July 17th will mark my 17th birthday. It will also mark the 138th day since I have come within six feet of anyone outside of my immediate family.
Like countless other members of Gen Z (the “COVID-teens” or the “quaran-teens”?), I will most likely spend my birthday, as I do every day, within the confines of my own home, hiding from a pandemic that has not announced its end date. And what of the world six feet beyond? With one urgent problem popping up after another “out there” – overloaded healthcare systems, online schools, an economy in lockdown, soaring unemployment, and a death toll that is growing by the day – it has become a surreal existence. Add to the mix that in the past few weeks we have witnessed acts of police brutality ignite protests across the nation, and that the upcoming national election promises to be perhaps the most polarizing on record, and the perfect storm is nearly complete. Those of us in Generation Z, who are not yet voting age but who are fast developing a political consciousness, are likely to be swept up by the political waves crashing around us. Unless, that is, we chart our own course.
Government, Meet Plague
If the first role of government is the protection of its citizens, then the past few months have given us reason for despair. Teenagers have watched the novel coronavirus, and the COVID-19 disease it causes, run roughshod over the preparations the US government had made. The disease quickly overwhelmed our hospitals, exhausted our supply of personal protective equipment, and undermined our testing capabilities. At one end of the seriousness scale, ventilators became a hot item; at the other end, so did a t-shirt dubbing toilet paper the “newest endangered species.” Governors and mayors engaged in pitched battles for scarce supplies. The national government, stymied by our federalist system as well as the seemingly shifting views of the President on whether the pandemic was a serious threat, seemed unable to lead. How Americans experienced the pandemic depended very much on where they were experiencing it. New Yorkers shuttered themselves in as if warplanes were circling the skies above; in Texas, the economy, and people’s lives remained recognizable (now, the trends are shifting, and they may shift yet again). Even the CDC was all over the place – telling us one moment not to wear masks, then doing an about face.
As we looked across the oceans, we saw a different approach by many governments, especially in East Asia, where the pandemic hit early and where there was accumulated experience from prior pandemics (such as SARS and MERS). China shut down an entire province, Wuhan, of 11 million people and built new hospitals appear in record times. South Korea, which was hard hit by SARS in 2002-2003, quickly developed rapid testing, cancelled large events, and started tracking those who had contact with virus-carriers. The result was fewer than 300 deaths. Taiwan, with fewer than 10 deaths to-date, adopted similar policies on traveling and event-gathering in January, when the ICTV had not even formally named SARS-CoV-2. Germany proved a model in Europe, with widespread testing, plentiful hospital beds, and a high level of compliance with social distancing regulations, among other factors, credited for its early success. And Israel, on heightened alert for much of its history, reacted swiftly: it imposed travel restrictions, mandated 14-day quarantines for all travelers, and used cellphone data (collected by its security services) to track the virus. Of course the conditions in every country are different, and the disease has not hit all equally. Yet it was hard for Generation Z (along with much of the world) to not draw the conclusion that our government was underprepared, and that Americans paid the price for it. Our generation, already the most environmentally aware in history, will now watch very carefully how future governments prepare against other outsized future risks: pandemics, biological and cyber warfare, nuclear proliferation, dirty bombs, flying asteroids, and geomagnetic storms, among others.
On the economic front, the issues were different but the effect, in terms of the role of government, was similar. With free trade came a dark underside of exposed supply chains and an underinvestment in a domestic manufacturing capacity – this became apparent in painful ways as we struggled to find some strategic supplies, like antibiotics, masks and ventilators. But by far the biggest lesson was related to the economic and monetary response to the crises. We watched as businesses shut, unemployment rates skyrocketed, and entire markets (such as the airline, entertainment, and restaurant industries) seemingly fell off the map. Meanwhile, we cheered on the bi-partisan plans and proposals for stimulus packages and other government hand-outs. Policies that were previously viewed as radical were ushered in, with little debate and with a speed, and on a scale, never before seen. Just a few months earlier, Andrew Yang’s push for a universal basic income (UBI) fell flat, even in a Democratic primary contest that veered sharply to the left. But once the pandemic hit and the government shut our economy down in an unprecedented way, the idea of sending checks to Americans – albeit on a limited basis – was accepted without question. Same with enhanced unemployment benefits and a new Payroll Protection Program (PPP) designed to keep employment up and businesses intact. Arguments like “we can’t afford this” were not so much drowned out as they were barely even heard.
In the minds of many older Americans, these interventions may be viewed as temporary solutions to a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. They have perspective. They have witnessed the real benefits of opening up the world to commerce and trade. Many either experienced, or grew up hearing about, other calamities and tough times: World War Two, the attacks on 9/11 and the Great Recession of 2008, among others. But Gen Z does not have this wide lens. We have not been paying attention to politics for years and years – for many of us, this is our first real crisis. So it’s not surprising that the government’s response to the coronavirus will have an outsized effect on how we view the proper role of government going forward.
Government, Meet Protests
We are also grappling with the role of government in another critical arena. In the past few months, an alarming number of unarmed African Americans have been killed, including by police. In February, Ahmaud Arbery was jogging down the street in Georgia when two white men chased after him, called him a racial epithet, and shot him in cold blood. In March, Breonna Taylor, an ER technician, was killed by the Louisville police in her own home after they enforced a No-Knock Warrant intended for someone else. In May, George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis who held his knee on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes, even as Floyd begged him to stop. The Floyd killing in particular broke the dam of welled up anger over police behavior.
Crowds of protests erupted in dozens of cities and towns, calling for racial justice and reform. This civic explosion involved Gen Z. Teenagers have signed petitions, promoted fundraisers, and attended protests focused on racial justice and police reform. There were editorials and marches, vigils and demands. For a while, there was an unwritten code among us on social media – no one posted on other topics, lest we take attention from the moment.
These forms of action from so many are not merely wide in scale, but also effective. Outcry over these injustices has led to several methods of police reform. Take, for example, “Breonna’s Law,” which was recently passed in Louisville and limits No-Knock Warrants, while requiring cops to wear body cameras while serving warrants. New York State quickly passed a law banning chokeholds, followed a few hours later by Iowa; other states are considering or enacting the same. At the federal level, both the Senate and the House are working on a ban on all neck restraints. Even President Trump recently signed an executive order on police reform that bans chokeholds “unless an officer’s life is at risk.”
What lesson will politically observant teenagers draw from these events? The sweeping movements to defund the police by replacing some officers with social workers or diverting portions of the police budget are telling. Our generation is poised to push for less government in this sphere, not more. So when it comes to government power, we are not one-size-fits all.
From Thin Slices
These epochal events will no doubt affect how we see the world, and our civic responsibility, for many years to come. And yet, we who are just beginning our political journey would do well to keep in mind how tumultuous these past few months have been. To think that a mere five months ago I could not have written a single sentence above is to remind myself that these events, however extraordinary, are still but a flash in the timeline of our nation. To us teenagers, it’s almost hard to even remember life before the pandemic. The temptation to assume that today is the “new normal” and to extrapolate from here is understandably strong. But with it comes the risk of losing perspective and extrapolating important – perhaps life-long — political views from exceedingly thin slices. So how to remind ourselves of the larger context in which we find ourselves at this juncture?
The first step is to merely make the observation. Being aware that we are living through rare events is itself a useful speed bump on the road to political commitment. We should also recall Mark Twain’s observation, that history may not repeat itself, but it rhymes. Let us therefore learn more of our history – read our books, search the web, and talk to our parents and grandparents. America has been somewhere similar before. The Spanish Flu of 1918-19 killed between 20 and 40 million people worldwide and 675,000 in America, all on the back of World War 1. We are living through an economic disaster, but for an entire decade between 1929 and 1939, Americans (and the entire world) suffered through the ravages of the Great Depression. International trade fell by 50%, unemployment in the US reached 25%, and hundreds of thousands of Americans became homeless, many living in shantytowns that popped up across the land. World War Two followed, and brought with it global conflict, genocide, concentration camps and death on an unprecedented scale – estimates suggest 60 million deaths, of which 40 million are thought to have been civilians.
The point of recalling these events is not to convince ourselves that we are living in the best of times. Rather, it is to remember that terrible episodes can be followed by better days. That the future is not a simple extension of the past; it zig zags, in ways that we cannot predict, especially “in the moment.” The extraordinary suffering of the Great Depression and World War II, and the emergency role played by government, was followed by an unprecedented twenty year economic expansion (featuring an explosion of free trade), and a reduced role for government. Debt as a percentage of GDP went from over 100% during World War II to a low of 24% in 1974 (before climbing back to over 100% now). After Sputnik in 1957, it looked like the Soviets would rule space; but it was the US who put the first human on the moon (and which has now, after a long pause, returned to space and with a first-ever public-private model). And in New York, after a decade of rising crime rates, there were a record 2,245 murders in 1990; by 2019, that number had fallen to 318. Lots of factors, including booming economic times and effective policing, were credited for the historic decline.
So as we rush out into the political world at a time of despair and concern, let us also remember a few things. First, the future may not look like the past. The world has a long history, from which we can learn perspective. Second, not every crisis can be predicted, and prepared for, meaning we have to also be resilient. I have a feeling that despite our “social distancing,” we will refuse to be alienated from the world around us.
Our generation will be engaged. Even though I am stuck at home, I am busier than ever – volunteering, writing, reading, debating and working on projects that have focused my attention on the world out there. And even though my birthday will be less festive than in prior years, I am confident it will be the start of my best year yet. Hopefully, America’s best too.