COVID’s Gettysburg moment

My friend Michael J. Brown, who teaches history at Rochester Institute of Technology, wrote a good article in the Rochester Beacon about the struggle against the coronavirus.

He compared it to the struggle to save the Union during the Civil War.  That may seem like a far-fetched comparison, but the Great Influenza pandemic of 1918 took more American lives than all of the wars of the 20th century.   The current pandemic could be just as deadly, and hundreds have already given their lives.

In the Civil War, as Brown pointed out, President Lincoln had a choice—to try to put things back the way they were before the war, or to remove the cause of the war—human slavery.  In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln resolved that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom” so that “these dead shall not have died in vain.”  Brown asked—

Has this coronavirus calamity simply been an ordeal to endure, or does all the suffering and loss have some galvanizing purpose?  

Will it result in a new birth of freedom for our time—a period of reconstruction and reform addressing the myriad inadequacies and deep racial inequities that COVID has laid bare—or will a return to “normalcy” leave these problems untouched?

Reckoning with COVID, we might reevaluate the disparity between the significant health risks of “essential” work and its comparatively meager economic rewards. 

Michael J. Brown

We might ask why in a “booming” economy so many Americans were one paycheck away from miles-long lines at food banks.

The pandemic could prompt us to rebuild our Union better than it was, or its legacy could be limited to “We’re all in this together” commercials, in which “this” is the reassuring glow of national brands.

The difference between these outcomes is a function not only of what we here highly resolve, but whether we resolve anything at all.

At Gettysburg, Lincoln gestured beyond the Civil War to a better nation.  But he also spoke of prosecuting that war until Union victory—for which so many had already given “the last full measure of devotion”—was achieved.

Our battle against COVID is today very much in doubt.  More than 800 front-line health care workers have given their lives in the struggle.

While Lincoln resolved to finish his fight, “America is giving up on the pandemic,” according to the Atlantic.

“The coronavirus may not be done with the nation, but the nation’s capital appears to be done with the coronavirus,” reported the New York Times.  “As the pandemic’s grim numbers continue to climb … Mr. Trump and lawmakers in both parties are exhibiting a short attention span.”

Just as it was in the mid-1860s, the outcome today is uncertain. Just as then, it will have to be determined by countless people—from elected officials to everyday citizens.

This is COVID’s Gettysburg moment. Will we meet it?


‘These dead shall not have died in vain’: COVID’s Gettysburg Moment by Michael J. Brown for the Rochester Beacon.  The whole thing is well worth reading.

In the Flower City, Take Root by Michael J. Brown for Dissent magazine (2010).  An earlier article by Michael.

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2 Responses to “COVID’s Gettysburg moment”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    The problem is that while it is a crisis, it is not an existential crisis. Many people may die but most will not. If we tread water for another 6 months it is likely a better treatment or even a vaccine will come along. If it doesn’t, we’ll have herd immunity eventually.

    That allows us to say “It probably won’t critically impact me.” Maybe 95 times out of a hundred that will be correct. And if most of the deaths come from our generation, oh well, old people aren’t economic producers and it will bring social security closer to solvency. Looked at another way, this is just evolution’s way of selecting for the willingness to wear a mask, wash hands, and social distance.

    All this adds up to a rationale for inaction. Humans tend not to do anything if doing nothing is viable. The desire to do nothing makes it easy to convince ourselves of many things.


  2. philebersole Says:

    I profoundly disagree with you, Fred. I think the USA does face an existential crisis.

    It is not just the pandemic. It is the pandemic + the lack of capacity to deal with the pandemic + the impending economic + plus the lack of ability to meey the economic crisis + climate-related catastrophes + lack of capacity to deal with emergencies + disastrous foreign and military policies + the lack of ability to reverse those policies + a deeply flawed electoral and political process + a lack of leadership + a crisis of morale and national unity.

    Maybe I am alarmist. Maybe things will magically come together in ways that I don’t foresee. Maybe the day of reckoning is further off than I think. But I’ve never felt this way before, and I have a bright memory of the upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

    But then again, in a way, you’re right. We Americans as a nation are not yet at the point where we realize we are in crisis.


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