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Columbia students will likely graduate into a world transformed beyond recognition from the one in which we matriculated.
Standing at the juncture before fully independent adulthood, on the verge of plunging into the workforce, we watch, seemingly in slow motion, the cratering of the economy towards which we steadily chug. Our summer internships and job opportunities dry up; offers are retracted and listings removed. Will the Class of 2020 be the new Class of 2009? Uncertainty is mounting over whether the 2020-2021 school year will even go as planned.
The eerily calm streets and steadily brightening days create a stark contrast with the alarm brewing on our Twitter feeds and television screens. We sit at home, confined in our childhood spaces, academic requirements relaxed, feeling incurably anxious and powerless.
We are the generation set to launch into the post-pandemic world. These months of quarantine, and the economic depression that will likely follow, will come to define us just as the 9/11 paradigm shift defined those entering adulthood on September 11, 2001.
But unlike college students 19 years ago, we have no war in which to enlist. Our enemy is microscopic. The only course of action most of us can take at the moment appears to be radical inaction.
Nonetheless, even while in lockdown, we must remain vigilant. We must be aware that reactions to COVID-19 are reshaping the world in a way that we may have to live with for years, decades, or even the rest of our lives.
COVID-19 is a rare and sobering challenge. It warrants difficult sacrifices in order to slow its spread, so that healthcare systems are not overwhelmed. Curtailment of social interactions, lockdowns, travel restrictions, curfews, and heightened surveillance all run directly counter to many American instincts and constitutional protections, but seem to have been followed by the vast majority of the population relatively responsibly.
But we find ourselves at a dangerous moment. Collective fear is a formidable force. A panicked citizenry often drops their levels of scrutiny, more willing to go along with measures deemed essential for public safety. Remember that perhaps America's most shameful episode in modern history was the establishment of internment camps for Americans of Japanese heritage during World War II, a policy driven by fear.
In stunningly quick order, we have seen COVID-19 exploited for political ends by authoritarian-leaning leaders around the world. Most shockingly, Hungary’s parliament granted Prime Minister Viktor Orbán open-ended powers to indefinitely govern by decree and instituted punishments of up to five years of jail time for those accused of circulating false or misleading information about the pandemic and sentences of up to eight years for breaking quarantine rules.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s emergency decree blocked the newly elected opposition-majority parliament from convening, afforded the government extraordinary powers of electronic surveillance, and postponed his own corruption trial thanks to a slowdown in court activity. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has threatened police shootings of protesters defying lockdown orders. These are only a few examples of countless more.
We should not believe that the political exploitation of our fears—or flawed decision making by politicians desperate to do something—does not extend to the United States. Already, the Justice Department requested for Congress grant to it vast new emergency authority, including the power to indefinitely detain Americans without trial during periods of emergency. More locally, the New York Police Department has pepper-sprayed and arrested individuals allegedly flouting social distancing advice.
After 9/11, the last crisis on this scale in the national psyche, our nation's response and its consequences arguably reshaped the world for the worse. The 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force has become a de-facto “blank check” for presidents to unilaterally wage war at their discretion, without much congressional oversight. Extensive U.S. foreign intervention has destabilized the Middle East and kept the U.S. in a state of war for the entire lifetime of the most recently admitted class of Columbia undergraduates. Domestically, the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act enabled the contemporary surveillance state, eroding substantive and due process rights guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment.
Let us not repeat past mistakes.
We cannot shut down legitimate scrutiny and debate over the measures being taken. We must demand sunset clauses for all emergency actions and power grabs that infringe upon our civil liberties. We must force transparency as to what conditions must be met to roll back the restrictions that have been imposed. We must know how officials intend to define the “end” of the pandemic, eliminating uncertainty and interpretation.
We should take a hard look at the reasons for our woeful unpreparedness and come to terms with the truth that good intentions don’t always lead to good outcomes. Regulatory efforts to protect consumers from faulty diagnostic tests and bureaucratic inefficiencies created a devastating shortage of tests. Our unsustainable levels of government spending, in recent years of relative peacetime and economic prosperity, have left us unprepared to meet this crisis, forcing us into deficit-financed bailouts.
Finally, the post-pandemic future looks bleak for the global liberal order. We are already seeing a surge in nationalism around the world, a pullback from the trends of globalization and economic integration which led to unprecedented growth and global prosperity. Both sides of the political spectrum are likely to advocate more protectionism, reminiscent of the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which worsened the Great Depression by increasing already high tariffs on imports.
We must resist these siren calls that would smash us against the rocks of duties, closed borders, and emergency programs and powers that live on long after the crisis recedes. It is up to us to shape the world we want to live in.
Blythe Edwards is a junior in the Dual B.A. Program with Sciences Po, studying political science, and is president of the Columbia University Libertarians. She is currently five time zones from her Zoom classes under lockdown in London, which looks apocalyptic despite the spring flowers. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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