National Perspective by David Shribman

COVID-19 Reveals Deeper, More Enduring Tragedy About America

The last several weeks have been hard, the last week perhaps the hardest. Feeling more confined than confident, Americans nonetheless itched to get out, on bike trails, amid neighborhood streets, in stores, at picnic groves, by the shore or lakeside. And it was at those venues -- trails, streets, stores, groves, shoreline and lakeside -- that it became clear to all of us that months into the COVID-19 calamity, we remain full of questions and bereft of answers.

It became clear, too, that many of the questions we harbor -- maybe unexpressed but surely felt -- are vital questions about personal and public character, about the country’s resolve and national purpose. These uncertainties always have lain beneath the country’s surface, visible only a handful of times -- during the Revolution and the Civil War, to be sure, but also during the two world wars and, vividly, during the Vietnam struggle. And in the civil rights era and again during Watergate.

Otherwise we have lived on the relatively blank pages of history, those leaves in our human story that Hegel taught us were the happiest. But this season (and perhaps next, and the one after that), we are living in pages crowded with history. We know our grandchildren and their children will read about our great coronavirus challenge, just as we've learned about the Black Death. But we don’t know how they will view our answers to two elemental questions:

Did this country have a united spirit and vision?

We have not had one at every national turning point. Otherwise history would not linger on Shelburne, Nova Scotia, one of the first havens for Tories fleeing the Revolutionary colonies. Nor would there have been a Civil War, to say nothing of Reconstruction and more than a century’s struggle to redeem the “created equal" promise of the Declaration of Independence. Nor would we know of the famous exchange, probably apocryphal, between Emerson and Thoreau when the latter refused to pay taxes to support the Mexican War.

And though there were dissenters to American involvement in both world conflagrations, the country basically held together, especially in World War II. It was then that Franklin Delano Roosevelt made this comment:

"There is one front and one battle where everyone in the United States -- every man, woman and child -- is in action, and will be privileged to remain in action throughout this war. That front is right here at home, in our daily lives, and in our daily tasks."

These are words we are not hearing now, when even more than in FDR’s war, there is no distinction between battle front and home front -- only the war, conducted in every home where the term “shelter," with its ominous Cold War overtones, has become more a verb than a noun.

If World War II reminded Americans of their common purpose, the virus war is reminding us of our divisions.

The nation’s leaders are divided, Republican against Democrat. The victims of the virus are divided, with more in states that voted for Hillary Rodham Clinton than for Donald J. Trump. The deaths from the disease break down in economic and racial divisions, slamming the poor, the black and the brown harder than the white; African Americans, for example, account for about 1 in 7 people in Illinois, but nearly half the deaths in that state are among black people.

Events such as this pandemic have an economic effect, to be sure. A team of scholars at the National Bureau of Economic Research examined 15 major pandemics from 1347 to 2009 where more than 100,000 people died. They found that the economic cost of these threats generally was distributed across the population, either, as they explained, "because the infection itself is widespread, or because trade and market integration -- in capital and/or labor markets -- eventually propagates the economic shock across the map."

We have both these characteristics now, a widespread contagion and trade and market integration. But preliminary indications are that the poor, especially the homeless, not only are more likely to be victimized, but also are more likely to face hardship. Yes, Prince Charles tested positive for the disease. But only the families of the victims know the names of most others who have perished.

The contrast between the American and Canadian experiences is illuminating. A study released this month by the University of Toronto and McGill University found that Canadians -- bitterly divided in both world wars over conscription -- are more united on this issue than they have been at any other time in their history.

“Both Canadian elites and the mass public are in a moment of cross-partisan consensus on COVID-19," according to the study, which also found that lawmakers of all parties “have increasingly emphasized the crisis and reinforced the messages of mainstream expert communities.”

The authors found “no evidence of a relationship between the partisan leanings of municipalities and interest in the coronavirus.”

That may be because of a second enduring question which is part of the American character but absent in Canada, whose guiding phrase is “peace, order and good government“ (from the British North America Act, 1867) and not “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (from the Declaration of Independence, 1776):

Did this country resolve the meaning of the words "liberty” and “freedom”?

Those words appear in all our sacred texts, from the Gettysburg Address to John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address.

Today the debate about freedom is perhaps more intense than ever. Does it mean the freedom to walk the streets without impediment or mask, or the freedom to avoid contact with deadly germs? Does it mean the freedom to congregate -- the “right of the people peaceably to assemble” that is part of the First Amendment -- or the freedom to live in a society that protects the public health?

The answers to these questions generally break along partisan lines, with -- and here is a simplification but nonetheless perhaps a telling one -- the party that once symbolized social restraint advocating broad freedom, and the party that once worked for broad social freedom now calling for restraint.

So the tragedy of the virus has a twin tragedy: Even on the question that defined America -- the quest for freedom -- Americans today are irredeemably divided.

EDITORS: For editorial questions, please contact Lisa Tarry, ltarry@amuniversal.com.