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Edelman: Social conventions, financial planning may change; health inequity, misinformation must

As the song says, “The times, they are a’ changin’.” Indeed, they are. Our society has been turned upside-down by a deadly virus. Our old ways of doing things will be among its casualties.

Social conventions are changing. The elbow bump is a likely replacement for the fist bump, which was becoming the substitute handshake, whose origins go back millennia, when soldiers would expose their empty right hands to show they were unarmed.

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While the passing of the handshake might not be earthshaking, the impact of COVID-19 on our social institutions will be much more deeply felt.

Social distancing and isolation may appear unnecessary or burdensome to some, especially those favoring early openings of business establishments. Home-schooling second graders is frustrating; face masks may make you feel ridiculous. But as this virus is likely to be a persistent threat, those behavioral changes will be more acceptable. We are social beings, and we tend to keep to prevailing customs.

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During the Great Depression, people learned to watch their money and look for ways not to spend it. My parents, children of the Depression, never forgot the sting of privation. They taught their children the need to put money away; but decades of generally strong economic growth and easy credit replaced thrifty habits with acceptable debt ratios that tell banks just how much debt you could accumulate before becoming a high-risk borrower. The current health crisis put 30 million people, and counting, out of work. Their lack of financial planning forced a multi-trillion-dollar Federal bailout. A possible outcome of this crisis is a return to living within our means. That would do more to preserve the economy than all the crazies flooding beaches, storming state houses, and holding marches in Salisbury.

Society will change in more significant ways. The virus has exposed significant problems in how we live. People of color suffer disproportionately greater deaths than the country’s white population. Social media became a petri dish for growing conspiracy theories and polarization, even more than has been the case until now. We have seen and are seeing the disintegration of government as an effective instrument to protect the population.

In Louisiana, blacks make up about a third of the population, but account for 70% of all deaths from the virus. In Alabama, the ratios are 44% of deaths, 26% of the population. The federal government says these rates are due to disparities in individual behavior. Surgeon General Jerome Adams urged African Americans to “avoid alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.” This insensitivity to the social factors that contribute to high rates of diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes among communities of color is unacceptable and must be addressed.

It’s been said that a lie travels ‘round the world before truth has its shoes on. This has surely been the case with COVID-19. Social media propagates misinformation and disinformation — exhibit A is the 2016 election.

Just last month, 5G phone towers were destroyed in several countries. Why? Rumors spread like wildfire that 5G radiation spread coronavirus. As far back as March, rumors that UV light and disinfectants could cure COVID-19, and somehow, they wound up in a presidential “press conference.” Gov. Hogan reported that Maryland poison control got hundreds of calls about using them (short version: DON’T!). Misinformation feeds our fears. We are still waiting for an antidote to COVID-19, but we have one for lies about the virus. That’s the dissemination of truthful information from knowledgeable sources like Dr. Anthony Fauci, whose appearance before the House of Representatives is being blocked by the White House.

Feuds between the federal and state governments help nobody. For Sen. McConnell to suggest that states declare bankruptcy is just plain ludicrous. Why should a state governor such as Larry Hogan have to turn to his Korean-American wife to work out a deal for test kits? And why should Gov. Hogan have to stash them in an undisclosed location and call out the state police to protect them from the Trump administration confiscating (i.e. stealing) them?

If America is fortunate, the toxic relationship between states and the federal government is a temporary aberration that the next election will correct. But we still need to make certain that the conditions that gave rise to these breakdowns are fixed, no matter who occupies the White House.

Mitch Edelman writes from Finksburg. Email him at mjemath@gmail.com.

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