In times of crisis, we Americans try to tell ourselves stories about who we are and what we are doing. In this particular crisis, we have told ourselves that local and state leaders are stepping in where the federal government is failing. There has been more than one national news article dedicated to the good job done by the New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, whose state has been worst hit by the virus and who has responded with measured and informative daily press briefings and an increasing series of measures, such as closing all non-essential businesses and directing a 90-day moratorium on residential or commercial evictions.
Some have noted that businesses have stepped up for their employees (some restaurants have stayed open for takeaways and said that all the money made will go to furloughed staff). Americans that have raised money for their fellow citizens, crowd-funding to help laid off bartenders and waiters, have also been praised. There is the story of how, in this moment of national crisis, some are seeing that what was previously dismissed as socialism is actually the basic social safety net that a government should be expected to provide for its citizens; on 16 March, the Republican senator Mitt Romney, of all people, floated the solidaristic idea of giving every American $1,000.
The problem is that, in response to each of these more positive tales, one could tell another, different story. Yes, Cuomo has emerged as a hero of the pandemic; but it is arguably the behaviour of other governors that has put people at greater risk. Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, for example, in refusing to close beaches, put Floridians and foolish spring break tourists in danger. Some businesses, such as United Airlines, have threatened lay-offs if they are not given a government bailout.
While, for a few weeks at least, it looked as though Republicans would embrace bold, progressive policies to help Americans get through the epidemic, the Senate bill for an economic stimulus – which failed to pass a Congressional vote on 22 March – fell short of that optimism. In the words of Massachusetts senator and former presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, the proposed legislation represented “a slush fund for the big guys and no help for workers and no help for hospitals”.
And solidarity? Basketball players, celebrities and politicians, some of whom did not even have symptoms, were able to access tests to determine whether or not they have Covid-19 (one, Senator Rand Paul, who voted against a bill to fund the fight against the virus, tested positive). The wealthy and powerful without symptoms are able to get tested; others, even medical professionals, are told there are not enough tests for them.
Asked at a press briefing about whether access to tests was contingent on one’s socioeconomic status, Donald Trump conceded that this was “the story of life”. It was a moment of unexpected candour from the president: inequality is indeed the story of life in the US, and is certainly the story of life in a US in crisis.
This article appears in the 25 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The crisis chancellor