The COVID-19 pandemic is an especially difficult challenge for our—indeed any—democracy.
Our political system is well set up to resolve disagreements by finding compromises between the competing claims of different groups of people. We hope to arrive at a conclusion in which neither side gets exactly what they asked for but both sides walk away with a sense that the other side made concessions that were difficult for them.
Political compromises work well when deciding which community gets the jobs brought by a new factory or who gets to own a valuable fishery. But they don’t work so well when responding to nature’s challenges.
Politics can deliver compromises about climate change that balance the need to seriously curb emissions and the need to emit the carbon required by economic growth. This approach might work if we were dealing with Gaea, the ancient Greek goddess of the Earth who might look at our not particularly impressive efforts to curb emissions and reflect “Well, the reductions were less than I was hoping for. But I did ask a lot of you, and some of you clearly did try, so I will spare you my wrath.” Sadly, if the levels of atmospheric carbon exceed certain levels, there will be consequences, period. There’s no asking forgiveness from Gaea.
We are learning that COVID-19 is similarly intolerant of our attempts to balance the demands of a public health crisis and of the economy. Familiar expressions like “the coronavirus does what it wants” or “the virus doesn’t care about excuses” send the message that there’s no Asclepius, Greek god of medicine, in charge, a being who can look at our worthy efforts and spare us further suffering. Asclepius would likely be giving Spaniards a break about now.
The chaotic response of Americans to the pandemic is an excellent expression of their democratic culture. Many people pay close attention to the recommendations of Anthony Fauci, prominent member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and wear masks. But there are also Americans angry about curtailing of the freedom to basically do what they want, where and how they want, and others who resent the suggestion that they should wear a mask and thereby “throw God’s wonderful breathing system out”.