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Sliding toward shutdown / July 01, 2020
Just as paper products have begun to return to grocery store shelves, the United States — a vast swath of it, anyway — is edging back into shutdown mode due to the coronavirus. On Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the administration’s top infectious disease specialist, warned that 100,000 new cases developing on a daily basis would come as no great surprise, given the recent surge in infections around the country. “Clearly we are not in total control right now,” Fauci told members of a Senate committee.

No kidding. Or rather, this is what happens when kidding oneself is the country’s go-to answer for the greatest public health crisis in a century. One reason I’m inclined to cut people at least a little bit of slack for bad personal behavior vis-vis COVID-19 is because of the mixed signals emanating from above, with public health officials who follow the science undercut by a president who wants to turn everything into a campaign wedge issue. Nowhere else in the world will you find a national debate on the merits of wearing a mask to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Only in America, as they say.

What’s going on here is not complicated: one of our two major political parties has calculated that its hold on power lies in stoking non-stop cultural grievances, and really, what could be a bigger threat to individual freedom and liberty than wearing a cloth covering over your mouth and nose? Social distancing? Sounds like something out of the devil brain of Karl Marx, or Nancy Pelosi for that matter. But let’s set aside the fact that physical distancing and mark wearing are simple and easy steps that could save your life someday, or the lives of your parents and grandparents. With coronavirus caseloads blowing up in Texas, Arizona, Florida and elsewhere in red state America — the last places to lock down, the first to open back up, naturally — we’re left with a result the French once expressed neatly in a phrase: worse than a crime, it’s a blunder.

All along, the idea was straightforward: Shut down the country to buy time to get our act together on the virus, which essentially meant ramping up testing to identify covid sufferers and contact tracing to tamp down on disease flare-ups. Americans were asked to accept hardship in the short run so we could get back to semi-normalcy within a tolerable amount of time. And that’s exactly what has happened in the European Union, most Asian countries, and true standout nations like New Zealand. The United States under Donald Trump? Not so much. All those months cooped up at home while Trump and his rightwing fan base in Congress and on Fox News cheered on inaction and incompetence are looking more and more like time and national treasure utterly wasted.

The three and a half years of the Trump presidency have occasioned many opportunities to consider aspects of American life that most of us take for granted but shouldn’t — stuff like, and let’s keep the list short, the belief that people have a right to protest peacefully without being tear-gassed and clubbed by federal police; the U.S. Attorney General should stand as a figure of integrity and independence, not be a lying party hack who ordered said gassing and clubbing of peaceful protestors, all for the sake of clearing a path for an idiotic photo op for his boss; the Commander-in-Chief is duty-bound to swear an oath to the Constitution of the United States, not to Vladimir Putin — and since all these are subjects you can read about elsewhere, let’s focus instead on a mainstay of local life that stands to suffer irreparable harm due to our atrocious leadership in Washington: your child’s school.

Of all the grievous losses from the coronavirus, after the 125,000 dead (and rising) in the U.S. and millions of people sickened by the disease, the incalculable damage to our kids’ educational development has to rank high on the list of the country’s self-inflicted wounds. In Halifax County and all around the country, schools are planning for a new year with kids out of the classroom and stuck at home much of the time. In place of human interaction with teachers and classmates — the foundation of academic, social, emotional, even the physical development of children — the idea is to deliver what’s typically referred to as “distance learning,” via a computer screen. Because this is a family newspaper I can’t use the first phrase that pops to mind to describe this mode of instruction, other than note it rhymes with “miss more,” with the first letter of both words being the consonant after “O” and before “Q.”

Who’s to blame for this sorry state of affairs? Not your local school board or school superintendent, that’s for sure. Not Governor Northam, who, for all his mistakes, real and imagined, has never shied away from the urgency of seriously responding to a global health emergency. (Speaking of seriousness, I’d pay a lot more attention to attacks by Virginia Republicans on Northam’s decision-making if their criticism took into account the disastrous federal response that Northam has to contend with. That, plus it would be nice if the Virginia GOP offered its own ideas for handling the pandemic.) Our current tortured proposals for resuming school stem from an inescapable reality: Go back to business as usual, and risk everyone going back home quickly once an outbreak occurs inside schools. The alternating day and week classroom schedules, the reliance on online instruction, the near-certainty that sports and PE and extracurricular activities will be canceled — all of this is happening because kids and school employees must have a safe environment for learning, to the extent realistically possible, and that begins with social distancing and lowering the populations inside school facilities. It’s all an enormous headache, and doing it right is enormously expensive. Who’s providing the help and money desperately required to make it this jerry-rigged platform of safe, in-person instruction more or less work? No one.

States can’t do it — their budgets are already slammed, and 50 distinct and disjointed plans of action are destined to come up short for all the obvious reasons. Local governments? Get real. As usual, millions of individual citizens in the U.S. have acted responsibly, even valiantly, in the face of the pandemic, but personal action can only take us so far (especially with so many others basically not giving a damn). What’s left is a federal government under our current White House leadership that isn’t even trying to help — the earmark of a failed state, an international embarrassment.

If there’s a positive note to be drawn from this torrent of misery, it’s this: Things don’t have to be this way. The virus will be with us for awhile, barring a miracle, but we could be doing worlds better in protecting our senior citizens living in nursing homes, and educating our kids in their regular classrooms, and doing all kinds of things necessary to get through this terrible moment intact. But it’ll require beefing up a public sector that has been robbed of its strength by a decades-old turn to right-wing nihilism. You want to make America great again? The hard work of bringing our country up to par with the nations of the world that have met the pandemic challenge head-on begins in November, and continues forthwith. Either we get after this problem, or it’ll continue to get after us.

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