In the past two weeks, the impossible has come to pass. The global economy is crashing, borders are closing and billions of people are self-isolating in their homes. It feels as if the whole world has ground to a halt. In the midst of this crisis, however, the battle for the Democratic nomination continues. The spectacle of campaigning has, at times, seemed trite given the crisis at hand, yet the distinctions between the rhetoric of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders offer tremendous insight into this moment.
The Democratic debate on March 15 exposed the vast differences in the way that Biden and Sanders understand the crisis caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19). Biden spoke about the crisis like a war.
“We are at war with a virus,” he repeated multiple times. “In a war you do whatever is needed to be done to take care of your people.”
Employing military rhetoric is a common strategy used by Democrats and Republicans alike to justify mass expenditures. This is evident through the language used to justify the War on Drugs, the War on Crime and the War on Terror. However, this framework is dangerous in that it positions the crisis as something conquerable with a definitive end. This is a naive interpretation of the crisis at hand.
Scientists may discover a vaccine to eradicate the virus, but the economic consequences of this crisis will undoubtedly persist far after the virus is defeated. Indeed, we are on the brink of a colossal economic collapse that will likely require complete economic restructuring in order to ensure that people who survive the coronavirus do not die due to homelessness, food insecurity or the diseases of despair that take hold in times of economic anxiety. Biden went on to declare, “this is like we are being attacked from abroad.” Although Biden refrained from the racist rhetoric used by President Donald Trump, they both hope to portray the virus as an outside threat. Thus, they obfuscate the greater systemic inequalities and corruption rampant in America that have created fertile ground on which the virus has wreaked havoc in our communities.
Conversely, Bernie used the debate as an opportunity to connect the pandemic to the greater crises plaguing America today.
“Last year at least 30,000 people died in America because they didn’t have health insurance. I think that’s a crisis,” he noted.
The coronavirus crisis is revealing the utter precarity of the system that politicians revere as not only equitable, but almost infallible. For example, New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio refrained from closing public schools even as countless cases of coronavirus spread throughout the city because 114,000 homeless students rely on the public school system for meals and other services. For these homeless students in NYC, the crisis did not begin two weeks ago. Living in crisis is the reality for millions of Americans who suffer from a lack of essential necessities such as food and housing. Furthermore, the looming threat of climate change ensures that there will be far more crises that we must weather together; we need to create a system that is resilient and sustainable—a system in which the vulnerable are protected.
Again and again, Bernie correctly states that the biggest obstacle to creating this new, better system is not the price tag of policies but a lack of political courage among corrupt politicians who benefit from the current system. After all, this crisis has already engendered policies that were once deemed too costly or politically impossible, such as paid sick leave, a moratorium on evictions and even universal basic income. This is a moment full of tremendous pain, yet it also presents unique possibilities. Perhaps this crisis will be generative. Perhaps it will force us to act collectively, to be imaginative and to confront the societal ills that have ravaged this country since well before the first cases of the coronavirus emerged in the U.S..