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America Is Not as Resilient as It Thinks It Is

Whether in a pandemic or a hurricane, inequality and underfunded infrastructure are bad for disaster preparedness.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

This year’s Atlantic hurricane season could be one of the most active on record, according to models from Pennsylvania State University’s Earth System Science Center. Hurricane season officially begins on June 1 but has been creeping earlier in recent years: Warm waters off the Florida coast this weekend could produce the season’s first tropical system ahead of schedule. And all while the country is still dealing with a global pandemic.

It’s not groundbreaking at this point to say the United States was unprepared for the coronavirus. President Trump has dismantled much of the White House’s outbreak preparedness infrastructure, and our health care system makes seeking treatment a trial even for those lucky enough to have insurance. But the country’s problems meeting this kind of crisis also go beyond the incompetence of any one presidential administration. Staggering racial inequality, a bloated for-profit health care system, and American politicians’ apparent allergy to international collaboration aren’t just moral failings: They’re also vulnerabilities. The coronavirus represents a warning shot. Future decades may bring much worse.

Many of the crises we’ll navigate in a post-Covid-19 world will involve rising temperatures in one way or another: further zoonotic disease outbreaks, declining crop yields, rising seas, and extreme weather, to name just a few of the more obvious examples. Beyond their immediate impact, these climate impacts will drive profound changes in where and how people live. In the U.S. alone, an estimated five million Americans have already been either temporarily or permanently displaced by weather-related disasters since 2016, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. And these challenges are going to collide in troubling ways with other crises hurtling toward us.

A full one-fifth of U.S. residents will be over the age of 65 by 2030, a “Silver Tsunami” that will ripple through everything from the housing market to the small business sector as the ranks of retirees grows. Nursing homes have been a hot spot for the coronavirus, exposing how little thought has been put into how to care for an aging population and how few protections there are for the people whose job it is to look after them; nursing home employees have filed more than 500 complaints in recent months with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and state workplace safety boards about the lack of on-the-job protections. Elderly Americans are similarly some of the most vulnerable to extreme heat, both because their bodies are more sensitive to heat stress and because many older people are socially isolated, without the support networks to help them reach cooler locations. Seventy-two percent of those who perished in the Chicago heat wave of 1995 were older than 65; and as with this pandemic, those who died were disproportionately Black.

Covid-19 has also highlighted the crisis of care that feminist scholars and groups like the National Domestic Workers Alliance have long warned about. Organized society rests on work performed inordinately by women, people of color, and immigrants, much of it done for free by family members or by workers who lack basic labor protections. “Overworked, underpaid and ignored, domestic workers and caregivers are too often asked to put the needs of the families who employ them over their own and those of their families,” NDWA Director Ai-Jen Poo wrote recently in The New York Times, pointing to the care workers who stayed behind to tend to elderly clients in the deadly wildfires that have swept California these last few years. “Without access to health care, paid time off, or job security, they must navigate crisis and disaster time and again, without a safety net.”

Government agencies tasked with responding to urgent crises, like FEMA, are chronically underfunded or poorly managed—one weak thread among many in an increasingly inadequate safety net. Millions of people lack health care and are just one lost paycheck away from losing the roof over their head; whether it’s a hurricane or a  pandemic that takes it won’t make much of a difference. Despite the fact that we can see coronavirus-size shocks coming from a mile away, there’s still no comprehensive plan for how to design a society equipped to handle them. What would it look like to live in a country that can absorb them equitably?

It’ll almost certainly be a lot more pleasant. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg has described the need to build up our social infrastructure: places for relationship and community-building that are as key to a healthy society as water and electricity. Schools and libraries have been vital resource hubs in storm-response scenarios, even as their funding comes under threat. Strong public institutions will be just as central to dealing with extreme weather as any sea wall built to contain the damage wrought by climate change.

Along similar lines, researchers with the U.K.-based think tank Autonomy have proposed the creation of Long Term Care Centers that treat care less as a strictly private, domestic matter than as a neighborhood resource, providing health services and human connection. As should now be obvious, improving pay and protections for care workers is as much about building a strong society as it is about improving the lot of one segment of the workforce. Rain or shine, we’re only as healthy as the sickest among us, particularly when some of those sick people are keeping our parents alive and delivering our food.

Investments in resilience can feed our needs and our wants at the same time. Many cities now lack sufficient sidewalk space for social distancing, their blocks designed for cars rather than people. Green space—both a great place to spend time and a means of alleviating the urban heat-island effect—is sorely lacking in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. As landscape architects Billy Fleming and Alexandra Lillehei noted last month, Covid-19 means “our parks, trails, wide sidewalks, rooftops, and balconies are bustling—full of people seeking a respite from isolation in the green and civic infrastructure that binds our communities together.” Many often forget that, in addition to creating Social Security and electrifying the country, the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal in the 1930s put people to work building those trails and parks, along with beaches, outdoor concert halls, and rose gardens. A post-pandemic equivalent could do the same, creating more spaces for social distancing and low-carbon leisure.

We do have some current examples of what investment in national-scale resilience might look like. South Korea, which dealt handily with its coronavirus outbreak through aggressive contact-tracing and isolation measures, now plans to shape its recovery from this crisis around the principles of a Green New Deal. Like the U.S., it also has an aging population now buckling under the weight of skyrocketing living expenses. South Korea has the highest poverty rates for people over 65 of any Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nation. To deal with that problem, the government plans to expand its pension program and subsidize 40,000 public housing units for seniors by 2022, including 5,000 “public silver houses” sited close to health care facilities and equipped with safety features.

Amsterdam’s city government has said its Covid-19 recovery will be guided by the principles detailed by British economist Kate Raworth in her book Doughnut Economics, to reorient to meeting people’s needs and wants within ecological limits. The framework substitutes economists’ traditionally single-minded focus on exponential growth in gross domestic product for a more holistic metric. The inner ring of the doughnut, Raworth writes, represents “a social foundation of well-being that no one should fall below”—those who do exist in the doughnut hole. Meanwhile, the outer ring represents “an ecological ceiling of planetary pressure that we should not go beyond. Between the two lies a safe and just space for all.” In Amsterdam, focusing on the space between those two rings could mean investing in energy-efficient social housing built from sustainable materials, instead of trying to draw in real estate developers who’ll make its neighborhoods wealthier but more exclusive.

New Zealand’s center-left Prime Minister Jacinda Adern—whose coronavirus response has been held up as one of the world’s most successful—last year announced her country would prioritize its residents’ welfare and happiness over GDP growth. In New Zealand, that’s meant creating a “Wellbeing Budget” that looked to satisfy some 60 indicators of intergenerational well-being rather than simply year-on-year GDP growth and a more traditional cost-benefit analysis. Translated to the U.S, this might mean, rather than bailing out fossil fuel executives, expanding Medicare to include kids.

The coming months and weeks will see governments deciding how and when to reopen and where to spend stimulus funds so as to get the tens of millions now unemployed back to work. So far, policymakers have mainly seemed interested in getting back to something like normal. But for those who’ve been most vulnerable to the coronavirus and its economic fallout, that “normal” may not offer much solace. Amid a climate crisis, “normal” doesn’t really exist anyway. The question is what kind of society we want to construct in normality’s absence. A carefully crafted one can care for people and planet alike.