Wilton columnist: Meeting this enormous challenge

Stephen Hudspeth

Stephen Hudspeth

Staff / Hearst Connecticut Media

Are there any good things resulting from the enormous challenges of coronavirus?

On a very minor-league front, I’ve been dragged further into the technological age by being forced to learn how to teach using online methods; it’s not all that bad (though I do miss the in-person student contact) and offers some special educational opportunities.

I’ve also seen folks come together in unexpected and very heartening ways. We greet each other while walking (yet keeping our distance) on town trails, we wave to each other from our yards, and younger neighbors and friends endearingly call us to make sure we’re OK. We enjoy that treatment as we are firmly among the elderly who can use that very thoughtful checking up. But how I hate to use the term “elderly” as a self-descriptive! I’ve always viewed myself as far younger than my chronological age would dictate but am now forcibly led to confrontation with that rather stark contrary reality.

And on the stark reality front, we’ve come now to understand as a nation, and indeed a world, how fragile is the economic base on which our daily lives are founded. We’re reminded of the irony that it was almost exactly a century ago that the last pandemic - caused by the very different influenza virus - disrupted life in America and indeed around the world. While medical science was far less advanced then of course, the fact is that those cities and regions where social distancing was enforced fared far better than those where it was not. So old lessons learned still have application, and they are clearly, and thankfully, being taken very seriously universally today.

It doesn’t take much additional reflection to remember that the last time around, the oppressive and tragic gloom of pandemic was replaced by the frenetic pace of the Roaring Twenties that followed (and that the Library’s Wilton Reads series this year was poised to address before everything was shut down). Then came the stock market crash followed by the Great Depression. Much writing has reflected on the connection between the two, but confusing the causative analysis was the major devastation of our farmlands as far-ranging drought gave way to the Dust Bowl shortly after the crash.

We lacked in that earlier time the medical and communications technological resources that we are blessed with today and also an understanding of how government-initiated macroeconomic stimulus can help to move the nation out of what has the earmarks of on-coming depression. But we also need to understand now that the economic stimulus must be farsighted as well as far-ranging with consideration of the fact that even in good times, a significant percentage of our population lives $400 away from economic devastation. A lost job, or two lost jobs in two-income families, is unsustainable even briefly without support. In the Great Depression, that support was initially not forthcoming, and the result was Hoovervilles proliferating across our land as families lost their homes to foreclosures or missed rent payments and as what started as a recession grew quickly into that Great Depression.

Back then, our national government had trouble coalescing around a set of stimulus programs to ameliorate the situation, though the New Deal surely tried many stimulus variants on the basis of throwing everything against the wall and seeing what worked — and some worked very well indeed. What really brought us out of the Great Depression, though, fully a decade after its start was the huge economic stimulus of preparation for entry into World War II and the mobilization of the entire productive resources of our country to focus on winning that war. The result assured that everyone capable of working was employed.

Our societal safe nets are surely better now than then, though some have been cut back in recent years but are now being supplemented with such things as forced-part-time-work unemployment benefits; our banks are far better capitalized (especially since 2008) and federal government backstopped, and there is talk now, at least on our state level, of government business-regulation relief and at the national level of extension of family-medical-leave provisions.

So we don‘t need to go as far as the pervasive government management of productive resources we had in World War II, but we do need our government to take a strong hand in helping us find a way forward together not only through the coronavirus pandemic itself but also through the attendant economic crisis that is following on its heels and that needs amelioration of the highest order beginning immediately.