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Shocking the National Heartbeat

I remember the first time I heard it — or saw it rather. It was during the Gulf War in 1991 and SCUD missiles were being launched into Israel, putting Israeli citizens on high alert. The television news was showing a family hunkered down with all their survival gear; the adrenaline radiated through the screen. And when the newscaster announced another incoming SCUD, live as it was happening, a little moving ticker appeared out of nowhere in the chyron strip at the bottom of the screen. It reminded me of an EKG, only it was an instantaneous display of the stock market’s fluctuations — the national heartbeat — synced up with the drumbeat of the Gulf War.

It stunned me that the “health” of our nation’s stock market was somehow as important as the well-being of people fearing for their lives. But over the years I’ve grown accustomed to seeing our economic indicators tied to other historic events. I’d notice the ticker whenever our national stability was threatened — during moments “small” as the Waco, Texas siege, and as momentous as 9/11.

Although I stopped watching most television news a while ago (news as entertainment and negative sensationalism doesn’t offer me much), I still hear the national heartbeat: on the radio, in podcasts, and in everyday conversations. What’s funny-not-funny is that in the past few weeks the stock market “heart monitor” is showing our collective “viral volatility” in ways we’ve never seen before, due to our tight interconnectivity. Announcements about Covid-19 are followed by plunging stock indices. As the movement towards self-isolation and social distancing sink in, “things that people will need” sets off a feeding frenzy at grocery stores while the news highlights the soaring prices of grocery company stocks.

An Irregular Heartbeat

Also funny-not-funny is that even without the close monitoring, over the past few years I’ve seen signs of “arrhythmia.” Something’s been off for a while. And as abnormal news becomes normalized, the signals become harder for me to ignore. Whenever I notice it, my personal emotion-meter gets confused on where to land the needle — somewhere between judgmental disgust and collective national shame. It appears as social media commentary in my feed or pops up in conversations:

  1. The US withdraws from The Paris Climate Agreement as the EPA is gutted and environmental regulations are rolled back: “My portfolio is doing great, though.”

  2. Families are being separated and kids held in cages: “Yeah, that’s not good, but you can’t complain about your 401(k), can you?”

  3. And then there’s a president who insists that everything is humming along nicely by sharing an autographed screenshot of this “heartbeat” as proof of our national “health.”

Yet now, as we face one of the biggest tests in our country’s (and our world’s) history, we need to monitor our health as a nation — literally — and we don’t know how to do it. What we DO know is what science tells us: social distancing and self-isolating is our best means of surviving minimally scathed. How ironic that this necessary strategy will put our familiar economic health indicator into something akin to severe heart failure, with small businesses and a vast portion of our economy facing an uncertain prognosis.

But instead of freaking out in anticipation of the worst, I see a rare opportunity here.

As we go into our collective “cave” in the coming weeks, entering anxious uncharted territory, let’s embrace the unknown with hope. Perhaps this period can result in a grand reckoning, at least for a critical mass of us. After all, this trial is revealing the truth that we are a fragile interconnection of people reliant on each other. The wealthiest among us won’t be able to buy their way into survival when doctors and healthcare workers are maxed out and under-equipped. And as the lowest-on-the-rung workers get sick, we will quickly learn how dependent we are on those who grow our food, for example.

What’s the best prognosis?

If a best-case scenario comes to pass (please!) and things “return to normal” relatively soon, I hope we don’t consider this crisis a “close call.” Instead, let’s see it as an opportunity to envision how our society would thrive best if we decided to re-set our thinking and approach:

  1. What do we want in place of our dodgy health care system, filled with overpriced medicines, inaccessible to those without insurance?

  2. What scenarios can we imagine so that people wouldn’t have to live paycheck to paycheck without a safety net?

  3. What would a state-of-the-art school system look like (that includes access to robust online learning tools)? First, let go of the idea that public school classrooms are crowded and underfunded by default… and then think about the new generation of scientists and creatives that we could bring forth.

  4. Can you imagine the US (or your home country) in a healthy dynamic of global cooperation, instead of mistrustful competition? It’s a challenge when we live in a nation that reveres wealth and arrogance. But pretend we are a few years away from a sci-fi utopian fantasy… see where your imagination takes you.

And if any or all aspects of such a “re-set” were to happen, what then would our national health indicator look like? Perhaps it would be the same one, only with less volatility. Or better yet, it would be something else, more aligned with actual heart.

I know this sounds like a pipe dream, but really think about it. The current crisis has shown that we can change our collective behavior on a dime, almost in unison, across the country and even across the entire planet. If we can do that, what else are we capable of?

A Cure on the Horizon

In the coming weeks and months, as our stock market EKG indicator remains in cardiac arrest and the government reaches for the defibrillator however it does, perhaps we can think of this moment in history as a juncture to jolt us toward a better future. Perhaps when we come out of this pandemic, we’ll have seen the light. A crucial number of us might even have enough clarity to envision a far better economic system, like the folks at Yes! Media so eloquently propose, or like this macroeconomist imagines.

In a twisted way, the worse this situation gets, the clearer we can see the improvements we need to make in order to survive and thrive as a species. But we don’t have to devolve into a zombie apocalypse to make those changes. Since things will not be “back to normal” in one or two weeks, enough time might pass for better ideas to sink in — ones where economic bailouts aren’t limited to corporations, but where actual people are the highest priority.

Maybe we don’t want to go “back to normal” — but instead find a new normal. A better normal.

Maybe a stock ticker will no longer be the primary health indicator that guides us through a future crisis.

Maybe this unique moment in history, and the breakneck speed with which we’ve changed our lifestyle, will prove to us we can make anything happen. 

One way to value people over profits during this challenge and transformative time we live in is to give to those in need. Here’s an easy way to disburse your dollars to benefit several groups in a single donation.

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