By Scott Graber
It is Thursday, April 9, 2020, in the time of COVID. This morning I have my coffee, concentration and memories of better times — times when rampant, monkey-borne pathogens were either in Sub-Saharan Africa, or in Scripture. Times when we believed that the only life-threatening danger in Italy was losing one’s wallet to gypsies in front of Roma Termini.
This morning, my mind wanders back to my father and my belief that he worried about few things in life. Although he dealt with infection, he never seemed to worry about smallpox or tuberculosis or polio. These pathogens had been beaten or there were vaccines. I do remember his discussion (with his colleagues) about whether or not the smallpox virus should be retained (alive at CDC) for future study.
But I know that my father was terrified that there would be another stock market crash like the one in 1929. I know he was traumatized by the Depression because he told me stories about his own father losing his job, his savings and sitting in their small Ohio kitchen wondering whether they would lose their home, their family, their dignity.
The Depression did have one positive impact — it gave Franklin Roosevelt the ability to rethink the way government worked in the United States. It gave Roosevelt the ability to create work (Civilian Conservation Corps); to curb greed (Securities and Exchange Commission); to protect bank deposits (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation); to bring electricity to the South (Tennessee Valley Authority) and to restore faith in American governance and in America itself.
My father, like a million other young men, went off to war in 1941, and that experience also shaped his view of the world. But World War II did not dilute his fear that another Depression was just around the corner.
But this is not a column about my father. It’s a column about what happens after this pandemic dissipates. What happens after an anti-viral drug is approved? After a vaccine is successfully tested? What happens when America’s furloughed workers are ready to return to their jobs?
In 430-429 B.C., plague, of some kind, came to Greece. It so happened that Thucydides took notes and we know that it killed one forth of the Athenian land army.
As a consequence of this infection — coming out of Africa — Athenian plans to defeat Sparta and the Peloponnesian League were shelved. Ever since then historians have speculated about where the Athenian Empire might have gone had the plague not arrived when it did.
Procopius also took notes when the Bubonic Plague came to Constantinople in 542-543 A.D. — earlier plagues had swept through in 165-180 A.D. and in 251-266 A.D. — and historians say this pestilence thwarted Justinian’s efforts to reunite the Roman Empire.
It is also clear that the lack of Roman resistance to the Moslem armies (in 634 A.D.) had everything to do with population kill-off following repeated plagues throughout the Mediterranean.
But the United States is not on the verge of defeating Sparta; or consolidating an empire in the Mediterranean; we are in the middle of a presidential debate where fundamental concepts of capitalism are in question. The first of these is the belief that health care and drugs are a commodity—to be sold with profit attached.
Before the virus arrived “Medicare for All” was in play and Big Pharma was emblematic of corporate greed. But times have changed and, as I write this column, Roche, Eli Lilly and dozens of drug makers are working on vaccines or anti-viral drugs.
The drug companies that were pilloried are racing to find a cure for our plague. We pray they will succeed. And every night, in New York City, millions applaud medical providers from their windows and fire escapes at seven o’clock.
Donald Trump’s rock-solid belief in capitalism will comfort many of my generation — the Boomers. And while it is true this generation reliably votes for Trump — it is a diminishing cohort. The question will be whether or not the Corona Crisis (and the “Crash” that may follow) will motivate everyone else — especially younger, displaced, voters — to re-think the way America works.
Although “healthcare” and “Big Pharma” won’t be printed on the ballot, they will be issues along with corporate compensation — and whether corporations should be allowed to relocate, willy nilly, to India, China, Brazil.
Notwithstanding our current preoccupation with COVID-19, there will be consequences that come after the crisis.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org.