What Was Going On Before COVID-19 Shut Down The World?
We must not forget about climate change, the elections, homelessness— just to name a few
April 10, 2020 | Medium
Source: Our World In Data— Apr. 10, 2020 — COVID-19 infections
The infamous virus not only disrupted our physical environment, our emotional well-being, and our global economy, but it has also infiltrated every bit of our digital lives. From social media — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — to news outlets — New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, national television reporting — information and updates regarding COVID-19 plaster every headline on a regular basis.
The harrowing effects of the pandemic will likely persist for the next few years. We will probably see the rise of new concerns, especially economic woes, in a post-pandemic world that will compete with existing issues on attention, funding, and political will. Ushering life back into normalcy is critical for every country to prioritize, but we must not forget the conversations that were top of mind before the world went into lockdown. These issues will not simply resolve themselves.
1. Donald Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives in December, and he is seeking re-election in 2020
Let us all be reminded of the impeachment drama in 2019 that turned the world’s most powerful nation into a 21st century political sitcom, as our leaders rotate pointing fingers and placing blame on one another. It all started when a whistleblower came forth and alleged that Trump used “the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country” in the 2020 presidential election. Soon after, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney admits the office withheld military aid to Ukraine in order to pressure Kyiv to investigate allegations involving Joe Biden and the 2016 election. Following a slew of investigations, the Democrat majority voted to impeach Trump last December. The Republican majority acquitted him at the start of 2020.
Amid the drama, Trump seem to have emerged even more energized. His post-impeachment purge continues in spite of the dire situation our country is in, recently with the dismissal of Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community’s inspector general who had sent the whistle-blower complaint to Congress. Elections were and are still happening around the globe, even though primaries have been postponed. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Trump “an ongoing threat to American democracy,” but given the current circumstances, how likely is it that we will overlook his impeachment and brush off Pelosi’s statement? Will an economic stimulus package and intermittent aid mask his abuse of power? And will citizens openly speak up and show up on Election Day?
2. Investigations into Big Tech were at full force, but now they have skidded to a halt
Antitrust investigations against Alphabet, Facebook, and a handful of other tech giants have been ongoing last year. In November 2019, the Justice Department warned tech companies against their collection of consumer data, which could in turn increase their industry stronghold and harm competition. Small companies have found it harder to compete, and tech giants have no problem swallowing them up. Over the past decade, tech giants were able to escape regulatory oversight to consume a number of smaller companies, and they continue their expansion today (see Google’s acquisition of Fitbit). The investigations were intended to break apart their monopolistic power.
But these investigations have come to halt in light of the COVID-19 pandemic as an effort to not destabilize firms during this volatile time period. Once condemned by policy-makers, the actions of tech giants are now commended. They play an increasingly large role in the pandemic world, as people rely on Amazon for supplies and entertainment, Facebook for social cohesion, and Twitter for CDC guidelines and removal of false information. They are vital to society right now, and will continue to be, but the conversation around aligning our digital and political worlds needs to continue: should regulators absolve them of their monopolistic tendencies due to their help during the pandemic, or resume an aggressive crackdown on their power?
3. Homelessness is still a serious issue in America, and the pandemic has aggravated its consequences
The United States has sustained a severe homeless problem. According to The State of Homelessness in America, over half a million Americans were homeless on January 18, 2018, and just under 200,000 are living on our streets. There are many reasons that contribute to America’s large homeless population — one of them being the overregulation of housing markets, which conservative homeowners advocate (referred to as NIMBYs). The inability to build more homes restricts the supply and increases housing prices. The study estimates that if the top metropolitan areas with significantly supply-constrained housing markets were to deregulate, overall homelessness would decline by 13%. Policies combatting homelessness have been a longstanding debate amongst lawmakers in areas such as the San Francisco Bay.
The homeless have become especially vulnerable during the pandemic, in particular those living on the streets. Some suffer from mental illness, drug addiction and poverty, making them even more susceptible to contracting and spreading the virus. As NGOs pull out of support programs and advise staff members to go home, it becomes increasingly difficult for the homeless to obtain shelter, food, and the right medical care. Furthermore, homeless shelters are either full, closed, or too risky to consider sleeping in due to poor hygiene. The guidelines set by the CDC (stay home, wear masks, social distancing, wash hands) are almost impossible to attain, as unsheltered people don’t have access to toilets and still rely on congregate settings to meet their basic needs. Gavin Newsom, Governor of California estimates around 60,000 homeless people could end up infected with coronavirus. The pandemic exposed the seriousness of the homeless problem, from lack of available shelters to limited hygiene and medical care access. How can our country ensure the safety and well-being of these individuals during and after the pandemic? And will regulation and hygiene guidelines in homeless shelters be adjusted concurrently?
4. America’s prison system requires serious reform and progress is lagging
Today, 2.3 million people are in jail or prison. America’s incarceration rate has increased by 700% since 1970, and today retains a quarter of the world’s prison population, according to the ACLU. Mass incarceration in American reminds us that racism is still very much an issue in our country. People of color, especially African Americans and Latinos, still represent a large proportion of the U.S. prison and jail population. Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, thoroughly explores the history and realities of mass incarceration as a call for racial justice in America. Since then, some progress have been made — the gap between the number of blacks and whites in prison have shrunk and the penalty for drug offenses are reduced. However, there are still long ways to go.
Currently, the overflowing of jails pose a large risk during the pandemic. In March this year, New York’s Legal Aid Society reported that 3.6% of inmates in New York City jails tested positive for COVID-19, about 9x higher than the overall infection rate in the area. Small confined spaces and the constant entering and exiting of inmates put them at amplified risk of contracting and spreading the disease. Hygiene in prison and jails are not guaranteed, and testing is limited within its quarters. Some countries have temporarily released prisoners as a result, but in America, prisoners are demanding protection without much success. Even if prison safety concerns are temporarily resolved during the pandemic, we must not forget that mass incarceration in America is inherently flawed and remains one of our greatest racial struggles. Will the pandemic urge our government to accelerate progress in this area? If not, how can citizens participate in surfacing this systemic issue within communities?
5. Refugees were severely impacted by Trump’s Travel Ban, and policies may be even more stringent post-pandemic
Prior to Trump’s presidency, the United States has historically offered its land to refugees fleeing persecution and war. However, after Trump was elected, he used security concerns and xenophobic attitudes to justify a Travel Ban, which barred people in Iran, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Libya from entering the US for 90 days. Additionally, it also halted refugee resettlement for 120 days and indefinitely banned Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. Refugee arrivals fell to its lowest levels ever. There are talks to expand this travel ban even more.
Even though the whole world is seemingly shut down, we should be reminded that America’s refugee crisis is still an open issue that needs to be addressed (this is in addition to immigration issues that the U.S. faces). The IRC mentions that a new travel ban policy adds nationals from Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, and Nigeria to the existing list of those barred from applying for immigrant visas, as well as blocking nationals of Sudan and Tanzania from the diversity visa lottery. As central governments horde more power to maintain order during COVID-19, it will not be a surprise if the administration exercised even tougher guidelines for refugees post-pandemic. How can citizens ensure refugees are protected in this world where it is easier to justify the extension of the travel ban with unsubstantiated claims? (for further reading, see the first section of Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee’s new book, Good Economics for Hard Times)
6. The United Kingdom is no longer part of the European Union as of January 31, 2020, but its transition phase is still one big question mark
Brexit has been under operation for years, but beginning of 2020, the UK officially lost its membership to the EU’s political institutions, such as the European Parliament and European Commission. British voters also appear more divergent than ever, as the Labour and Conservative parties went to extremes — the election of December 2019 was a clash between two historically unpopular party leaders: Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. Johnson’s sweeping victory accelerated Brexit and launched the nation into the transition period until end of 2020, an effort to resolve UK-EU trade agreements, law enforcement, data sharing and security, aviation standards and safety, electricity and gas supplies, and medical regulation — just to name a few.
It appears that these negotiations are temporarily put on hold as officials in Europe frantically divert their attention to supplying hospitals with adequate ventilators and keeping their citizens safe. Furthermore, Boris Johnson, who leads the Brexit march, was just released from the intensive care unit, where he was being treated for COVID-19. He temporarily created a leadership vacuum as Britain had “no codified order of succession for prime minister.” His infection emphasized how relentless and pervasive the virus has become, which opens up more questions: Will transition plans for Brexit, a highly divided initiative, still take place during a time when greater solidarity is needed? As some countries in the EU emerge high in debt, will the UK provide support? How can we protect the EU from breaking apart as the consequences become more dire?
7. The U.S. and Iran were headed into a dangerous territory, and animosity continues to persist
The assassination of Qassem Soleimani by an American Drone shook the geopolitical arena beginning of this year. Trump’s order to kill Soleimani not only brought the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war, but also led to the Iranian missile attack on U.S. troops at two Iraqi bases and the unfortunate mishap where a Ukrainian passenger jet was shot down, killing all passengers onboard. Furthermore, Soleimani’s attack and death on Iraqi soil sparked mass protests in Iraq against US military presence, leading the Iraqi Parliament to ask U.S. to withdraw its troops.
The tension in the Middle East has a long and gruesome history. U.S.-Iranian relationships intensified after Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions. The killing of Soleimani further increased the animosity. Even with a common enemy — the virus — the U.S. and Iran refuse to unite. Iran rejected American aid and the U.S. continued their sanctions despite calls from other countries to provide relief. If a pandemic cannot forge a truce between the two countries, what will it take? How long will the animosity last?
8. Fires in Australia burned ~30 million acres and it’s still spreading
Did you remember that Australia was on fire? It still is, by the way. In the worst-hit state, New South Wales, the fire rampaged across twelve million acres, destroying over 2,000 houses as a result. More than 1,500 firefighters were dispatched to slow its spread. Some states have declared a state of emergency, and military troops, ships, and aircrafts have been involved in the efforts to contain the fire, as the smoke from the fires have vastly affected air quality. The fires have sparked numerous debates and conversations around climate change.
In addition to the fire, Australia must also take action on COVID-19. As of April 8, 2020, it reported a little over 6,000 cases and 45 confirmed deaths. Whether the fires are attributed to climate change is still up for debate, but at the very least, people all around the world were talking about it. And now, climate change seems to be a consideration of the distant future. The pandemic has delayed International Climate Change negotiations and silenced criticism towards the Trump administration for their neglect. Critics are skeptical that the apocalyptic consequences stemming from COVID-19 will incite countries to reevaluate environmental practices, but we can challenge that. How can we leverage the pandemic to educate others on the cataclysmic consequences of a natural disaster and motivate our communities to continue the conversation around climate change?
9. Hong Kong protests reverberated across the world, but it risks losing its momentum
In June, 2019, nearly 2 million people marched on the streets of Hong Kong to protest the extradition bill, which imposed that criminal suspects in HK to be handed over to the mainland china for trial. It soon expanded to four other demands in addition to the withdrawal of the extradition bill. This included the government to stop labeling protesters as “rioters”, drop charges against protesters, conduct an independent inquiry into police behavior, and implement genuine universal suffrage for both the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive. Protests garnered widespread participation, leading to airport shutdowns, police interference, and sharp decline in tourism.
With the onset of COVID-19 and CDC guidelines for social distancing and calls to stay home, the protests have paused. Whether the movement will regain equal momentum following the pandemic is questionable, as successful protests require populist support and participation. Hong Kong is bracing itself for heavy economic costs that will mount after the pandemic, and if its citizens struggle to maintain stability within their state, will they have the mental and physical capacity to continue their fight for democracy? Or will they rely more on mainland to help minimize the economic suffering?
This is all without mentioning the war in Yemen, Muslim concentration camps in Xinjiang, and the ongoing conflict in Kashmir.
The pandemic has disrupted our lives, our businesses, our movements, our society; but, that does not mean we should pause our conversations and active participation towards building a better humanity. It shouldn’t stop each nation from thinking about how to help our neighbors, whether it’s the homeless person across the street or the country over the seas. Solidarity should be advocated over separation, social harmony over xenophobic slang. Nationalism needs to be set aside, egos should be tamed.
We are entering an altered society, and that only makes these discussions more difficult. Countries need to continue talking about these issues, and as citizens, we should too.