The Politics of Pandemic

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COVID-19, commonly referred to as coronavirus, is certainly not the world’s first pandemic; however, it is the first to be globally followed on Facebook, with elected officials dispersing key information on Instagram and nearly all university students taking classes on Zoom in the name of “social distancing.” Facing a digitally literate global populous and an incredibly tumultuous political climate, the COVID-19 pandemic will surely follow the great pandemics of the past as a watershed period in history with far-reaching social, economic and political consequences.

At the time of writing, coronavirus has infected 1,002,000 people and killed 51,500 worldwide, with all data pointing towards prolonged, “near exponential” growth. The impact of this virus is not to be understated; with a mortality rate of 5.1% and a presence in 181 countries, COVID-19 has far greater reach than the relatively localized Ebola, SARS and MERS and a greater mortality rate than the that of H1N1 at 0.02%. The bottom line is that coronavirus is on track to be both a powerful and uncertain force in the coming months or even years. It is probable that if you don’t contract coronavirus, you most likely know someone who will.

The coronavirus comes at an inopportune time for President Trump, whose administration has aimed to frame his first term as one of economic stability before Nov. 3, general election day. Unfortunately for Trump, the government’s handling of the outbreak has already been thoroughly criticized by Democratic presidential nominee contenders Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders — who have already modified their platforms to include hypothetical coronavirus response plans (Biden and Sanders’ plans) — and will certainly reappear as a central question during the general election period. In that case, Biden or Sanders will have plenty of ammunition for Trump: a denial of responsibility for the US’s delayed response to the outbreak, an inadequate supply of ventilators, a track-record of aiming to cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control and a hesitance to invoke the Defense Production Act until Apr. 2, with well over 200,000 cases in the US. The coronavirus will become an election issue and emerge as a final test of the Trump administration — a test that Biden has claimed exposes the “severe shortcomings of the current administration.”

Regardless of who the next president is, the consequences of the coronavirus will go far beyond this election cycle. The coronavirus inherently demands a robust government response, and what we have seen from the Trump administration has been policy that, ironically, aligns with the core tenants of the Democratic party and echoes the sentiments of Democratic nominee candidates. Congress thus far responded with a three-phase stimulus package including $8.3 billion towards research on and response to the virus (Phase 1), $100 billion towards free coronavirus testing for the uninsured, paid sick leave and increased unemployment benefits and increased funding for Medicaid and food insecurity benefits (Phase 2). $250 billion has been allocated for direct payments to individuals as well as $850 billion towards small business loans and industry bailouts for airlines and other highly impacted industries. The sum of the government stimulus package is greater than the Wall Street bailout of 2008, and, quite crucially, is full of the hallmark policies advocated by left-wingers in the United States. That the bipartisan response to COVID-19 is the expansion of Medicaid and social security, direct cash payments to individuals and small business loans with the explicit goal of ensuring Americans can still collect a paycheck adds enormous credence to the legitimacy and efficacy of policy that is often discounted as radical.

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The COVID-19 stimulus package is reminiscent of president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal following the Great Depression in that it affirms the vital role of the government in spearheading economic activity, developing a social safety net in the form of Social Security and supporting average American workers hit hardest by the economic crisis. It is reasonable to assume that this increased support for state-provided services and support as a response to COVID-19 will change political discourse surrounding battleground issues of universal healthcare and economic reform for years to come.

In response to the current crisis, Sanders has called for an “unprecedented” response “both in terms of healthcare and in terms of the economy,” calling implicit attention to his own advocacy for a universal healthcare program and support of a “Green New Deal,” the implementation of a wealth tax and a federal jobs guarantee. Should the government response to coronavirus prove successful in navigating the waters of economic recession, the potential for mass unemployment and an unprecedented strain on the American healthcare system, we ought to anticipate a resurgence in popular support for economic and healthcare policy embodied by the most progressive wing of the Democratic party.

Looking at coronavirus as a turning point for wedge issues, the provision of $1,200 to Americans earning $75,000 or less and $500 to each child resembles former Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang’s plan for a Universal Basic Income. Yang’s “Freedom Dividend” draws upon the same macroeconomic logic as Congressional direct payments in that it incentivizes increased individual consumption which in turn stimulates the economy, yet cash welfare programs have long been met with criticism from Republicans. For senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) to advocate not only the expansion of “paid leave, unemployment insurance, and SNAP benefits” but $1,000 to every American adult indicates a meaningful shift in opinion on polarizing issues of state intervention in the economy and healthcare.

Coronavirus has already had a profound, international cultural impact, characterized by the closure of workplaces, public attractions, restaurants and schools. Case in point, I am writing this article from home instead of my college dorm and like nearly all college students, will take my spring term classes online. Accommodating mandated social distancing has shifted the norms of the modern workplace, school and even our political structure. The Biden campaign has committed to virtual fundraisers and digital policy briefings alongside an Instagram and Facebook-based advertising strategy. In this sense, I expect to see a surge in international reliance on technology for new and atypical purposes as a result of Coronavirus. Unlike doctors and nurses, grocery clerks and emergency personnel, digital interfaces and automated systems can’t get viruses — at least not zoonotic viruses like COVID-19. The challenges of fighting this pandemic have been mitigated by the use of government ads on social media, digital conferencing software like Zoom for meetings and lectures and civic technology — participatory digital interactions that foster innovative solutions to crisis — like Taiwan’s “Face Mask Map” which shows the real-time location of face masks for Taiwanese citizens. Of course, COVID-19 is not the sole impetus for the global trend towards digital connection; however, technological innovations that build upon data, artificial intelligence and novel online interfaces that model face-to-face interaction and keep humans safe from viruses will find a burgeoning market in the zeitgeist of pandemic.

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For all the hope that bold online solutions and the spirit of resilience may bring us during this virus, there remains the definite possibility that COVID-19 will further exacerbate an already divisive political climate. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has predicted a global recession worse than the financial crisis of 2008, with a particular emphasis on the impact on developing countries facing capital outflow — this is evidenced by the removal of $83 billion from emerging markets already. In the U.S., 6.65 million individuals filed for unemployment benefits in the week of Mar. 22-Mar. 28 — the most in American history. The consequences of COVID-19 are not only economic —Trump and those surrounding him have sparked cultural tensions by insisting on using the term “China Virus” instead of COVID-19, despite documented instances of anti-Asian sentiment and xenophobia in the U.S. caused by fear of and misinformation about the pandemic coming from the government itself. Across the world, rapid economic change in the form of mass layoffs, especially in the manufacturing and service sectors, paired with a government that sanctions hateful rhetoric sets a dangerous precedent for the further exacerbation of divisive populism and a further call to arms for Trump’s core base: older, less-educated, white men in rural America hurt by free trade and globalization.

Alongside the actual threat posed by the coronavirus itself, the international community is facing auxiliary challenges to our economy, political discourse and respect for cultural diversity. We ought to be incredibly vigilant in standing firm against the possibility of coronavirus further inflaming the right-wing populism that enables Trump — a society that is afraid, economically-insecure and intentionally divided based on cultural background is a very real and well-documented danger to democracy. As long as COVID-19 remains a salient pressure on the world, each state’s cultural, economic and political foundation will be tested, and with empathy and cooperation, will emerge stronger on the other side.