Thousands of Americans lining up for food in 2020 boggles the mind of the observer and creates unfathomable stress for families trying to get by on meager government assistance as the COVID-19 pandemic migrates through the heartland. Here in central Vermont, we saw a day-long gridlock of vehicles waiting for food, boxed staples distributed by the National Guard at the Knapp Airport in Berlin. Such levels of desperation in the world’s wealthiest country are shocking.
The past 10 weeks have (again) laid bare the illusion of American “exceptionalism,” particularly when it comes to supporting those in need. We don’t appear to be superior to very many other industrialized countries and in several important government functions, we are bringing up the rear. At this point, citizens would settle for a minimal level of competence, wondering what happened to the country that took up JFK’s challenge, sending men to the moon in 1969. Where is the USA of the Marshall Plan, which stepped in, providing massive support to a war-torn and devastated western Europe after the Second World War?
Instead, today, we have Space Force, a pale substitute for the far reaching and heady early days of NASA; and a passivity of leadership so lethal that creating the infrastructure to address massive hunger, even as vast amounts of food are summarily destroyed, is next to impossible. Even after a $19 billion infusion of cash a month ago, scenes like the one at the local airport remain prevalent across the country. And food insecurity after more than two months of lockdown has become a prime motivator to ignore the risk and head back to work prematurely.
Epidemiologists recommend reopening the country should be done cautiously, preceded by massive testing, contact tracing and include a continuation of social distancing and other precautions, such as mask wearing in public places. Egged on by a president who refuses to wear a mask, demonstrating disdain for experts of any stripe, exactly none of these things is happening.
In an “exceptional” country, you’d expect a higher level of concern for ordinary people than large corporations and their stockholders but what we’ve seen thus far is an exceptional level of cluelessness and even cruelty. As companies continue to pay dividends, often with taxpayer money, red state governors threaten to cut off unemployment benefits for anyone refusing to work in unsafe conditions, starkly warning: “Either you endanger your family by returning to work or we’ll endanger them for you.”
A potential second round of stimulus money has Republican lawmakers suddenly crying “What about the deficit?” which, of course, is the only time the GOP gives even a tiny bleep about the deficit — when proposed expenditures target Americans who actually need help ... knitted brows, deep sighs and fervent discussions of compromise, give and take, and the sacrifice necessary to prop up school lunch programs, minimum wage or increased spending on food programs. No such consternation inhibits transfer of funds heading upward via huge tax cuts and hasn’t for the last 40 years.
And despite illusions to the contrary, our woefully inadequate response has left the country disillusioned and confused; bitterly torn along party lines; and unable to get a straight answer to even the simplest of questions. Whether or not to wear a mask or socially distance have become hotly contested decisions, driven by partisan politics rather than best medical practice. “Great people,” encouraged by the White House, demonstrating to reopen the country, show up carrying assault weapons, flying Confederate flags and sometimes emblazoned with Nazi insignia. Although a distinct minority, they demand an inordinate amount of media attention and being heavily armed, they usually get it.
Unfortunately, none of this is exceptional and what’s worse, it didn’t need to be this way. Initially denying the threat wasted a month, allowing COVID-19 a head start and we’re still trying to catch up. But the extreme difficulty with everything from providing protective equipment to front-line medical teams; prioritizing small businesses and families over corporations; or even developing a coherent national plan; have all contributed to our current situation. However easily conservatives tout our “Exceptionalism,” revisiting the mantra’s origin is somewhat of a revelation. It was first used dismissively, during the Great Depression as in “So much for America’s exceptionalism,” attributed to a gloating Joseph Stalin.
Then, as now, the country faced an extraordinarily difficult time. And however dismissive Stalin was about the plight of America, Franklin Delano Roosevelt led the country back from the brink through policy, inspiration and bold action, creating through The New Deal programs that survive to this day. FDR’s leadership brought the country together. Everyone knew their president had their back, rather than his own. Individual #1 is hoping we quickly forget the pandemic, especially the federal response, but, however tempting it might be to put this behind us, forgetting is the last thing we should do.
And as traumatic as remembering might be, we can take comfort in the ideas out there. Tragedies of this magnitude can be prevented or mitigated in the future. Once depicted as far fetched, certain things begin making a great deal of sense in light of a national emergency. Andrew Yang’s $1,000 monthly universal basic income might have kept millions of people housed and fed; obviously Bernie Sanders’ “health care is a right” has become a given; and initiatives ranging from a livable wage to paid sick leave to subsidized child care to a resurgence of union labor do not seem even remotely radical at this point.
Miles-long food lines are what’s radical, and “I take no responsibility at all” is a completely unacceptable response.
Walt Amses lives in North Calais.