Life, livelihoods and liberty: The Coronavirus lockdown limbo

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By John J. Metzler

NEW YORK — It’s almost become a sad cliche to say that America is shutting down over the Coronavirus pandemic.  Uncertainty and fear stalk the land, but the enemy remains invisible.

The growing global effects of COVID-19 from China to Western Europe, and now North America, ominously looms on TV screens but at the same time seems still largely removed from day to day life.  Inconvenience and anxiety have been the principal threats, at least until now.

The dire danger of Coronavirus is unfolding across America.  The media’s breathless commentaries underscore the risks posed by oft Apocalyptic predictions.

Empty streets of New York City / VOA

There’s a surrealistic calm in places like New York City which underscores proper preparation but at the same time hides a growing and yet to be felt economic impact of closing most stores, businesses, restaurants, schools and hotels.  A rolling commercial tsunami is building across the land which can devastate the economy.   The laws of unintended consequences will soon catch up with major urban centers in New York, California and Illinois as the shelter in place shutdowns trigger a sudden economic stall.

One news commentator rightly said that the crisis affects “not only that we live, but how we will make a living.”

I’m not speaking about the gut-wrenching stock market gyrations.  Just a month ago the markets stood at record highs; now they’ve gone into free fall.  Nonetheless this isn’t a financial crisis but a crisis which will trigger massive financial impacts.

Many readers personally and poignantly remember the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Yet September 11th comparisons are valid only to a point.  The Al Qaida attacks on New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania came from an equally elusive but identifiable enemy yet were nonetheless quickly contained.

Then too fear was pervasive, but the eerie calm of shutdowns and empty skies were soon  replaced by solidarity and patriotism.  Businesses, schools and stock markets nervously reopened after about a week but then we were relatively soon back in operation.  The baseball season  resumed a week later.  Amazingly, at Yankee Stadium President George W. Bush threw the first ball of game three of the World Series on Oct. 30.

Now everything is on hold during this odd lockdown limbo.  People are showing solidarity, but the ongoing contagion is set to the backdrop of the contentious U.S. presidential election.

Comparisons with the Great Depression starting in 1929 are not accurate.  That crisis started with a sudden stock market collapse in October 1929 followed by far more devastating bank failures in 1930 and 1931.  In 1930 unemployment was 9 percent, by September 1931, 17.4   percent!  Yet that meltdown of the U.S. economy occurred over two tragic years.

President Trump’s wartime mobilization of key industries is vital.  So is overdue bipartisan congressional support for a robust economic rehabilitation bill.

Panic buying and hoarding are but a symptom of the ongoing angst.  It’s spring, but large parts of the USA are being told to take an extended “snow day” from school and work.

Now we see political power grabs by Leftist governors who to admittedly safeguard public health, use restrictive “lockdowns” in New York and California as a hopeful panacea to the pandemic.  This may be prudent for now, but what about civil liberties?

First we must protect Life.  Vice President Mike Pence who has helped coordinate a top-notch  scientific Coronavirus Taskforce has earned praise, even prompting Britain’s snarky left leaning Guardian newspaper to call him “strangely competent.”  Pence has coordinated a tireless response to the health crisis which combines both medical and private business sectors.

Second, there’s Livelihood.  After the crisis, will unemployed people seamlessly return to firms that have disappeared during the pandemic?  Small business which remains America’s biggest overall employer is enormously strained and can be devastated by the arbitrary lockdowns.  Some pundits predict a deep recession and 15 percent unemployment.  That’s almost overnight from a virus which started in far off Wuhan, China but, then crippled Italy, Spain and France, and which may devastate Main Street, USA.

President Trump warned that the coronavirus “cure may be worse than the problem.”

Then there’s Liberty for those who remember or care.  We are a nation of Laws and not arbitrary control.  Freedom of Movement and assembly are understandably restricted, but for how long?

America doesn’t need a blame game or a politicization of the pandemic.  America needs a serious and sustainable economic solution which will protect its citizens, continue to guarantee them a strong economy, and rise beyond pedantic partisan bickering.  America is at its best during adversity.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]

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