Social distancing. Shelter in place. Distance learning. Self-quarantine. Ventilators. N95s. When will our vocabulary, not to mention our lives, go back to normal?
The day will come when this crisis will be behind us. But we shouldn’t go back to normal. The coronavirus pandemic revealed weaknesses and opportunities in our social and economic life that need attention.
Many of us are working from home, while our offices are shuttered. Maybe we’ll find out this is a plus for efficiency, morale and employee retention. Workers may want to work from home once the restrictions are lifted. Employers will need smaller offices, employees won’t need to fight traffic and they’ll spend less money on gas and parking. If everyone worked from home just one day a week, and that day rotated, the need to build more roads and freeways would end.
Educators have experimented with distance learning for years. Those plans are no longer theories, but everyday reality. We’ll soon find out what works and what doesn’t and those successes can be part of “normal” education, keeping in mind nothing replaces face-to-face interaction between a student and teacher.
Working or learning at home assumes widespread high-speed internet access and a computer. That’s a false assumption. When Sartell-St. Stephen school administrators formulated their distance learning plan, they estimated about 90 percent of students had high-speed internet access at home. A national study ranking metro areas revealed that in the St. Cloud area, about 85 percent of households have high-speed internet. High-speed internet should be available to every household, like water and electricity.
The virus is exposing two fundamental flaws in our “normal” society: children’s nutrition is tied to schools and health care is tied to employment.
When school leaders planned how to serve students during the shutdown, a major concern was how to deliver meals to students who depend on schools for breakfast and lunch.
For millions of workers who have lost their jobs and who depended on employment for health insurance, the debate over “Medicare for all” or “Medicare for all who need it” takes on new urgency. Citizens should demand a public option for all Americans so a job loss doesn’t turn into a medical or financial disaster. The Trump administration should immediately drop its lawsuit intended to further weaken the Affordable Care Act by removing the pre-existing conditions requirement.
Some of the first victims of the economic slowdown are contract, part-time, freelance, service and gig-economy workers who do not qualify for either employer-provided health insurance or unemployment insurance. As more workers move to a nontraditional employment model, those social programs should protect them too.
We’re in the middle of an election year and many states have pushed back primaries. States are already making plans about how to conduct the November election in the middle of pandemic. The larger issue that should be fixed: Why do we still vote on Tuesdays? All states should adopt mail-in ballots and “no-fault” absentee voting in addition to moving elections to a weekend day. More than 70 percent of Minnesotans usually vote, a turnout that’s tops in the country. But a 70 percent grade usually gets you a “C,” not something to be proud off.
Just after Barack Obama’s election, Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, made this memorable and cynical statement: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”
When this crisis ends, let’s just not go back to “normal” but instead let’s not waste the chance to make overdue social and economic changes.