All the nice ways that we have been spending our time uplifting loved ones, these are very high-maintenance, high-energy things we have to do. People are really good at doing them in the short term. People are really good at buckling down and supporting each other at doing hard things in hard times. But there is a time limit on that, and it should be the job of the government to take the burden from them when it can.
Hamblin: There a lot of cops out on the streets, a lot of patrol cars just rolling around New York. It feels like we’re using a lot of resources to patrol for potential crimes, and more resources go toward that and less toward this inevitable rise in people who can’t feed themselves.
Newkirk: You are what you spend on as a state and as a government. We’ve spent, in so many states, so much on punitive measures, on ways to keep people out of housing or ways to stop people from being “dependent” on the safety net, on ways to incarcerate people who do wrong. Those are going to be the effective systems when everything else falls down. In rural Mississippi, you can’t expect the hospitals to all of a sudden start working when they haven’t before. What we can expect is that cops are going to keep arresting people. People are going to keep contracting diseases in jail and prison, as is already happening. People are going to die that way. That’s just the bottom line.
We’re going to report on things as if they’re new, as if they are sudden manifestations of a nation in crisis. But really, all this is going to do is accelerate all the things that we have been spending on. It’s going to illustrate what we haven’t paid attention to. People like to say this disaster has opened our eyes. But having your eyes closed is a choice.
Wells: We’re all asking this question now: When will this end? When will life get back to normal? I feel like Katrina has a really complicated lesson for us about the aftermath.
Newkirk: I was talking to Andy Horowitz, who wrote a forthcoming book on Katrina, and he talks about how people willfully misunderstand what a disaster is. It's a manifestation, not an abrupt thing. It is so natural to wish to go back to the way things were before, the day before we understood the virus was in Wuhan.
But we should be interrogating that idea. Why do we want to go back there? We understand that the things that exist today are the things that are aiding and abetting this virus. If we know now that the entire construct of our system of prisons and jails is going to create reservoirs of disease that is going to be impossible to fight on a public-health front, why do we accept it as necessary? As bad as the COVID-19 pandemic is, there are lots of nastier germs out there with higher mortality rates that we could have been hit with. What if one of those happens and we still have the same exact system? Why do we want to go back to that?
Wells: Here’s the flip side, though. I’ve heard people say this is an opportunity. The optimistic among us see this is an opportunity to change things. It’s making all of our problems impossible to ignore, so now we can reconstruct everything, which is a lovely thought. But ... what we know about the aftermath of Katrina is that the way social structures were rebuilt ended up alienating and displacing a lot of people who had been there for generations. When people say this is an opportunity to rethink our structures, that scares me. I am worried about the vultures.
Newkirk: I’m worried about opportunism generally. But I think my answer to that would be, the vultures aren’t rethinking anything. They are doing what has been the rule of thumb in America for the past however many decades. They have power and they have money and they are exercising that power and money. That’s not a rethinking. The fact that aggressive, accelerated gentrification seems to follow every single disaster, that’s not rethinking. That is power doing as it will. That’s as mundane as oatmeal.