Faith in recovery from the pandemic hit bottom for many Americans when President Trump suggested injecting bleach to cure COVID-19. While this statement certainly demonstrated rank stupidity, it should take more than one inane question to darken our national future. After all, there are more important reasons to be worried about the approaching storm. In eight weeks, this virus has killed more Americans than the Vietnam War over eight years. In about the same amount of time, it has put more people out of work than in the first years of the 1929 Great Depression. Clearly, the pandemic has infected not only the economy but our populace as well, proving that “When it rains, it pours.”


COVID-19, however, is more than just a brief thunderstorm. An optometrist says clear vision is “20-20,” and I think historians will use the year 2020 in defining the course of America for the rest of the century. Even this early, it is apparent the billions we spent for aircraft carriers and bombs did not keep us safe from this biological dreadnought. Moreover, despite gaudy stock market averages and beguiling unemployment statistics, our economy’s collapse was the fastest and the worst in our history.


Washington spent money it doesn’t have to resolve the problem. The US now owes more than it made in last year’s GNP. In other words, we could all work for a year without pay and still not erase the debt owed to countries like China. We can debate the reasons, but the conclusions are inescapable: America is neither as safe nor as prosperous as once we thought.


To climb back to greatness, we need to be united. Indeed, there are many encouraging signs in how the public applauds the sacrifices made by front-line health workers. But there are also fearsome conflicts aggravated by the pandemic. When Washington decided to flood the economy with trillions of dollars, for example, relief followed the existing streams of inequality that have always fed injustice. More money flowed to the wealthy and corporations than to the people and businesses most in need.


Meanwhile, Washington’s insider trading, conflict-of-interest, and nepotism continued to raise the waters of the swamp. Long bread lines and whimpering children going without enough to eat in 2020 are specters of hunger and poverty in a nation once thought the world’s richest. Our problems are more than a virus needing a vaccine.


Divided government got us into this mess, so it is unlikely to get us out. Taking a page from Roosevelt’s New Deal, some are pulling in a tug-of-war towards people-centered reforms. However, others are hostile to the racialized agenda of Black Lives Matter, of immigrant Dreamers and of a widened social net. I would guess that the Confederate flag of treason and the yellow serpent banner of sedition are waved because some think these can be repurposed as symbols of liberty and opposition to tyranny. Sadly, each side of a splintered body politic continually drowns out opposing opinions with the blare of its own partisan media. Partisans sail this sea of hostility accompanied by the thunder of the same self-righteous grievance: “The government is taking away my rights.”


We Americans need a united march to the future, but instead we are haunted by the prospect of a new civil war, divided this time not by the geography of North and South, but by racial resentments and hostility towards civil authority. We will begin to be cured only after we admit the pandemic has infected the body politic as well as individuals. Rather than separate one problem from the other, treating the health and economic ills as the same may be our only inoculation towards a more complete recovery.


Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo is Professor Emeritus of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies, Brooklyn College and Distinguished Scholar of the City University of New York. Author of 50 scholarly articles and 10 books, he wrote a weekly online column, Catholic America, for the Washington Post until 2012. A spokesperson for civil and human rights, he has testified before the US Congress and the United Nations. Now retired and residing in Monroe County, Pennsylvania, he serves on several community boards including FLECHA, the Federation of Latinos/as for Education about the Cultures of Hispanic America.