The losses of life, heartbreak, and economic devastation produced by the Covid-19 pandemic cannot be understated. Over two thousand Americans are losing their lives each day and the economy is being decimated by the shutdown of countless businesses. The battle against the pandemic is all consuming—preoccupying our leaders, exhausting those in essential occupations, and monopolizing the media’s attention.
While an overwhelmed public is struggling to cope with this crisis, other pressing issues merit our attention, including climate issues, a humanitarian disaster at our border, unrelenting gun violence, growing economic inequality, environmental degradation, and healthcare policy challenges.
Take gun violence. Current figures indicate that close to half a million Americans will lose their lives from gunfire over the next decade if the problem continues unabated. No national law to protect Americans from gun violence has been passed since the Federal Assault Weapons Ban was enacted in 1994. Gun violence has terrorized school children, devastated many communities of color, and magnified the lethality of domestic violence. The annual cost of gun violence is in the order of $200 billion, when loss of income, criminal justice system and quality of life costs are added to the medical costs.
Like a pathogen, gun violence is contagious. In vendetta-like group conflicts frequently seen in inner city neighborhoods, one killing begets another, often over relatively minor disputes. The transmissible quality of gun violence is also observed in planned mass shootings that are often inspired by the desire to exceed the body count achieved in previous shootings. Also, gun violence, like the pandemic, is particularly virulent in disadvantaged communities.
In a pandemic, populations develop a growing immunity to the infectious agent. By contrast, a community or nation subject to high levels of gun violence does not grow increasingly immune to it. Instead, gun violence is corrosive, resulting in flight to other areas, levels of fear and financial divestment resulting in increasing poverty, social dysfunction, despair, and physical decay. The fear and lack of trust undermines community cohesion, including the personal investments required to promote the well-being of residents.
Some will say that now is not the time to worry about issues other than the pandemic. The implication is that we put every other major issue on hold for many years due to the anticipated duration of the pandemic followed by years of financial recovery. Part of normalization is envisioning a different future. What better time is there to reassess our values and reconsider our collective commitment to public health and safety, clean air and water, a just society, fair elections, and an immigration system that is humane and contributes positively to America?
The current crisis also underscores the need to review the role of the federal government as the White House has faced intense criticism for its abdication of responsibility in its response to the pandemic. The federal government has a critical role in coordinating the response to a national crisis and in procuring vital supplies often manufactured by other countries. In dealing with the pandemic, a patchwork of approaches within the US means that states taking a more aggressive approach against the virus may see their progress undercut by neighboring states that resist shutting down their economies as pathogens do not respect political borders.
National laws and leadership are also critical in relation to other issues. States with weak gun laws tend to export guns used in crime to states with tougher laws. Toxic emissions in one state affect air quality in the next. In the present crisis, states are forming partnerships in the absence of federal leadership. The failure of the Administration to rise above partisanship and work with the states in a coordinated way is deepening divisions and impeding our ability to respond effectively to a crisis. National leadership is required in preventing and mitigating crises, as well as in sustaining national unity.