“Once we open up our great country, and it will be sooner than later, the horror of the Invisible Enemy, except for those who lost a family member or friend, must be quickly forgotten. Our Economy will boom, perhaps like never before.”
– Tweet from @realDonaldTrump, April, 8, 2020
Along with the childish exaggeration and capitalisation and the gross insensitivity to those who have lost loved ones, this tweet is dangerously naïve in its assumption that after the coronavirus runs its deadly course we’ll all just get back to our “normal lives.” In addition to the profound structural changes that this pandemic is already producing in our social, economic and political spheres, equally concerning will be the psychological impact of the trauma and general unsettledness resulting from all these changes. It is our reaction to this shock that will ultimately shape how we view our lives, understand our world and deal with challenges in the post-pandemic order.
We’ve seen this repeatedly play out in human history, including in the US. During the last century, the impact of two World Wars and the Great Depression resulted in severe social and economic dislocation. Both World Wars fuelled intense xenophobia and nativist movements that caused enormous suffering for millions of immigrants and their descendants. As massive numbers of young men went off to fight in these cataclysmic conflicts, women entered the workplace to fill the jobs left vacant. At the same time, Black Americans migrated north in search of employment. New industries and cities grew as the wartime economy flourished to meet the needs of a burgeoning military.
When the wars ended and “Johnny came home,” many were shaken by trauma, lost and unable to return to normalcy. Those who were able to go back to work ended up displacing the women and Black Americans who had filled those jobs – thus planting seeds that would later grow into the women’s movement and the northern civil rights movement.
We needn’t go back to last century’s World Wars, the Great Depression, or the War in Vietnam and the transformations brought on by these unsettling “shocks to the system.” Instead, we can look to the impact of the more recent Great Recession of 2008-2009 as a case in point.
In late 2008, a sudden financial collapse wreaked havoc on the American economy. The immediate impact was in evidence in our polling. Up until that time, when asked what we call the “American Dream” question – “Will your children be better off than you are right now?” respondents would answer “Yes” by a margin of two-to-one. Now, the tables had turned and by the same two-to-one margin Americans were answering “No.”
What was fascinating was that in the November 2008 election, voters responded not by recoiling in fear but with hope for the future by electing Barack Obama as president. Republicans, however, sensing an opportunity, preyed on the vulnerabilities of the traumatised middle class. They launched, funded, and organised the “Birther Movement” and the “Tea Party” exploiting racial resentment and fear of immigrants and minorities, especially Arabs and Muslims, and the mistrust of government.
In the midst of this current crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, we are witnessing yet another traumatic shock to the system. Signs of unsettling dislocation are everywhere: unemployment is skyrocketing; schools, businesses and churches are closed; many small businesses are shuttered; essential services are strained to the breaking point; and the government is taking on massive new debt in an effort to forestall economic collapse. Millions are living in forced isolation and the strains and fears of the illness and economic uncertainty are taking a toll.
One day we may discover an effective way of treating this virus and/or a vaccine to protect us from it. At that point, the lockdowns will end, and we may return to work. But will we go back to living as we did before? Or will the changes we are now experiencing, transform the way we conduct our lives?
While we cannot predict where this will lead us, we can be certain that the shock and fear created by the pandemic are once again ploughing fertile ground for future social and political movements. How long it will take for them to ferment; how many of them will emerge; what their messages may be; who will lead them; and how effective or long-lasting their impact will be – this we cannot predict. But what we should know is that we will not just go back to where and how we were before the pandemic.