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On Wednesday night, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman gave an astonishing interview on CNN where she advocated an immediate end to the lockdown and the reopening of her city as a gambling mecca.
“I’d love everything open because I think we’ve had viruses for years that have been here,” Goodman told Anderson Cooper. “We’ve never closed down the United States. We’ve never closed down Nevada. We’ve never closed down Las Vegas because that’s our job.” Goodman said she was motivated by her talks with casino owners, whom she described as “very sensitive people.”
Cooper pressed the point by asking “If casinos re-open, are you going to be inside those casinos every single night putting your life on the line?” Goodman tried to dodge the question and then responded, “First of all, I have a family.”
Fortunately, Goodman doesn’t actually have the power to end the lockdown in her city. But her comments typify a very loud and reckless faction of the political class that is pushing for a premature end to efforts to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. As Cooper accurately noted, Goodman’s remarks are all the more remarkable because there is no indication that she’s put into place any of the infrastructure of testing and contact tracing that would make ending the lockdown safe.
Nor is Goodman alone in her foolhardy advocacy. On Thursday night, conservative pundit David Frum noted that the Trump administration was laggard in all the policy steps needed for a safe reopening of the economy. Frum argued that the strategy of Trump and the Republicans going forward would be to ram through a reopening even without the safeguard of a proper testing and tracing regime.
“What the Trump administration plainly yearns to do—and ditto FL, GA, TN, and other GOP governors—is to reopen, let the disease rip, take casualties, hope for rapid onset of sufficient immunity,” Frum argued. “Trump and his governors are working to ensure there won’t be any other choice.” He went on to note, “Maybe we’ll get lucky. Maybe the virus will mutate into harmlessness. Maybe a vaccine will be devised. But we can’t stay locked down forever, and there isn’t going to be testing and tracing anytime soon. Meanwhile, those with clout in the GOP are pushing for ‘take the punch.’”
Trump’s continued touting of miracle cures is part of this strategy. Although his previous wonder drug hydroxychloroquine hasn’t panned out, Trump continues to advocate for bizarre panaceas. During a Thursday press briefing, Trump speculated that cures could include irradiating patients with an ultraviolet light or possibly injecting them with disinfectants.
If Trump and the GOP push for a premature end to the lockdown, one that will only lead to a new surge in illness and death, then it’s worth asking them the same question that Anderson Cooper posed to Carolyn Goodman: Are they willing to spend their days in the workplaces where Covid-19 is likely to spread fastest?
The Darwinian callousness of the “take the punch” approach is a product of the extreme inequality of American society. Goodman and the owners of the Las Vegas casinos, Trump and his Mar-A-Lago cronies, the plutocrats funding protests against the lockdown, Rupert Murdoch and the Fox News pundits: All of them inhabit a bubble of wealth that protects them from the consequences of the pandemic. They can happily contemplate a system where they will continue to work from home and benefit from an economy in which the risks of Covid-19 are overwhelmingly borne by the working class.
In his 1983 book Spheres of Justice, political theorist Michael Walzer made the case for a more equal society where the burden of doing dirty and dangerous work is shared:
In a society of equals, who will do the dirty work? And the necessary answer is that, at least in some partial and symbolic sense, we all should do it. Then we will have an end to dukes, if not yet to dustmen. This is what Gandhi was getting at when he required his followers—himself, too—to clean the latrines of their ashram. Here was a symbolic way of purging Hindu society of untouchability, but it also made a practical point: People should clean dirt. Otherwise, the men and women who do it not only for themselves but for everyone else, too, will never be equal members of the political community.
As an example of what he had in mind, Walzer suggests, “the cleaning of city streets, say, or of national parks should be the (part-time) work of the citizens.”
Aside from Gandhi, Walzer cited other advocates of equality such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Walt Whitman as promoting the virtues of communal grunt work. He could also have mentioned the science fiction novelist Ursula K. Le Guin, whose novel The Dispossessed features a society where everyone had to devote one day a week to “kleggich” (drudgery).
These ideas are guided by the ethical imperatives of egalitarianism, but could also have a practical benefit. As Walzer notes, “There would probably be less dirt to clean up if everyone knew in advance of making it that he couldn’t leave the cleaning to someone else.”
The chief value of this type of utopian speculation is that it makes more apparent the deficiency of the real world. In the case of Covid-19, advocating a Walzer-style sharing of dirty work makes visible the brutal class reality that undergirds current policy.
Imagine a world where Carolyn Goodman had to spend her evenings cleaning up a casino, where Georgia Governor Brian Kemp had to do part-time labor in an Amazon warehouse, where Donald Trump had to work one day a week as a hospital orderly. In such a world, we wouldn’t have a rush to reopen the economy. Instead, we’d have a massive investment in the health care system, including in testing and tracing infrastructure.
We have to demand a wider sharing of the burdens of the pandemic. The ruling elite have to be forced to choose: Either they can start spending on the scale the problem needs, or they’ll be conscripted into the army of essential laborers.