The argument for resuming a viable social-welfare state is about not only attending to the immediate needs of tens of millions of people but also reëstablishing social connectivity, collective responsibility, and a sense of common purpose, if not common wealth. In an unrelenting and unemotional way, covid-19 is demonstrating the vastness of our human connection and mutuality. Our collectivity must be borne out in public policies that repair the friable welfare infrastructure that threatens to collapse beneath our social weight. A society that allows hundreds of thousands of home health-care workers to labor without health insurance, that keeps school buildings open so that black and brown children can eat and be sheltered, that allows millionaires to stow their wealth in empty apartments while homeless families navigate the streets, that threatens eviction and loan defaults while hundreds of millions are mandated to stay inside to suppress the virus, is bewildering in its incoherence and inhumanity.
Naomi Klein has written about how the political class has used social catastrophes to create policies that allow for private plunder. She calls it “disaster capitalism,” or the “shock doctrine.” But she has also written that, in each of these moments, there are also opportunities for ordinary people to transform their conditions in ways that benefit humanity. The class-driven hierarchy of our society will encourage the spread of this virus unless dramatic and previously unthinkable solutions are immediately put on the table. As Sanders has counselled, we must think in unprecedented ways. This includes universal health care, an indefinite moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, the cancellation of student-loan debt, a universal basic income, and the reversal of all cuts to food stamps. These are the basic measures that can staunch the immediate crisis of deprivation—of millions of layoffs and millions more to come.
The Sanders campaign was an entry point to this discussion. It has shown public appetite, even desire, for vast spending and new programs. These desires did not translate into votes because they seemed like a risky endeavor when the consequence was four more years of Trump. But the mushrooming crisis of covid-19 is changing the calculus. As federal officials announce new trillion-dollar aid packages daily, we can never go back to banal discussions of “How will we pay for it?” How can we not? Now is a moment to remake our society anew.