The coronavirus pandemic is hardly the first national crisis that Americans have faced in this century. But it’s different from the previous ones, and we are not ready for it.
What sets it apart from the 9/11 attacks, the wars in Afghanistan and the Great Recession is that it will require us to make unwanted sacrifices. Absorbing that stark necessity has taken time and sapped our willingness to act.
After the 9/11 attacks, the message Americans got was not to hunker down in fear. “The American people have got to go about their business,” said President George W. Bush. “We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don’t conduct business, where people don’t shop.”
He urged “the traveling public” not to be deterred: “Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”
His recommendations made perfect sense. The danger of any particular American dying at the hands of terrorists was close to zero, and it would only have cheered Osama bin Laden if people were terrified of boarding planes or gathering in crowds. Going on with our usual routines was the right thing to do.
It was also easy. The same was true of what was demanded of ordinary citizens after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
These weren’t World War II. We didn’t have to endure rationing of gasoline, meat and other goods; we didn’t have to worry about ourselves or our kids being drafted; we weren’t exhorted to buy war bonds. Our patriotic duty was to fly the flag, support the troops, sing “God Bless America” at ballgames and not much else.
The only real sacrifices came from the small share of families with members serving in the armed forces. The line heard then was: “Marines are at war. Americans are at the mall.” And why not? Depriving ourselves of shopping, movies and dinners out would have been no help in defeating our enemies.
We also had the money to spend, because these were the rare wars that didn’t require us to pay higher taxes. In fact, Bush got a tax cut enacted while they were going on.
Spending money was also good citizenship during the Great Recession. When businesses are going under and workers are losing their jobs, the last thing economists would prescribe is a frenzy of frugality – which would make the downturn longer and more severe.
Those Americans who were unemployed or underemployed had to scrimp and do without, but everyone else was morally justified in doing just the opposite. The less people changed their habits, the better for the economy.
The coronavirus doesn’t fit the old templates, which explains the reluctance of government officials and citizens to do what has to be done. Its arrival in the United States was only a matter of time, but weeks went by without serious action. The impulse was to wait and hope the disease wouldn’t amount to much — an impulse that served to magnify the epidemic.
Only in recent days have political and business leaders faced up to the need to stop people from going about their normal lives. St. Patrick’s Day parades, Broadway shows and sports events have had to be canceled or postponed. Otherwise, people would jam together in obstinate disregard of the risks to their own health and the public’s. Employers have just begun allowing, or ordering, employees to work from home.
The epidemic has sent the stock market tumbling, and it may cause a recession. But this time, shopping, traveling and eating out are not the solution.
Millions of Americans have grown up without ever being asked to deprive themselves of much of anything for the greater good. One reason is that back in the 1970s, a couple of presidents requested sacrifices, only to find that they had made a burnt offering of their political futures.
In his 1974 “Whip Inflation Now” campaign, Gerald Ford asked Americans to join carpools, cut down on food waste and lower the heat in their homes. In 1979, faced with an energy crisis, Jimmy Carter urged those steps and more. Neither appeal went over well. Voters evicted them at their first opportunity.
But this time, we can’t afford to go on as before. We’ve often been told that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. This time, the lack of fear is scarier.
Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.