made up of “temporary possessors and life-renters” of the Earth and its societies. These temporary possessors and life-renters must cherish the “chain and continuity” of nature rather than operating as thoughtless, ephemeral “flies of a summer.” Only then could they maintain and nourish “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” This was “the great primeval contract of eternal society.”

Your political preferences may or may not coincide with Burke’s, who is regarded as the founding parent of contemporary conservatism. But his care for the environment can cross ideological lines and be a guide to our future, along with the COVID charters we have adumbrated. Then our second long national nightmare may truly be over.