The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This Fourth of July, covid-19 is forcing us to confront America’s many weaknesses

Fourth of July fireworks over the National Mall in 2019. (Marlena Sloss/The Washington Post)
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When we celebrate the Fourth of July, we traditionally celebrate the strength of our nation. It’s not simply about seeing family, barbecues, beaches, fireworks and fun, but also about honoring our long-lasting, stable democracy and our robust way of life.

This year will be the opposite. Instead of gatherings with friends, we’ve got a long weekend of closed beaches and cancelled fireworks displays to contemplate how the novel coronavirus pandemic didn’t simply kill more than 125,000 Americans. The disease has probed our body politic, seeking out weak and vulnerable spots, exposing our structural and societal weaknesses.

It’s all too easy to see President Trump as the main cause of the disaster we’re living through. He made the pandemic worse in many ways — by prioritizing the health of the stock market over the health of Americans, by attempting to beat back the virus with positive thinking — but he is far from alone.

There is also our know-nothing culture, famously hostile toward intellectuals and even basic science, and all too receptive to conspiracy theories. Only in the United States would wearing a mask to prevent infection become a matter of political persuasion. Democrats embraced masks; Republicans — well, not so much. “Stop telling us what to do,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.). In an Orlando suburb, protesters chanted, “My body, my choice,” after county officials mandated face coverings. Pro tip: Infectious diseases don’t care whether you are a Republican or a Democrat.

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Our for-profit, not-universal health-care system left Americans at risk, too. Early during the pandemic, people received invoices for thousands of dollars for the temerity of responsibly seeking a covid-19 test after a possible exposure. An estimated 43 percent of all covid-19 deaths have occurred among people living in nursing homes or assisted living complexes — many of which are owned by private equity firms and suffer from chronic underinvestment. And remember how Americans supposedly so loved their employer-provided health insurance that they rejected Medicare-for-all? Now, millions may lose access to that insurance along with their jobs.

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Despite early claims that we were all in this fight together, it clearly wasn’t so. Blacks and Latinos turned out to be more likely to work in the service jobs that left them at risk, while professionals — more likely white — could work at home. Tales poured forth from warehouses and fast-food chains of employees ordered to work despite lacking safety equipment and, sometimes, despite believing they were suffering from covid-19 and could spread it to co-workers and customers. At the same time, Blacks and Latinos — often suffering from the lifelong health effects of inequality and discrimination — are also more likely to die from the disease. Think of it this way: One group baked bread, while others risked their lives selling or delivering it.

Then there are the children. Schools across the country have been closed since mid-March, and it’s looking increasingly likely many will still be offering remote education in part or full come fall. To varying degrees, children have lost months of learning — and for some, the loss is likely to be lifelong. As for childcare facilities, The Post reported in May that the system is on the brink of collapse. This is both a short-term and long-term economic and human catastrophe that almost no one — no elected official, no school official — is attempting to address in any systemic way. How precisely are parents — and, of course, you can read mothers here — supposed to return to work, whether remotely or in-person, if there is no school or day care for their children? The answer, quite possibly, is that they will not.

But why should we be surprised? This is not exactly a new problem. We are, again, the only first world country lacking paid family leave. Day-care costs more than tuition at a public college in a majority of states, and quality can be spotty. School teachers — predominantly women— are underpaid compared with other similarly credentialed professionals. Huge numbers of people say the reason they have fewer children than they want because of cost. And all of this was true before the current crisis.

As always in the United States, there is one group that is doing better than ever in the covid-19 era. As data from the Institute of Policy Studies released last month revealed, billionaires are continuing to prosper. As the unemployment rate soared, the combined wealth of the 614 wealthiest individuals went up by $584 billion, or almost 20 percent. Even as the federal deficit soared and state governments — which by law have to balance their budgets — struggled, they continued to receive tax breaks.

Here’s one: Just in time for the patriotic holiday, the New Jersey legislature passed, as part of its budget, a provision that would allow for private development in the state’s public parks. According to the New York Times, the provision appeared targeted at the aptly named Liberty State Park, where a local developer is eager to encroach on public space by expanding his golf club. Happy Fourth of July, everyone!

Read more:

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