What comes after the crisis?

Questions about the future, when the coronavirus has passed

What a difference a month makes! In February, notwithstanding distant rumbles about illness in China, the U.S. economy was humming, unemployment was at record lows, the stock market at record highs and politicians were bickering with each other in large numbers.

Then, of course, the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. Gradually, the economy shut down, people were told to settle in place and work remotely, the stock markets tanked, healthcare providers became worried and adjusted their priorities and searched for supplies, and the virus spread to every state.

Americans watched President Trump and a group of government officials make daily reports, sometimes contradictory, about what was happening and what was to be done. Governors gradually issued orders basically shutting down their states, and Congress, in relative unity and amazing speed, passed a $2.2 trillion package to help individuals, businesses large and small, and state and local governments.

In the middle of a crisis, it is impossible to reach conclusions about what it all means. However, there are some short-term observations many have made, and long-term questions which have to be considered after all this is over, and it will be.

First, the immediate observations. One relative of mine, a naturalized U.S. citizen who has fought for his country and succeeded in business in his adopted land, observed early in the crisis, “Americans are resilient and inventive. They will deal with this and survive it, as they have all the other crises in the past.” That is great perspective, especially for young people who did not live through Vietnam, 2008, and for all of us who did not live through World War II or the Depression.

Put another way, one writer said, “They asked our parents to go to war. They are asking us to stay home. We can do this.”

Everyone has looked to leaders to lead in a crisis. Governor Sununu has given daily reports to the state as to what is going on, has issued executive orders shutting down all but essential services, making schools operate remotely and dealing with a record number of unemployment claims — not to mention much more detailed questions as notarization of documents and whether not-for-profit boards of directors do their work remotely. He deserves high marks.

Of course, the main thing is to keep people from getting sick and dying. The progression of the pandemic is worsening every day and the unknown is when the peak will be reached and when the crisis will pass.

Second are the long-term questions. Without presuming to know the answers, or suggesting that the United States will not deal with this successfully, some of them are:

• How will all this affect the economy long term? What businesses will not survive, how many jobs will be lost, and what will we look like afterwards, economically?

• What institutions, schools, medical facilities and charities will disappear as a result of all this, if any, and what will take their place?

• What effect will all this have on governmental operations, faced with less revenue?

• How far will the American people go in following leaders who have told them to stay home, close their churches, sporting events and other gatherings? What if those leaders told them they had to cancel elections or political conventions, in the name of staying safe?

• What would be the effect of having all elections done by mail, given that the national election is seven months away, and it has taken those states which already vote by mail about a decade to develop and implement their system?

• If the federal government can appropriate $2.2 trillion (on top of a $1 trillion budget deficit already in place), how much more money can the Congress spend whenever someone proposes a program or perceives a crisis? (Congress undoubtedly took action this time in the face of a real crisis. The point is that this kind of tool should be available only when there is a real crisis, not part of regular budgeting.)

• What has the crisis said about federalism? Is it out of date or rejuvenated because some states are handling this better than others?

• How can government be ready next time, without looking for anyone to blame, and taking responsibility at all levels?

• When the smoke has cleared, was everything that was done legal? (Think FDR and Japanese Americans or Harry Truman and steel mills.)

Obviously, there are many questions and ramifications to debate, after this is over.

Stay safe — and stay home.

Brad Cook is a Manchester attorney. The views expressed in this column are his own. He can be reached at  bradfordcook01@gmail.com.

Categories: Cook on Concord