Let us count the ways.
The Pandemic Era of the past 2.5+ years and counting has thrown into sharp relief many uncomfortable truths underpinning our society and communities.
COVID19, and our ongoing battle with it, has been like a vast tide going out, leaving everything revealed in its wake. This isn’t unusual: Boom times cover a multitude of sins; Lean times are always where the rubber meets the road.
As such, the coronavirus impacted our society in much the same specific way World War I changed European nations.
When countries like England tried to recruit soldiers from their impoverished working classes to fight in the war, the ruling elites made a shocking discovery:
In the post-Industrial Age, life for the working-class poor had become so terrible, military recruiters found a population so broken-down, ill and undernourished; so uneducated and prematurely-aged as to be completely useless for soldiering.
It was a sobering reality and in its unflinching light a new idea was born; that unchecked poverty was more than a drain on a nation’s most valuable, renewable natural resource, i.e. its people.
The abject poverty of the working-class was at last revealed as the serious national security threat it always was. A nation that can’t feed, educate and care for its citizens cannot count on those citizens in times of civil defense.
Public policies like required universal childhood education, national health services and vaccinations, even robust public welfare programs, were born out of this terrible new knowledge.
Initially, these programs weren’t much more than investments in a future fighting force, should such a force ever become necessary again- which it certainly did only a few short decades later with the outbreak of a second World War even more deadly than the first.
At the close of WWI, and even more so after the end of World War II, the power of the aristocratic classes was vastly diminished; what could a country like England possibly accomplish with just its aristocracy alone?
The answer, of course, was indisputable by that point: Not much.
It certainly couldn’t fight off a radicalized, merciless, power-crazed military superpower like Hitler’s Germany.
COVID19 tested the shores of the U.S. in much the same way.
At a time when the nation’s leaders most needed an educated, healthy, robust working-class to, not only weather the ravages of a pandemic, but soldier on to keep the economy afloat, they found instead poverty, ill-health, a lack of social cohesion and a good portion of the populace neither prepared nor equipped to handle shut-downs, mandates, closures and quarantines.
The consequences are only now just starting to come into focus. Some of those consequences may be with us for a generation or more: The Covid Generation.
As FBI Director Christopher Wray recently told 60-Minutes, the rise in violent crime in America over the past year- homicide is up 29% nationwide- has been driven in part by an increase in crimes being committed by young people.
In Chicago, where authorities are battling untraceable, illegal “ghost guns”, one teenager killed another in Chicago’s famous and picturesque Millennium Park only recently.
Drawing a direct cause and effect relationship between the amount of time public schools were shut down during the pandemic and the rise in minors committing crimes in those areas will be difficult.
There are simply too many variables, especially considering the unusual laboratory of COVID19 shut-downs. It isn’t exactly a repeatable experiment with a viable control group for comparison.
But if we accept that a more educated populace is less disposed towards criminality, making for a more peaceful and prosperous society- and we do, since we long ago agreed to fund public education with our tax dollars- then we must admit the opposite is also true.
The long-term closures of public schools happened on a scale never before approached in history- not during other pandemics and epidemics, not during war time, not even during the Cuban missile crisis, during which schoolchildren and their teachers, instead of staying home, practiced nuclear fallout drills in hallways and classrooms.
Many middle and high school students at-risk for dropping out in March of 2020 left school and never went back. A COVID19-sized crack opened up in the system and they fell through it. Between 10,000 and 20,000 public-school age students in the Los Angeles Unified School District are missing from the enrollment ranks this year and officials are at a loss as to what to do about it.
Now, faced with the prospect of punishing young criminals poor public policy helped create, city leaders are understandably reluctant to crack-down on crime, but a crack-down is coming nevertheless. If current city leaders in afflicted areas won’t arrest the slide into the bad old days of the 1990s murder epidemic, voters will eventually elect new city leaders who will.
None of this is likely to solve our prison overpopulation problem, or the school-to-prison pipeline out in California, or anything else.
It will be a long time before the full effects of long-term public school closures are truly understood.
It is already becoming quite clear, however, that public school closures, along with the shuttering of religious institutions and other collectives that contribute to social cohesion, unity and community life, have resulted in a pubic which is less safe, less unified and far less prepared for a worst case scenario like the outbreak of a global conflict.
Social cohesion, along with public education, somehow came to be viewed as less important during a pandemic, when in fact, a robust public education program and organizations contributing to social cohesion become more important during times of imminent threat and danger.
Public school closures risked plunging a generation of working-class families into generational poverty, with all its attendant challenges from ill-health, to drug abuse and vulnerability to both criminality and predation.
This is a risk we should never have taken lightly. And perhaps should never, ever take again.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)