Wednesday, April 1, 2020

What will American society look like when this is over?

"I can't wait till life gets back to normal."

How many times have YOU heard or said that lately?  I know I have both.

I've been wondering of late what life is going to look like after this virus runs its course, after there's a vaccine and its re-emergence every year becomes like the flu.  In order to do that, we have to look at how life has changed and how we're adjusting.

Service businesses. I get my hair cut every five weeks.  I have a short haircut, which needs shaping regularly or it will look like a thinning mop.  The salon I go to is closed, I'm due for a haircut next Tuesday, and it's not going to happen.  And I have no idea when it will.  I'm trimming and tweezing my eyebrows myself and hoping I don't botch it.  I had a pedicure before the stay-at-home order, and won't have another one for a long time.  What little vanity I had has fallen by the wayside.  I think about people who regularly get their nails done, get their hair professionally colored, get facials and Botox and fillers and hair highlights and all the other things we do to pretty ourselves up and how we are all going to have to live with being somewhat unkempt.  There was a time when this "beauty industry" didn't exist.  Look at photos of your great-grandmother.  She didn't create a smoky eye and have lash extensions, and yet she managed to live a life, and even look pretty.  Will this teach us to relax about all this?  Then there are the petsitters and child care workers and handymen and the many other small service businesses that have been largely sidelined.  Will they still be there when we need them after this is over?

Corporate office parks.  People whose work takes place sitting at a computer are working from home these days.  I know from experience that especially large companies hate the idea of remote work.  The move towards "open concept office space" that was sold as "fostering collaboration" really does little of that, but is a great way for managers to do surveillance of employees to make sure they're busy. When your people are working at home, unless you are using keystroke loggers, there's a level of trust required that most companies historically have not had.  The assumption is that people will goof off.  But what if they aren't goofing off?  What if they're working more effectively, taking less sick time, perhaps even giving you the time they used to spend in traffic?  When Zoom allows you to have face-to-face meetings online, do you really need to sit in the same room with a pot of coffee and a tray of pastry?  Suppose companies DO decide that remote work is viable during all this.  What happens to all those corporate office parks with their on-site gyms and dry cleaners and cafeterias and huge lawns to maintain?  Do we need them?  Can a smaller facility for OCCASIONAL face-to-face meetings suffice?  Is there a better use we can put that land to, like, perhaps, replacing some of the farmland and forests that we've been clear-cutting for stick-built firetrap apartment buildings?

Restaurants.  Oh, the poor restaurants. It's estimated that up to 75% of this country's restaurants may never reopen.  We've been restaurant-crazy ever since we became foodies with the advent of the Food Network in 1993.  Today, mayonnaise with stuff mixed in is an aioli, everyone knows what a chiffonade is, and thanks to YouTube, everyone is a chef.  Here in Durham, NC, the foodie capital of the south, our downtown renaissance has been largely fueled by a thriving and dynamic restaurant scene and local celebrity chef culture, to the point that saying you have no idea who Ashley Christensen is, is met with the kind of horrified reaction one would get by saying one has spent one's entire previous life in northern New Jersey.  Many restaurants are doing what they can to switch over, at least temporarily, to a takeout-and-delivery model, but not every restaurant can do that, and even so, many people are leery of food of unknown origin and treatment.  It's one thing to simply block out the thought of a line cook who may not have washed his hands, but quite another when a deadly virus is at the front of everyone's mind.

The first casualty has been the Chinese restaurants and takeout joints.  If we are adept at nothing else, Americans are great at ethnic scapegoating, and the family-owned Chinese restaurants that neighborhoods all over the country rely on to deliver tasty, inexpensive Americanized versions of Chinese food in copious portions, were the first to suffer the consequences of American hysteria over a virus that originated in China.  Ordering a quart of wonton soup and a plate of mei fun has never seemed so revolutionary.

With restaurant dining now being just another manifestation of eating at home, many people are not bothering.  Will we go back when this is over?  Probably -- assuming there are restaurants to go to. Restaurants, like hair salons and other mom 'n' pop service businesses, operate close to the edge at all times, and most cannot absorb being out of business for an extended time.   Even good cooks are going to be tired of their own cooking in another few months, but will there be alternatives other than mediocre chain restaurants?

Low-wage workers.  Health care workers are on the front lines of this pandemic, but there is a group of people who are very quietly going about their business, making sure that we have what we need.  They are the people for whom the GOP has nothing but contempt, and the Democrats have long forgotten, enthralled as they have been with technocrats and big donors.  It's the low-wage workers -- the supermarket cashiers and stock clerks and night crews.  It's the restaurant cooks and packagers, the food delivery drivers and Amazon warehouse workers.  These folks are going to work, exchanging money with and handing receipts to people whose COVID-19 status is unknown.  They are keeping us stay-at-homes supplied with what we need (except toilet paper, there's still a shortage as I write this), and they're doing it in most cases for minimum wage or little more.  Last week I was at an Aldi, watching a woman not much taller than I am, putting bottles of ketchup on a shelf.  I said to her, "Thank you for your service."  Now military families may be outraged at that, but with military service, and certainly with health-care work, there is a certain amount of assumed risk.  Supermarket workers aren't usually required as part of their jobs to be exposed to deadly viruses on a daily basis.

These people, not corporate executives (especially the ones Trump is allowing to do commercials at his daily pressers), are clearly the ones keeping what little of the economy remains functional going.  And yet, the GOP is worried that some laid-off low-wage workers might get a few bucks more on unemployment for a few months than their wages.

When this is over, I hope we remember what they are trying to do every single day to keep us stocked with groceries, medications, and paper goods.  And that we fight for better wages for them.

Great Big Stuff.  I linked here to the eponymous song from "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels"  deliberately, which you'll understand about 1:25 into the video.  But for the rest of us, what will our housebound ways mean for the consumer society?  We're not driving, so we don't really need to buy a new car right now.  Designer clothes?  Why, when we're all at home.  And you know what?  Being comfortable and walking around the house barefoot is a lot nicer than teetering around in stiletto heels.  Our dishes are perfectly functional, we're watching movies on TV without 20 bucks worth of soda and popcorn, and we're somehow managing to thrive even with the malls closed.  The only Great Big Stuff anyone seems to want these days is a 30-pack of toilet paper from Costco.  Will we go back to our consumerist ways when this is over?  Or will we decide that we LIKE having fewer cars on the roads, less traffic, lower credit card payments every month because we are charging less consumption.

Medical Conspiracy Theories.  So where are the anti-vaxxers now?  Where are the snake oil salesmen -- the Dr. Axes and the herbalists and the people claiming that something you pull out of the soil in its native form is by definition always better than anything that actual scientists come up with.  These people have been pretty silent these days, while everyone is listening to the great Anthony Fauci explain in language even an idiot can understand what clinical trials are, how a Phase I trial is primarily about safety with efficacy only as a secondary endpoint and why often later trial phases are necessary.  He's educating people about how fast tracking works, how vaccines and treatments will work, and why taking chloroquine in fish tank cleaner is not the same as taking it in a tolerated-dose-tested tablet.

And then there are the health care workers in the trenches -- the doctors and nurses and aides and PAs and NPs and everyone out there who is reporting to work in what is essentially a war zone, abandoned by an incompetent and narcissistic president who STILL refuses to acknowledge what his dithering has done.  These are the people that too many Americans have lumped in with what they call the Great Medical Establishment Conspiracy -- money-grubbing crooks who do nothing but steal money from people, unlike the Great and Virtuous Herbalists and other quacks who also sell stuff online, but for some reason they have of late had more credibility than actual scientists -- on both the right AND the left.  Health care workers do miracles every day -- and now they are likely to be asked to take on the responsibility of determining whose life is saving and whose is not -- because there are not going to be enough ventilators and respirators to go around, thanks to Trump and his "pro-life" GOP.

I hope that we will be kind to all these people and stop the nonsense when this is over.  Yes, let's hold price-gouging pharma companies' feet to the fire.  But let's stop this assumption that science and medicine know nothing.

For more on the post-COVID-19 medical landscape, listen to Dr. Zubin Damania:

Universal health care.'s that "we can't afford universal health care, let's just tinker around the edges of the ACA" working for us?  Seriously.  How's that employer-based health insurance working for people at a time when unemployment claims number in the millions?  COBRA?  Really?  MY COBRA was almost $700/month.  When too many Americans wouldn't be able to scrape together $400 for an emergency, how do they pay that?  Those with families can have COBRA premiums of $1500-$2500/month.  How are they supposed to pay that?  And those without income for a sizable part of the year and who have a subsidized ACA plan may find themselves having to pay back that subsidy at the end of the year BECAUSE of their lack of income.

You can hate Bernie Sanders all you want to for staying in the race long after it's been established that the clueless and out-of-touch Joe Biden will be the one to run against Trump in November.  But if he stays in to keep the Democrats' feet to the fire on universal health care in the face of this pandemic, he'll be doing a public service.  Because the insurance model of health care delivery falls apart in the face of a pandemic like this.

And finally.....

Big Government and the I Got Mine And Fuck You society.  As I write this, Florida's extreme right-wing, Trumpazoid governor, Ron DeSantis is refusing to issue a stay-at-home order until Trump's task force tells him what to do.  Other governors are complaining that they are having to compete with other states for personal protective equipment for their states' health care workers -- like medieval street rabble scrambling for the few potatoes falling off the royal cart.  Viruses don't care about states' rights, or what the Heritage Foundation thinks about big federal government.  There really ARE things that are a national problem. When unemployment is going to be at 30% nationwide, relocating for a job is not even an option.  Every part of our vulture capitalist financial system is up for questioning now and if ANYTHING good comes out of this, it's going to be a long-belated end to the trickle-down idea of capitalism that Ronald Reagan foisted on us in the 1980s, and which the GOP has been using to screw over working people ever since.  It's going to be an end to the idea of "I don't want to pay for your health care."  Because guess what?  We are ALL going to be paying for each other's health care with this, one way or another.

We are NOT rugged individuals carving out the way west with our bare hands.  We are NOT Pa Wilder, building the Little House in the Big Woods and the Little House on the Prairie.   Yes, we are individuals, but we are also living in and part of a larger community.  Right now we are taking care of each other by staying away from as many people as possible so we don't infect them.  We go grocery shopping for our 85-year-old neighbor and our immunosuppressed friend.  We create Zoom meetings to keep in touch while we're at home.  We call people to make sure they're OK.  We take care of each other.

And when this is over, let's continue to do that.  Because it has become clear that I Got Mine And Fuck You is not a sustainable or civilized model to live in.

1 comment:

  1. I think that the I got mine attitude is finally being questioned. It was never survivable or sustainable, and folks are finally figuring that out.

    It is going to be a painful process, because a whole bunch of the time the majority of people here in the land of the free have a pretty big emotional investment in the "I got mine and fuck you attitude".

    We are only going to break away from our expectation of land of the Lotus Eaters when the excess gets taken away from us.


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