When coronavirus arrived in the United States early this year, I hadn’t yet realized that a central function of the institution of public health—testing and contact tracing—had been obliterated. For weeks, I kept expecting coronavirus spread to be controlled forthwith. Only in the third week of March did it became clear to me that no public health action was going to be taken at all; that an incendiary outbreak was therefore out of control in my own hometown, New York; and that the only available response to overwhelmed hospitals and a fast-rising death toll was the most uncivil one, a state of emergency. Only then did I come to see that something fundamental had shifted in America, something that pertains to civility and to the sense of public-ness that is its foundation.
Just as I had believed that there was a public health system that could corral contagion in conventional ways, I had also believed that police violence toward Black Americans was declining. I thought that public service workers, bus drivers, traffic cops, and so forth, would be well protected against the virus. I did not think that the U.S. Postal Service would become a tool in rigging the coming presidential election. I did not think that federal forces would be sent to attack demonstrators. Still so naïve.
In lieu of a proper public response to coronavirus, the United States was the scene of a heated and unbridled reaction that is, as anyone who pays attention knows, still smoldering. National health officials shifted blame; state governors offered a plethora of self-congratulatory photo ops and defensive press conferences but little guidance; mainstream media featured obsessive coverage of modes of spread, routes of travel, and self-protective measures, much of it questionable; social media became a stage for a festival of untruth, mockery of public officials, and enactments of fear; armed libertarians threatened legislators and unarmed ones screamed at retail store workers who asked them to put on masks; information about potential treatments seemed to change weekly. It was hysterical and uncivil, and, clearly enough, it wasn’t really about coronavirus at all. Something deeper was at work: a dispatching of the normal ways of dealing with public problems.
Something new certainly seems to be replacing the old way. I mean not just that a state of emergency had to be declared, or that exhortations to wear a mask and stay apart from others (“social distancing!”) were valorized as if they constituted genuine public health. Admittedly, even beyond the selfless labor of service, emergency, and medical workers, many collective acts were refreshing and hopeful: the willingness of legions of Americans to stand up and cry out about the injustices and abuses that Black Americans have suffered at the hands of white police, lawmakers, school boards, and so on. How tired our Black compatriots must be of it all. How laudable to not give up. And real questions arose about how policing is done, by whom, and of whom.
But the negation of that hopeful collectivity is another part of the uprooting: the eagerness of many white Americans to decry the voicing of those truths of American history, the drawing of guns on peaceful protestors, the swinging of clubs and fists, and even the firing of weapons to stop Black people (and white allies) from saying these truths.
I don’t mean that anyone, in the first months of 2020, latched onto coronavirus specifically because they were looking for an excuse for either protest or violence. I don’t think those connections were evident. But something was already ripening. And the complete uninterest in dealing with coronavirus as a phenomenon that demanded a public response through public discourse was a sign. The sphere of collective engagement in making a society, the wide-flung conversation on decency and responsibility—that public arena seems, suddenly, to be in question.
Public health is an emblem of engagement in the civil conversation. No consensus can be reached as to when public health began. In ancient Greece, with Hippocratic ideas about climate and illness? In ancient Rome, with aqueducts to bring clean water to the city? In 14th-century Ragusa and Venice, with early forms of quarantine? In London in the 1860s, with the completion of a sewer system? Followers of public health have various opinions. For me, public health could only begin once a public discourse had distinguished itself from both the private sphere of family and friends and the confining one of royal and clerical mandates. And further, public health could only begin once that realm of public discourse had become an arena wherein civility could be worked out among willing participants. The other realms of human affairs hadn’t required civility. Monarchs needn’t bother being civil, only strong. The clergy aren’t supposed to be civil; it’s the community of the godly they are in charge of. There’s no point in expecting civility in family life: family is where we go for love and cruelty, not civil treatment.
What I mean is that public health was never invented; it developed over time, more as a conversation than a crusade. Its driving force was an awareness that, as much as nature is rapacious, unforgiving, and inexplicable, human efforts to overcome nature can be indecent. Cholera, typhoid, and typhus wiped out the poor crowded into burgeoning cities. Noxious industrial effluxes rendered cities stinking and loathsome. Dealing with lunacy often took the form of starving and torturing the nonconforming. Children died in foul tenements, men died in mines and factories, women died in childbirth. Public health wasn’t primarily for preventing disease; it was for shaping a society that was less indecent, if only mildly so, than the ones dominated by monarchs, clerics, and aristocrats.
Arguably, beyond producing increased life expectancy, the civil public realm hasn’t amounted to much. Ending the forcible enslavement of Black Americans didn’t bring equality or justice to the nation. Modernization replaced the hopeless penury of the malnourished peasant with the hopeless penury of the processed-food–fed gig worker. The guillotine, gallows, gibbet, and stocks have disappeared as punishments, but transgressors—or, sometimes, just the inadequately represented—languish in vast numbers in unspeakable prisons. And civility is too often the rationale for suppressing urges that give life richness, the drives for eros, ecstasy, or exploring the borders of consciousness.
Still, humanity is better off with a civil public sphere than without one. Public libraries. National parks and seashores. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Saint-Gaudens’s memorial to the Massachusetts 54th, public art generally. Schools, and children healthy enough to attend them (an achievement of public health: today, out of every 1,000 children born in the United States, 993 will live to school age). Women’s right to own land, take out a bank loan, and vote. Et cetera. These improvements aren’t universal. They’re imperfect, and sometimes outright ignored. Even when they are truly open and competently administered, they don’t do everything. A civil society doesn’t protect you from history or heartbreak. But encouraging decency is a process, not a treasure hunt. It’s never over.
Regrettably, much of what institutionalized public health has done in the past few years is at odds with the foundational purpose of expanding civility. Public health today focuses too much on holding individuals responsible for preventing illness, condones the designation of particular “risk” groups for stigmatization, shills for wildly profitable vaccine manufacturing even where the public benefit is limited or negligible, and refuses to incorporate into its purview the need for universally available affordable housing—to name only a few of public health’s shameful deficiencies. But the basic idea persists. Babies should be healthy enough to grow up and go to school; childbirth shouldn’t be deadly; the disturbed psyche deserves care rather than torment; contagion should be limited; even if old age is always a massacre, as Philip Roth only half-jokingly averred, it shouldn’t be friendless or isolated; disabilities shouldn’t be barriers to a fulfilling life.
Without the kind of public health that is a conversation about expanding decency, and without the other foundations of civil society, people can’t be blamed for getting so worked up about injustice that they break shop windows or throw things at the police. The decline in support for public schools and teachers is well known now. States’ funding of public universities has fallen so much, and without concomitant relief from the federal government, that in most states the majority of ostensibly public university operating costs now comes from students’ tuition dollars. The National Endowment for the Arts’ appropriation is about the same today as it was in 1979, a more than threefold decrease in real terms. Only about six percent of private-sector workers are union members today. The federal minimum wage is nearly a third lower now in constant dollars than it was in 1968. In the United States, the coronavirus outbreak isn’t a natural disaster: it’s a sign that the nation has given up on a civil public sphere.
I hear a lot of talk now of the “post-pandemic” world. The term seems to imply that the coronavirus pandemic is a focal, albeit devastating, natural phenomenon. Of those we are seeing plenty already in this annus horribilis—the wildfires on the West Coast, record-breaking heat, destructive hurricanes, more hurricanes on the way. But if you look at the abandonment of a civil public arena as the underlying tragedy, then “post-pandemic” is too narrow a view. There won’t be a “post.” What we are going through won’t end just because coronavirus becomes less deadly, becomes treatable, or (least likely of all) is stopped by universal immunization. Promoting mask use won’t reestablish the basis of public health as a discourse about decency. The public conversation, the discourse on civility—that seems to be less and less compelling to people.
Earlier this year, after Italy’s intense coronavirus outbreak began, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben provoked vigorous debate among European intellectuals when he took his compatriots to task for acceding to governmental emergency restrictions. For Agamben, to award so much control of the physical self to the state is to acquiesce in the limitation of human freedom; not even the small chance of death from coronavirus makes that worth the cost. But Agamben misunderstood the Italians’ impulse. Collectivity itself is a response to power. Italians recognized—or sensed—that sometimes you must join your neighbors in misery for decency’s sake. Hannah Arendt saw this impulse as a mainstay of civilization. That so many of the Jews of Italy survived the Nazis’ attempts to deport and murder them, Arendt attributed to “the almost automatic general humanity of an old and civilized people.”
Civility and collectivity aren’t utopias. Too often, they offer cover for injustice. The civil public sphere is a work in progress. But without a sense of responsibility to public-ness—to public health, yes, and also to education, libraries, transportation, space, art, social services, and more—what claim will we have to being a civilized people?
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.