Crisis, opportunity, change, and perception

With the COVID-19 pandemic, people all over the world have been changing how they conduct their affairs, in an effort to slow down the spread of the disease. Many of these changes are highlighting ways in which our lives could be different, but aren’t:

As a species, humans seem to be very good at adjusting to new circumstances. The term “the new normal” is used constantly to discuss everything from climate change to Trump’s disastrous presidency, and I think it’s easy to slip into feeling like things have always been -and will always be – the way they are now. This is one example of how our sense of the world is often inaccurate, and why the use of tools like science and critical thinking are so important to keep from lying to ourselves.

Ollie Thorn of the Youtube channel Philosophy Tube made a video in September of 2018 about the changes that followed 9/11 that discusses this tendency, and how changes to things like airport security that were initially claimed to be temporary seem to have become just… the way things are now:


In a recent article for Slate, Dan Kois writes about some of the changes to “fact of life” rules that have been happening in the last couple weeks, due to this virus outbreak:

The Transportation Security Administration announced Friday that due to the coronavirus outbreak, they’re waiving the familiar four-ounce limit for liquids and gels—for hand sanitizer only. You may now bring a bottle of Purell as large as 12 ounces onto the plane to assist in your constant sanitizing of yourself, your family, your seat, your bag of peanuts, and everything else. All other liquids and gels, however, are still restricted to four ounces.

Among many shocks of the last week—school closures, Tom Hanks, the shuttering of one sports league after another—this rule change registers as major. The liquid restriction has been a key component of air travel ever since 2006. If people are now allowed to bring 12-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer onto planes, won’t the planes blow up?

The TSA can declare this rule change because the limit was always arbitrary, just one of the countless rituals of security theater to which air passengers are subjected every day. Flights are no more dangerous today, with the hand sanitizer, than yesterday, and if the TSA allowed you to bring 12 ounces of shampoo on a flight tomorrow, flights would be no more dangerous then. The limit was bullshit. The ease with which the TSA can toss it aside makes that clear.

There are a number of trite sayings about how times of crisis bring opportunity, and as with any persistent idea, there’s some truth to that. For all the horror that people are experiencing today, and that seems to be headed our way in the coming weeks due to inadequate resources and incompetent governments, this is an opportunity for everyone to think about what could be, rather than just what is. The case for universal healthcare has never been stronger, for example, and as the tweet earlier in this article said, we’re seeing that a lot of things we were told aren’t feasible, actually are.

Each day of this public health crisis brings a new example. People thrown in jail for minor offenses? San Antonio is one of many jurisdictions to announce that, to keep jails from being crowded with sick citizens, they’ll stop doing that. Why were they doing it in the first place?

The federal government charging interest on loans to attend college? Well, Donald Trump has  instructed government agencies who administer loans to waive interest accrual for the duration of the crisis. But why on earth is our government charging its own citizens interest anyway?

Broadband data caps and throttled internet? Those have been eliminated by AT&T and other ISPs, because of the coronavirus. But data caps and throttling were really just veiled price hikes that served no real technical purpose. Why did we put up with them?

Police helping landlords evict tenants in times of financial trouble? Due to the coronavirus, not anymore in New YorkMiami, and New Orleans. But—and you see where this is going—why do the police aid evictions when tenants are stricken with other, non-coronavirus illnesses?

The city shutting off your water, or your power, as punishment for hardship? During this public health emergency, plenty of cities and companies have suddenly found a way to keep service turned on. “As long as COVID-19 remains a health concern,” said Detroit mayor Mike Duggan, “no Detroit resident should have concerns about whether their water service will be interrupted.” Why in the hell should any Detroit resident have concerns about their water service being interrupted, ever? Shouldn’t clean water be the absolute base level of service delivered by a city to its residents?

Sick employees forced to take unpaid leave or work while sick if they want to keep their jobs? Walmart recently announced it would provide up to two weeks of paid leave for any employee who contracts the coronavirus. And the House just passed a bill to address the problem, though as the New York Times editorial board notes, the House’s failure to make the bill universal “is an embarrassment that endangers the health of workers, consumers and the broader American public.” But why should any sick worker fear losing their pay or their job at any time? And why are the most vulnerable to punitive sick leave practices the workers making the lowest wages?

As Kois points out, when the crisis has passed, there will be a strong push to “return to normal”, but it’s important to remember that “normal”, for a lot of people, has been a really bad situation for a really long time, and we’ll have a chance to hold on to some of the changes that we’ve seen, and to compare them to what went before.

It’s also worth noting that as with 9/11, it’s very likely that this crisis will be used to further the global surge in far-right governance around the world. Those of us who value human life are not the only ones who see the opportunity to “make a better world”, but not everybody has the same idea of what that better world should look like.

Take care of yourselves and those you love. Talk to those who share your hopes and dreams for the future. Guard against those who would burn the world to rule the ashes. Work to hold on to progress, and to gain new ground.

And remember that how things are now is neither how they always were, nor how they must be.


  1. says

    Yep, I share that worry. I think raising expectations for positive change is likely to improve the odds of a popular pushback against that sort of crap

  2. Jazzlet says

    One of the reasons we in the UK have the NHS is because service men and women came back from the war and said “If we could do that, then we can bloody well do this”.

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