To what extent is a nation the sum of its people? It’s a question I ask myself when I look at the America that is just now starting to come to grips with the worst global crisis since World War II.
On the one hand, every day there is another example on social media of the extraordinary generosity and goodness of individual Americans, doing everything they can to help each other through the coronavirus crisis.
From sewing surgical masks for beleaguered hospitals, to raising money for laid-off hospitality and entertainment workers, to a thousand acts of kindness a day dedicated to helping those who are struggling with the social isolation of lockdown, you can learn something important about America by watching social media today. And based on my own experience as a resident and working journalist in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, that version of America is true. It exists, and it is significant.
But it’s not significant enough.
It’s a strange thing about this virus, something so tiny you need an electron microscope to see it. Despite its invisibility, it has demonstrated an unmatched power to illuminate, and to clarify. And it too often brings harsh realities into the light.
What the coronavirus reveals about America is that it has become a mean place, so far removed from the ideals that not that long ago made it worthy of the label “great nation.” That seems on its face like a partisan political statement. But the facts are pretty overwhelming. America is a nation with a lot of great people. But it’s not a great nation, not anymore.
You disagree? I’ll make the case.
We could talk about the 27 million Americans who don’t have health insurance. We could talk about the millions who don’t have any paid sick leave. We could talk about the fact that, virtually alone in the civilized world, Americans live in terror of getting sick, not because of illness itself, but because doing so will bankrupt them and leave their families in ruin.
But let’s start with the hungry children.
As coronavirus started to take off in the U.S., I was puzzled about officials’ reticence to close schools.
At the time city mayors and school superintendents were hesitating, doctors next door to us in northern Italy were rationing ventilators, wheeling old people into the hallways because their odds of surviving weren’t as great as the young. We in France were already on strict lockdown, with every business closed except grocery stores, pharmacies and “tabacs” that sell cigarettes. (Believe me, you don’t want to go through a pandemic with French people who are prohibited from smoking.)
Then I read about the reasons for their reticence: They were worried about childhood hunger. Specifically, they were wondering how they would feed the more than 20 million children – that’s the official U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate – for whom a school lunch is the only full meal they have most days.
Hungry children. More than 20 million of them.
In America, a nation with a GDP of $21 trillion, the largest Gross Domestic Product, by far, on the planet – literally, by every measure, the richest nation on earth – the only thing keeping 20 million children adequately fed is a school lunch? (And how hungry are they on weekends, and for the three months of the year they aren’t in school?)
As schools around the nation closed and officials continued to wonder, many Americans stepped up, as Americans do, and volunteered to make meals for the kids who weren’t getting fed at school anymore. Yes, enough Americans cared to take it upon themselves to keep children fed.
But really, my fellow Americans: Do you think it’s OK that for 20 million American children, what stands between them and starvation is a school lunch, that they’re only safe from hunger 5 days a week and 9 months a year?
And if you juxtapose 20 million hungry children against the fact that 60 companies made huge profits and paid no taxes in 2018, well, you can’t help but make comparisons to the Roman empire as it began to collapse.
Amazon, the richest company in America, made $11 billion in profit in 2018, and got a $129 million refund, because it took a huge deduction for its stock options.
And 20 million children are hungry.
Delta Airlines made $5 billion in profit, and got a refund of $187 million. JetBlue made $219 million and got $60 million back. Now they’re getting a piece of the $50 billion airline bailout.
A dozen energy companies made billions in profit, and zeroed out their tax bills because the federal government subsidizes big oil. Most of them are about to get huge corporate welfare checks or cheap government loans as part of the bailout.
And 20 million children don’t get enough to eat.
How can you count yourself a great nation if you allow this to happen, year after year? You can’t.
While American kids go hungry, members of Congress get secret briefings about the virus, then tell us everything is fine while they sell their stock portfolios. The rest of us get to watch our retirement savings go up in smoke.
And companies who received billions in stimulus payments, then billions more in tax breaks, used the money to buy back their own stock and drive up the value of their companies. Now they come to Congress, hat in hand, for more money from American taxpayers to protect their profits.
What a country.
For the past two and a half years, Paula and I have lived in rural France, an hour outside of Paris. We did not come here to get away from America. We came because we wanted to travel affordably, and, we wanted an adventure in the final third of our lives.
So I’m sure some of you will dismiss what I say because we’re not living in the U.S. right now. But we’ll always be Americans. We pay our taxes, and we come home often. What living 4,000 miles away has given us is a view of the forest that we didn’t always have when we lived among the trees.
It’s the questions from our European friends that give us clarity. They ask us questions about America all of the time. I tell them that when a person gets laid off in the United States, they usually lose their health insurance. I tell them millions of American workers go to work sick, because if they don’t, they don’t get paid. I tell them that 27 million Americans don’t have health insurance of any kind, even though many work two or three jobs to pay their bills. I tell them that for those Americans, and for many millions more underinsured, getting sick with Covid-19 may force them into bankruptcy.
I tell them that every year in the U.S., sick people commit suicide because they don’t want to be the cause of their family’s financial ruin. I tell them that it’s common for people to run GoFundMe campaigns to be able to afford a family member’s life-saving surgery.
Our friends are completely befuddled, filled as they are with school lessons about the United States being dedicated to the idea of liberty and justice for all. Why, they ask me, would the richest country in the world allow these things to happen to its own citizens, when virtually every other advanced free society on earth treats health care as a basic human right?
I tell them I don’t know. I don’t have good answers. It’s certainly not possible to defend a system that places profit above human life. Somewhere along the way, America lost its way.
It is true that no place is perfect. Every country falls short of its own ideals. And I’ll save you the suspense: France isn’t perfect, either. Like every country in the European Union, it has its own problems with racism and nationalism and equality.
But what is true about France, as it is for virtually every other European democracy, is this: On its meanest day, France is infinitely kinder to all of its citizens than is the United States, a country 10 times richer.
Somewhere along the way, America, with all of its wealth and advantage, lost the ability to take care of the least among us. It became cruel. And if America is going to be a great nation again, that can’t be allowed to continue.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans just got laid off because of a global pandemic. That means hundreds of thousands of Americans lost not just their income, but their health care, in the midst of the most terrifying health threat the world has seen in more than a century. I know some of them. Probably, so do you. They are living in fear.
This doesn’t happen in the rest of the free world. Only in America.
In Washington, they’re worried about airlines, hotels, and oil companies. They pass a bill ensuring sick pay, but exempt companies with more than 500 employees – which includes all those companies who made billions in profit and paid no taxes.
The small companies are compelled to pay sick leave, but the big, rich companies aren’t? Does that sound like the policy of a great nation?
Meanwhile, because the richest nation on earth can’t manage to supply basic protective equipment to its hospitals, ordinary Americans are scrounging around for their fabric swatches and elastic to make masks so that fewer doctors and nurses might die trying to save the people who can actually afford to go to the hospital.
This pandemic is likely to count its dead in the millions. And when it is over, there will be lessons to be learned, and opportunities for change. My hope is that when that time comes, my country will take a hard look at the difference between America’s ideal self and its actual self. And maybe serious change will finally be possible.
America is filled with kind, generous people. When this is all over, we’ll find out how just how many. Because Americans will have a chance to decide whether they want to live in a great country again, or stay in the one the virus laid bare.