It's Time for Our Leaders to Act

Jesse Jackson | 5/29/2020, 8:06 a.m.
We live in a time of bitter divisions. Today, even the wearing of masks has become a partisan question. Yet, ...

We live in a time of bitter divisions. Today, even the wearing of masks has become a partisan question. Yet, as Memorial Day reminds us, this country has united before to meet external threats. The calamity that has been wrought by the coronavirus is the result of an external attack - this time by a virus rather than an armed enemy. It too should be a time of national unity, of rallying together to share the sacrifices, to help one another through the crisis, and to rebuild the country afterwards.

Today, however, it is too easy to slip into small-minded partisanship, or to hold onto ideological blinders, even when it has never been more important to revive the better angels of our spirit.

Consider about 35 million people have filed for unemployment, with millions more unemployed but not counted. Hundreds of thousands of small businesses have closed, never to open again.

Major retailers like JC Penny and J. Crew are declaring bankruptcy. Manufacturing plants like Ford that reopened have had to close again as workers got struck by the virus. Major industries like the airlines are alive primarily because of assistance from the government and the Federal Reserve.

This stunning reality - beyond anything suffered since the Great Depression itself - takes massive human causalities. Over 90,000 have now died from the virus itself, with tens of thousands more weakened or crippled from its ravages. But the casualties are far greater.

Homeowners and renters can't pay their mortgages or rent. Graduates can't stay up with their student loans. Small businesses exhaust their reserves and are forced to lay off the team of workers they have assembled. Front-line workers deal with staggering stress, while at constant risk of infection. States and localities faced with plummeting revenues and rising costs have already started to lay off vital workers and cut vital services. People are sensibly scared, worried, and angry at plans and hopes that were suddenly dashed through no fault of their own.

At this time, as in wartime, the government must act. It must act to organize our collective response to the attack, to organize needed medical and protective gear, to figure out testing and tracing strategies, to distribute health resources, to galvanize an all-out press for a remedy.

It must also act to limit the damage - to keep families in their homes, small businesses in their offices or stores, workers in their jobs, and more. This cannot descend into partisan posturing.

In recent days, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has stated that he feels no "urgency" to aid states and localities, suggesting that states could go bankrupt, and that the crisis was largely one of "blue-state" mismanagement. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has stated that any extension of supplemental unemployment benefits would occur only over "our dead bodies." McConnell dismissed the rescue package passed through the House as simply "aspirational," and adjourned the Senate until June.

The casualties are not partisan. They are Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, small business owners and small farmers, meat packers and more. They are disproportionately the most vulnerable: middle- and low-income families, the poor, the old, the sick. They are in red states and blue states.