The media and disease experts tell us we must take personal responsibility to avoid Covid-19! Gov. Sununu, to no one’s surprise, has taken the same hands-off approach, choosing to treat the pandemic like we do other social ills, like poverty or homelessness, exemplifying our state motto: “Live Free or Die.”
Indeed, some individual behavior is unconscionable, like folks refusing to wear masks and kids flocking to large parties. Yet disease experts stress that responsible leadership is essential because controlling this plague is beyond individual capabilities. That’s why it is so disheartening that after almost a full year, the federal government has yet to provide a coordinated response to establish clear guidelines to protect public health and establish policies like a national infrastructure for testing and tracing—and now, to efficiently distribute the vaccine.
Meanwhile, essential workers and lower-income folks have no choice but to work to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. That makes it impossible for them to comply with social distancing prodigals without financial assistance. The federal government provided such help early on but now have scaled it back when needed most.
Epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves proposes that the government “pay Americans to stay home if they feel sick, test positive or work for a business that should close for public health reasons to avoid choosing between their health and their bills.”1
Looking at the big picture in our country, it is clear we have over-emphasized the role of individual responsibility. It is morally indefensible to harangue people to lift themselves up by their bootstraps when they have no boots. How do you lift yourself up without a livable wage, adequate healthcare, and sufficient education to compete for a good job.
Nicholas Kristof nailed it when he wrote: “When an infant in three counties in the United States has a shorter life expectancy than an infant in Bangladesh, that’s not because the American newborn is making “bad choices”; it’s because we as a country are.”2
Many people make ‘bad choices” because of hardships and trauma, resulting from being excluded from the American Dream. Isabel Wilkerson’s highly-acclaimed, new book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, does a masterful job of illuminating how racism has been one such major exclusionary factor baked into our national identity.
Less talked about is how social class is an exclusionary factor. Treating people differently, depending on their status in society, is written into our original Constitution of 1789; it delegated to the states the power to set voting requirements, which, generally, limited this right only to property-owning, white males.
Low-income folks need not apply!
Since then, we’ve passed a lot of amendments to make things more equal. While women and non-white citizens now can vote, they still face discrimination. But those who fail to support themselves remain untouchables, shunned because, it is said, they don’t try hard enough.
As a result, in an unwelcome twist of fate, we now treat our dogs better than our fellow human beings. It wasn’t always so.
Back in our more macho past, dogs were card-carrying members of the untouchable caste: if they were “bad dogs” who growled at their master or disobeyed him, they were often beaten or put down—just as blacks were in the days of slavery. Poverty-afflicted humans weren’t treated much better: they were often thrown into prison for being unable to pay their debts, and subject to a precarious lifestyle, putting them at an ever-present risk of dying from malnutrition or exposure to the elements.
But, at least for dogs, we have seen the light. We have discovered that bad character is not baked into “bad dogs:” Rather, it is a function of a bad environment. Consequently, we now rescue tens of thousands of dogs from the south, many of whom were neglected, malnourished, abandoned, abused, or all-of-the-above.
To our surprise, we have found that giving these dogs compassionate care in a safe environment transforms formerly unruly curs into loving, loyal best friends.
The question we have to ask is, when are we going to start treating our fellow humans as well as our dogs?