The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The pre-coronavirus status quo is not good enough

Tianna Chapman, a San Francisco Recreation and Parks employee, helps a child with an art project while maintaining social distance at an emergency child-care program for health-care workers in San Francisco on March 19. (Max Whittaker/For The Washington Post)

“Going back to what we had before would be cruel and unusual punishment.”

May these words from Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) become our national slogan as we deal with the novel coronavirus crisis. Confining ourselves to short-term damage control means overlooking the wrenching social problems this pandemic has exposed. It could also mean we’ll spend a whole lot of money with no long-term payoff.

Yes, Congress has performed better than might have been expected. Republicans who denied the need for robust federal spending after President Barack Obama took office during the Great Recession are suddenly throwing money around as if they had devoured the works of John Maynard Keynes in the interim. It’s amazing how holding the White House can lead to intellectual growth. And Democrats used their power in the House and their votes in the Senate to push the relief packages to do more for those most in need.

With severe shortages of protective equipment, nurses and other workers are having to choose between helping others and ensuring their own safety. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Patricia Lafontant/The Washington Post)

But thoughtful legislators such as Bennet and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) argue that the further spending needed to alleviate the immediate economic crisis should also be used to begin building a better post-pandemic country now.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Bennet’s 2020 presidential campaign didn’t work out, but he did offer the most memorable promise of any of the candidates. It looks better and better to a nation that President Trump has driven to clinical burnout.

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“If you elect me president,” Bennet said, “I promise you won’t have to think about me for two weeks at a time.”

His modesty and moderate tone often conceal Bennet’s sense of outrage over the radical injustices he says took root long before Trump took office. “I think it’s convenient . . . to say [of the pandemic], ‘Well, this reveals this terrible inequality,’ ” Bennet told me, “but anybody who spent any time in a classroom in a poor kid’s neighborhood in America in the last 50 years versus a more affluent kid’s classroom in America in the last 50 years would know that not only has there been inequality but it’s been intense and deeply unfair.

“All this inequality was staring us in the face, and we chose to ignore it,” he said.

Bennet argues that the pandemic should force us both to remodel our health-care system and reexamine educational inequality in light of how some school districts have had a far easier time coping with the needs of social distancing than others. And the painful decisions parents — especially those who are health-care workers — have had to make during this crisis lead to another question: “Could we finally now all understand that child care is essential?”

Murray, like Bennet, is a practical workhorse with an unaffected passion for social justice. She also placed “child care and support for families,” including family leave, at the top of her list of underdiscussed issues as Congress considers a new round of relief, given how many workers are either out sick or caring for family members.

She also called out our indifference to the “invisible workers,” those “working at the nursing homes, or the people at the packing plants, or the people at the grocery store, the ones you don’t think of every day.” This group, she says, also includes those working in domestic violence shelters, food banks and homeless programs who currently lack the “equipment and support” they need to provide care to vulnerable communities.

For the next round of legislating, Bennet is pushing hard for a 15 percent increase in food stamps benefits, since food banks “are strained to the breaking point” while farmers and ranchers need confidence that “there’s going to be a market for what they are producing.” He sees this as part of a larger effort to enact automatic stabilizers that kick in without the need for new legislation “when the economy deteriorates.”

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“We don’t need one more partisan fight the next time we have an economic downturn like this,” he says.

It’s true, of course, that even short-term thinking is better than Trump’s denial of federal responsibility for the nation he leads. He pushes off the work of dealing with the crisis to governors, and then says if Washington comes to the rescue of states that happen to be Democratic, “we’ll have to get something for it.” Blue states aren’t part of his American “we.”

Bennet and Murray would stare down Trump on behalf of states and localities, red and blue alike, whose budgets are collapsing. Bennet sees $500 billion for states and $250 billion for county and local governments as essential to avoiding long-term damage to the economy and core public services. If this seems big, consider that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted last week that states and localities put their need at closer to $1 trillion.

Sometimes an illness allows us to discover an overlooked ailment that desperately needs attention. It should not have taken a pandemic to bring home the shortcomings of our government and our society. But we’d be foolish to ignore them.

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Read a letter responding to this column

David Von Drehle: I was treated for covid-19. The unemployment pandemic needs just as much tending.

Bill Cassidy: Republican senator: Yes, Congress should send money to state and local governments

Catherine Rampell: States and cities should brace themselves for a downward spiral

Jennifer Rubin: Trump is now singing to Mitch McConnell’s tune

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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