My Google calendar reminded me last Friday that I was supposed to be on a flight to Paris, for a ten day vacation. I needed to let that sink in for a moment, so I baked my weekly loaf of banana bread and pondered how the world has changed since I made those plans.
Even if I felt it was safe to spend twelve hours trapped in a large metal cylinder with a bunch of strangers, all of us breathing recycled air (and I don’t), they won’t let me in to France right now! In fact, Americans aren’t welcome in most of Europe, due to our administration’s complete failure to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, causing rates of infection, hospitalization, and death to increase dramatically over the last month, rather than being contained.
Much of Europe, as well as Thailand and Vietnam, two of the world’s poorer countries, have managed to contain the virus, while the wealthiest country in the world can’t provide adequate testing for its citizens, enough protective gear for its front line workers, or paid sick leave so that infected workers can stay home instead of bringing the virus to their coworkers and customers. Worse than that, we have certain news media and elected officials, including the occupant of the White House, telling the American people that the coronavirus is a hoax, that wearing masks is for sissies, and that we should ignore scientific and medical guidelines.
Not only am I now living in a world where I have to worry about catching a deadly virus every time I venture out of my home, but millions of Americans have lost their jobs or are furloughed indefinitely, and economists are warning that the US economy is in the ICU. Certain politicians are asking us to choose between saving the economy and saving our lives. (It’s a false choice: Sweden chose not to implement sheltering-in-place, mask-wearing or social distancing, betting they could manage the pandemic without damaging the economy, and yet they’ve lost more lives to COVID-19 than neighboring countries, and their economy still tanked.)
And if all of that isn’t bad enough, while we’ve been sheltering-in-place and losing jobs, Black people have continued to be killed by police officers at a much higher rate than whites, and when thousands of Black, brown and white people, young and old, have peacefully protested these killings and the systemic racism that underlies them, the protesters have been attacked – not only by angry white people, but now also by agents of our own Federal government.
The world I live in seems to be crumbling into complete chaos and confusion. And yet, I do not despair, in fact, I’m feeling oddly optimistic. It’s not because back in March, at the beginning of the shelter-in-place, I discovered a great recipe for banana bread: it’s gluten free, dairy free, sugar free, and surprisingly quite delicious. I’ve made a loaf nearly every Friday afternoon, when my work week is done, to provide some guilt-free comfort. (I know I’m not the only one who’s been doing more baking and cooking while stuck at home.)
Let me tell you why I’m feeling hopeful these days about the future. First, as I learned years ago, and have been telling my clients over the last few months, every crisis presents not just a threat but also an opportunity. The threats are usually obvious; it takes effort to find the opportunities. While this pandemic is clearly the worst crisis any of us now living have known, history offers evidence that it could become a portal to creating a better world, as the writer Arundhati Roy suggests at the end of this article.
As I see it, the three major crises we’re experiencing in this country – the rising rates of infection and death from COVID-19, the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, and the explosion of outrage over racial injustice – are all connected. (For a more eloquent explanation, see Nicholas Kristof’s recent column in The New York Times.) Consider this: the idea of tying healthcare benefits to employment made sense in the 20th century, but in today’s rapidly-evolving and increasingly gig economy, it no longer does. Losing your job should not mean losing your family’s healthcare benefits. The need for some form of universal healthcare has never been more obvious.
Consider also that the need for social safety-net programs like Medicaid, Headstart, and food stamps is growing, but did you know that the primary reason those programs have been maligned and underfunded for decades, by Republicans as well as Democrats, is due to the erroneous belief that Black and brown people take advantage of these programs, while white folks pay for them? (To find out the real story, read Dog Whistle Politics, by Ian Haney Lopez.)
(By the way, my optimism is fueled by the evidence that people are reading books like his, and that Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility are bestsellers. Democracy requires an educated citizenry, and books are a portal to knowledge, while the media can be manipulated and can also become a tool for social control and oppression.)
Thus we have an opportunity here. If we can change the structural conditions that led to these crises, we can solve them all. We can begin by expanding Medicaid and Medicare to cover anyone who needs it, as well as providing paid sick and family leave for all workers. While we’re at it, we can expand access to daycare and preschool programs, as well as increase wages for childcare workers and caregivers. Changes like these will not only improve the lives of our Black and brown citizens, they will keep the rest of us healthier, provide a better future for all of our children, and create more jobs in the healthcare and social services sectors.
Comfort food can also be healthy and delicious, like my banana bread. Making programs like Medicaid/Medicare and paid sick leave open to all enhances the health and safety of everyone, and in doing so, is cost effective. In taking care of the most oppressed and vulnerable members of our society, we all benefit. I hope that the coronavirus pandemic has made this truth so painfully obvious that voters and our elected representatives will make it happen this year. We can seize the opportunity in the midst of this crisis to create a better world!