Many people need an enemy. It cements their identity when the ground beneath them trembles. “Who am I? I am one of those who are not them.” The need for this enemy is extraordinarily strong, and all evidence suggests that if one were not readily at hand, it would quickly be manufactured. Once it was the Russians, until suddenly it wasn’t anymore, which was ok because then we had the Muslims. That worked for a while but lately seems to have gotten old, what with lethal terror by whites far outpacing that by Islamic fundamentalists. For a long time, we had homosexuals, but Lord knows where that went. We have always had the old standby, the blacks, but nowadays the dog whistles have stopped working; violent crime has fallen precipitously, rural incarceration rates are higher than urban, and cities are cool again. So now we have the Mexicans.
While most research shows that this habit of mind is particularly common on the right, recent scholarship suggests it also exists on the left. Consider, for instance, the closed-minded dogmatism within parts of the left directed at some members of the religious right. In any case, regardless of whether this way of thinking is identical on the left and right, the fact remains that it is both widespread and powerful.
But what happens when the enemy mocks all our categories? The enemy today cares not one whit for race, religion, ideology, nationality, or border. It is thus utterly indifferent to what many consider absolutely essential. For that reason, it displaces our sense of hero and villain, and because we have invested so much in this sense, it destabilizes our identity. If “we” are those who are not “them,” and the virus ignores these categories as an elephant ignores a blade of grass, then who are we? What is our identity when all of humanity shares the same risk (though not the same burden)? It is the most important question posed by COVID-19 and has thus far gone unexamined.
History always has the last word, but I think events have already pointed towards an answer. The virus has finally made plain what many have forgotten: we are all equal. The tragedy awakens us to the simple but profound realization that we are bound together in our shared humanity. At last we should see that what unites us—our strength, our resilience, our hopes, and yes, our fragility—dwarfs what divides us. In the face of the virus, dwelling on such trivial distinctions as race, religion, or ethnicity suddenly feels extravagantly silly, an ironic confirmation of Freud’s narcissism of small differences that we can no longer indulge.
And mercifully, people are refusing to indulge it. It is this refusal that accounts for the glorious surge in mutual aid. As suffering sweeps across the land, millions of Americans have asked how they can help. Nationwide, people are forming mutual aid groups to distribute much needed goods and services to our most vulnerable neighbors. Restaurants are donating food to hospital workers, residents are buying and delivering groceries and supplies to the elderly so they don’t have to leave their home, people are sewing and donating masks. Websites and databases have sprung up. MutualAidHub.org includes a map-based directory that links volunteers to groups. HelpWithCovid.com lists projects looking for help. CoronavirusTechHandbook.com offers information on how people can get involved in tech projects like designing open-source medical devices. Newspapers and magazines across the country are encouraging these efforts and celebrating their noble achievements. Suddenly, we are all communitarians.
Yet the welcome rediscovery of our shared equality cannot be separated from two other developments. To begin with, the virus has laid bare the desperate inequality of American society. We are equal, but society is not. The top 1% of households in the United States own 40% of all wealth in the country, more than the bottom 90% combined, a higher level of inequality than at any time since at least 1962. In 2018, the 400 richest Americans paid a lower total tax rate than any other income group in the country, a distinction never equaled in U.S. history. The virus exacerbates this already obscene level of inequality by threatening to drive the most vulnerable into ruin. As others have observed, those who are best positioned to weather the COVID-19 storm are the wealthy and the well-paid workers with steady jobs, good benefits, and safe, stable housing. It is these employees, whose work is well compensated but not remotely “essential,” who can most easily maintain the lifestyle that is best calculated to keep them safe—viz., shelter in place, and practice social distancing whenever they leave home.
This is a luxury the poor cannot afford, especially those whose work is precarious. Contract employees. Delivery drivers. Cleaning and janitorial staff. Home health care providers. Many members of the gig economy. The sector is growing rapidly. One study found that by 2015, more than 17% of all workers in the United States were engaged in one of these “alternative arrangements.” Precarious work is the fastest growing sector of the American economy, which means the number is probably significantly higher now. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2019 that 31% of the workers in the private sector, and 57% of private sector workers in service jobs, did not have access to medical benefits. These Americans are faced with a choice that a just society should never impose: either work and risk one’s health, or stay at home and risk one’s livelihood. Paradoxically, the virus thus reveals both our essential equality and our constructed inequality, and forces us to choose between them. The surge in mutual aid shows that we have chosen the fundamental over the superficial. It is part of who we are.
Yet there is something more. The private generosity of mutual aid cannot possibly meet the enormous challenges created by a global pandemic. For that, we understand—immediately and instinctively—that we need a strong response by the national government. Government alone can bridge the gap between the inequality we see and the equality we aspire to achieve. We haven’t had this many people look plaintively to the federal government for a lifeline since the New Deal.
Just a few weeks ago, Congress approved and the President signed into law a $2.2 trillion stimulus package, the largest in U.S. history by more than $1 trillion and more than twice the amount originally requested by the White House. The Federal Reserve announced it was prepared to make unlimited purchases of government-backed debt to stabilize financial markets, which comes on top of the $2 trillion in liquidity it introduced into the banking system the week before in the form of short term loans.
And President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to compel General Motors, one of the largest corporations in the world, to make medical equipment. He had long resisted this move, insisting it was un-American to “nationalize” businesses. A week later, he did it again, forcing 3M to make masks.
Still, as staggering as these steps are, it quickly became apparent that they were not nearly enough, especially if the virus wanes in the summer and waxes in the winter. Politicians have already vowed to provide more relief for American workers and families. Some are even bandying about the idea of a government-funded jobs program to rebuild the country’s infrastructure.
Naturally, some people will resist the equalitarian lesson forced upon us by the virus. They will try to cling to old categories, as if yesterday’s divisions could yet stir the blood. After weeks of denying and minimizing, for example, the President’s most obsequious boosters have decided COVID-19 is a crisis after all, for which others, especially China, the WHO, and the Democrats, are to blame. This may work for some people, restoring a familiar sense of order in their authoritarian universe, but I wonder if it will be enough. Seventeen million people have filed for unemployment benefits, and more than half of employed adults say the virus has hit their household income, whether by a layoff, salary cut, or loss of hours. Pointing fingers at the usual suspects seems positively quaint about now. Our identity will not be shaped by casting blame on those who share equally in our tragedy.
Crisis never travels alone; it is always accompanied by opportunity. COVID-19 threatens humanity equally, and therefore reminds us that we are equal. Equality is an outcome achieved by one in aid to another, and by government in aid to all in need. That is who we are. May we seize upon this opportunity, and in time come to view it as a gift.