“How do we go back to normal?”
It’s the question on everyone’s minds. It’s what I’ve been asked in nearly every town hall and media interview since the coronavirus pandemic began.
We all want to go back out in public without worrying about getting sick. We all want to see our economy awakened from this medically-induced coma so we can support ourselves and our families. We all want to be able to get back to working, shopping, worshipping and living our lives as we did before we ever heard of COVID-19.
But maybe the goal shouldn’t be a return to “normal.” Rather, perhaps we need a new normal.
Because in the old normal, most Americans didn’t have paid sick leave or family leave. Indeed, almost a quarter of American workers — that’s more than 30 million people — do not have any paid sick leave. In the new normal, workers should not have to choose between their paycheck and their health — or the health of a loved one. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act laid the foundations for a new paid sick leave system. But the protections afforded workers in that law shouldn’t be unique to this pandemic. That’s why I’ve joined more than 200 members in the House in supporintg the FAMILY Act — because folks shouldn’t have to risk their jobs or their economic security to care for a loved one.
In our new normal, America should do a better job of protecting its front-line workers. President Donald Trump has said America is at war against the “invisible coronavirus enemy.” But we should never send Americans into war without the equipment they need to be safe. Right now, nurses, doctors and other first responders are being sent into the trenches without the personal protective equipment (PPE) they need.
In our new normal, America shouldn’t rely on China for the production of the lifesaving equipment. In the new normal, we should reinvest in domestic manufacturing — with more American factories and more American workers in jobs making the things our country needs. That’s going to take much more coordinated federal leadership. As historian Douglas Brinkley recently said, “The United States was once known for its can-do culture. We built the Panama Canal and we put a man on the moon. And now we can’t get a swab or a face mask or a gown and we have no real chain of command.” As a start, the president should leverage the Defense Production Act to pivot American factories to manufacturing vital medical gear and equipment — and I’ve co-sponsored legislation to do just that. We’ve also got to make sure these supplies get to the places with the most need — that there’s federal coordination. It can’t be a free-for-all like the toilet-paper aisle at the grocery store.
In the new normal, we should respect and value efforts to manage and prevent risks — and the role of the federal government in developing knowledge and expertise to prevent bad things from happening. Imagine if funding had not been axed from the Predict program to alert for potential pandemics — if dozens of analysts and scientists had not been let go. Imagine if — in mid-March, after weeks of coronavirus cases — the administration’s proposed budget didn’t still call for cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. These concerns aren’t grounded in partisanship or Monday-morning quarterbacking. Rather, they amplify a point made by author Michael Lewis, who notes, “It’s not just pandemic prevention. Much of what the experts inside of government who manage risks are doing is trying to prevent it all from happening. If they succeed, then you never know about it.”
Finally, let’s find a new normal that addresses some of the inequities that existed pre-virus. Whether we’re dealing with the lack of attainable housing or the fact that too many Americans don’t have the financial resources to weather an unexpected storm, we have work to do. For example, ensuring access to the internet in 2020 is not unlike rural electrification was in decades past. Bridging the digital divide isn’t about ensuring folks can watch “Tiger King” on Netflix; it’s about ensuring our kids have the opportunity to learn. It’s about giving local employers — in areas urban and rural — a shot.
Maybe getting back to normal means folding the lessons learned from this pandemic into a new normal. Out of everything that we have been through and are still going through now, let’s make sure the new normal is better than the old and America is stronger than ever before.