Turning point: What will be the post-pandemic ‘new normal’?
Graffiti that reads "Capitalism is the virus" is seen on an information station at Ballard Commons Park in Seattle, May 4, 2020, where a homeless encampment was being cleared. | Ted S. Warren / AP

Historians have long discussed the concept of “turning points” in history—that is a moment when things change in a significant way from what they had been. Over the centuries, scholars have described periods of human development and assigned dates for their beginning and end. Therefore, dates such as 1492, 1776, 1865, 1877, 1929, and 1945 have long been considered turning points in U.S. history. Of course, these dates are not set in stone; historians often differ in their interpretations and categorization of the past. In other words, there is often wide disagreement as to what constitutes a turning point.

Let us make the assumption that at various points in the passage of human civilization observers conclude that many things in a society changed radically from what they used to be. It could be changes in how people produce things, in belief systems, or in the relationships between different countries. Wars and revolutions often bring about these changes. But they can happen in more peaceful ways, too.

Might we be at such a turning point in 2020? Not so much because there have been major changes in society, but because of what may take place in the years ahead.

The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States has exposed in the starkest terms a society with numerous serious problems. They did not suddenly appear along with the virus, but stem from developments that grew over the last several decades. Foremost among these is the close connection between the power of economic elites and their influence on all levels of government, best described as the rise of the neoliberal system that came to the fore with the election of Ronald Reagan.

This has led to inequities in government policies, a marked increase in social inequality, a decline in democracy, and an imbalance in who in our society wields power. At the same time, the United States has not accepted the fact that this is no longer the post-World War II era where it exercised a dominant role in world affairs.

The efforts of those opposed to these policies—workers, people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and Indigenous people—have led to many victories, but the beast has yet to be tamed.

As a result, unchecked social and economic tensions continued to fester and now have come to a boiling point. The list of problems that have been laid bare by the pandemic is too long to enumerate here. But one must mention the lack of a national single-payer health system (Medicare for All), which has impacted the lives of millions and contributed over the last two months to the deaths of more than 85,000.

The impact of COVID-19 has been worsened because of a serious shortage in essential medical supplies, such as ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE). This is the direct result of the priorities and malfeasance of the federal government.

The whole nature of work in this country has changed over the last several decades. As the most extreme sectors of capitalism have consolidated their dominance, the power of labor unions has been weakened and severely undermined. The percentage of workers organized in unions has dropped to levels not seen in a century. As a result, the number of workers employed in dead-end jobs with no benefits and no job security has skyrocketed. The growth of the “gig economy,” contracting, and contingent work has become commonplace.

The effects of endemic and systemic racism, which people of color have been fighting for centuries, are now manifested in the highly disproportionate number of African Americans and Latinx people contracting and dying from the coronavirus. This is the direct result of living in substandard housing and holding jobs that, in addition to all the problems they have faced for many years, now endanger their lives.

The obscene spending on the military budget and the huge tax breaks given to the mega-rich over the last 75 years did a great deal to drain valuable resources that rightfully belong to the working class and the poor, no more so than now.

There are many other serious weaknesses in our social order that are too numerous to mention. It is not hard, however, to see them no matter where we look—from child care, to education, to the digital divide, and care for the elderly.

When the day comes that we beat the pandemic, many are questioning whether we will ever return to “normal,” that is, to the way things were before. A growing number of observers, however, are talking about a “new normal,” with the understanding that the way life was will never return. Change is not only inevitable; now it is imperative. The question is, what will the “new normal” look like?

It could be a society where there is greater individual security, especially in the areas of health, jobs, housing, and food. The great extremes in wealth can be reduced. Protections against racism and all the other forms of oppression and violence can be strengthened. We can live in a world of peace and greater mutual understanding and respect. In other words, the excesses that emerged in U.S. society can be addressed, reduced, or eliminated.

To a large degree, it will be up to the people of the United States to shape that future. Many things need to be done to assure a more just and equitable society (particularly in case another pandemic ever appears). It will be a major struggle; the forces of reaction—be they big capital or white supremacy—will not give up with a fight.

Among the things that need to be done immediately are:

  1. Forging a unified coalition of forces to defeat Donald Trump and his Republican allies in November;
  2. Electing a much more progressive-oriented Congress that will pass a number of laws to start the process of change. These include: Medicare For All; major labor reform—specifically the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act);
  3. Repeal the Trump tax giveaway to the meg-rich;
  4. Pass a much smaller and reasonable Pentagon budget.

Where could it end?  No one knows, but it is safe to say that if we begin the reform of so many areas in our society and economy, strengthen democracy, and advance a people’s agenda, we will turn our society into a more decent and humane one. That would truly be a turning point in history.


David Cavendish
David Cavendish

David Cavendish is a retired teacher, active in the union movement, the peace movement (many years in an anti-Iraq/Afghanistan War vigil), and other progressive political activities. He is a longtime contributor to People’s World. David Cavendish es un maestro jubilado, activo en el movimiento sindical, el movimiento por la paz y otras actividades políticas progresistas. Colabora desde hace mucho tiempo en People’s World.