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What I've learned about this pandemic

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at the Democratic presidential debate at CNN Studios in Washington Sunday night. Credit: AP / Evan Vucci

As city streets and store shelves grow eerily empty in response to the coronavirus pandemic, no one knows as yet how bad the outbreak will get in the United States — an uncertainty that only worsens the anxiety. But some things are not in doubt: for a lot of people, the present crisis just happens to confirm their long-held views.

This tendency showed up in Sunday night’s Democratic debate, when Sen. Bernie Sanders argued that the coronavirus shows the need for single-payer health care. Yet, as former Vice President Joe Biden was quick to respond, Italy — currently facing a nightmare scenario of hospitals overwhelmed by skyrocketing infections — does have single payer. Obviously, it’s not always the answer.

Meanwhile, some on the right, including young media star Charlie Kirk, have seized on reports that Italian hospitals in affected areas may stop offering intensive care to coronavirus patients over 80 as evidence of the horrors of socialized health care. But the truth is that when resources are depleted in emergencies, doctors may have to make excruciating choices whether they work for public or private institutions.

In Sunday’s debate, Sanders also suggested that the mobilization to combat the coronavirus should remind us of the need for urgent action against climate change. Yet while few reasonable people today doubt that climate change is a serious issue, it involves far more complex, long-term, and varied solutions than a deadly disease. Analogizing it to the coronavirus pandemic seems foolhardy: does that mean asking Americans to reconcile themselves to decades of life under a state of emergency and to massive government intrusion in their lives?

At least Sanders didn’t argue that the panicked run on food and toilet paper at American supermarkets proves that capitalism is as prone to empty shelves as socialism — the way Daily Beast reporter Spencer Ackerman did on Twitter. (As many noted, this means that capitalism amid a sudden and devastating crisis is like socialism on a normal day — hardly a point in socialism’s favor.)

While some see the coronavirus pandemic as a refutation of libertarianism, others say that the current crisis vindicates libertarian views: for instance, that government is incompetent, that many regulations are unnecessary and burdensome (since some have been suspended in the emergency), or even that homeschooling works. For nationalists, the coronavirus boosts the case for strong borders (let’s keep out that “foreign virus,” in Donald Trump’s words!). For internationalists, it boosts the case for globalism (an international pandemic requires an international response).

To many of us, an obvious lesson of the coronavirus pandemic is that handing political power to swaggering populists with no experience in government and no respect for experts is a terrible idea. There is no question that the Trump administration has mishandled the crisis, and Trump’s desire to minimize the peril for optics has almost certainly caused harm (if only by encouraging many conservative Americans to be dismissive). Yet even the Trump-blaming conclusion, however deserved, is much too easy. The failure of mass coronavirus testing, for instance, seems to have been due mainly to just the kind of bureaucratic red tape conservatives decry. Most of Europe has not handled the pandemic much better than the United States. And New York’s ultra-liberal Mayor Bill de Blasio had been nearly as bad as Trump in downplaying the danger.

Perhaps the real lesson of the pandemic is that we should focus on surviving and beating it. The political messaging will take care of itself — especially whatever the coronavirus is supposed to teach us is what we already believe.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.

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