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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Coronavirus coverage ignores US’ structural flaws

This is not yet another coronavirus thinkpiece. I promise.

Well, it is, and it isn’t.

The Carletonian’s Editor-in-Chief, Katy Gilbertson ’20, reached out to me about writing a political article for my column this week, bemoaning the noticeable drop in political coverage since Washingtonian Sam Kwait-Spitzer ’21 was kicked upstairs from the Viewpoint section. That remark, in tandem with the sheer amount of coverage COVID-19 has received, at Carleton and far, far beyond, made me think more broadly about our news cycle.

The coronavirus, as a world-altering pandemic, deserves much attention around the world, as it has received. I am skeptical of my local paper’s constant need to indulge human interest stories and provide multiple updates of every conceivable old and new angle every day, but the fact remains that the virus has touched all our lives and will continue to for some time. People deserve to be informed about it.

Nor do I think that the virus’ coverage is necessarily to the detriment of other pressing issues of our time. But what I have noticed is a trend to depoliticize and separate coronavirus and responses to it from the political spheres in which they exist.

In the Carletonian, as in many newspapers of record around the world—I’ve seen such examples in El País, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Le Monde, and more, including my own San Jose’s Mercury News—emphasis of coronavirus has often, but certainly not always, revolved around its immediate effects on individuals.

This is critical, to some degree—people must know what the implications of physical distancing are in their lives if we are to continue to resist the virus’ spread. That is not my main concern. Rather, I worry about a trend of divorcing these individual practices from the political realities that have put us in this situation in the first place.

Sociologist and left-wing intellectual C. Wright Mills posited in 1959 the idea of the sociological imagination, a tool by which individuals begin to see the social structures that build their world and their own lives. By paying attention to these trends, people can better critique the contexts of our lives.

For Mills, and I suspect many Carleton students familiar with introductory sociology, this imagination can prove liberating and also horrifying. But news outlets tend to forsake this type of structural analysis in favor of bare-bones, divorced fact. I would not want papers to editorialize in their news articles, but it is irresponsible to ignore the tremendous political negligence that has allowed coronavirus to so proliferate.

The United States’ lack of universal health care, in particular, has worsened the coronavirus beyond all measure, with Americans unable to seek effective treatment; when combined with lack of investment in testing and other medical infrastructure, an utter absence of paid sick leave, and the continued anodyne responses of many local, state, and national governments in a fundamentally nonfunctional federal system, we have an utter disaster on our hands.

The appearance of an economic contraction is not the cause but the effect of these structural issues, and its effect in turn is millions of people jobless, sick, hungry, and otherwise insecure.

Although the news often treats these points deceptively as simple, independent statistics, it rarely discusses them in relation to each other. But we can go much further still.

The political structure of the United States, not only the media but its government, its corporations, and certainly its most privileged citizens as well, favors a perspective of complete and rugged individualism that offers no space for either the theory or the practice of collective thinking. We do not discuss how these forces, the concern for profit and personal security above the good of a healthy society, exacerbate the perils of coronavirus, let alone actually address them.

I find it very telling that one of the most common criticisms levied against communism is the lurid image of “bread lines” among the starving poor citizens of the Eastern Bloc. But is that not exactly what we face now in the capitalist world? Faced with an inability to transport individually produced goods, the agriculture sector wastes millions and millions of pounds of food every day as customers raid stores’ empty shelves for their hoards. Insurance companies thrive and banks max out loans as millions with pre-existing conditions lack the basic care they need. Bored bourgeois shelterers shop online for their own satisfaction as sick Amazon workers can’t take a day or even ten minutes off. Negligent parents on my street walk outside on their phones and almost collide with me around a corner because they don’t care about distancing.

If we are living in an apocalypse, it is an apocalypse of our own creation. The primary disease is coronavirus, but it is a disease whose effects depend in large part on how our capitalist, individualist world responds to it. Our endless preference, as a collective, for our own individual “good” has made the United States suffer far more than was otherwise possible. That was true before coronavirus, it is true in the midst of it, and it will be true after if we do not fast learn these lessons.

I am reminded of Octavia Butler’s perennially relevant Parable of the Sower, in which a group of travelers sets off across an apocalyptic California to seek a better life. The group’s cohesion across identities contrasts with the ruggedly isolated, independent world around them, demonstrating an unforeseen solidarity in the book’s world. Near the book’s conclusion, the middle-aged doctor Bankole tells the hero, Lauren, “It seems almost criminal that you should be so young in these terrible times. I wish you could have known this country when it was still salvageable.”

The great irony of Bankole’s words is that the Parable’s world is the same world as before. The oppressive forces that have created this disaster were already present in the 1960s, when Bankole was a child, and they continue to rule over his world. The state of the novel is one of constant alteration with preservation. As Lauren responds of the country, “It might survive, changed, but still itself.” The same can be said of our world. Coronavirus will not destroy our society, but it will change it; likewise, it will strain our already present inequities, but not destroy them. To respond, we must, like Lauren, be both conscious of these inequities and willing to change them, to form relationships in a world that appears keen to societally separate.

I am not optimistic about the electoral choice this country faces in November, between a sexual assailant and segregationist on the one hand and a Republican on the other, but the social structure of our country relies on far more than two old white men. By opening the breadth of our dialogue into the public sector, we must begin to seriously analyze the power structures through which coronavirus hurts us all, not only to protect ourselves against its effects, but to ensure that the problems it worsens do not continue to plague us after it has passed.

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