Yes, the onset of the coronavirus swamped an agency burdened by an obsolete computer system. But in California — home to Silicon Valley, proud of its innovation — surely in eight months, the government could do better.
The state has failed another vulnerable population with even less recourse, and less political clout: The virus has spread through all the state prisons; more than 19,000 inmates have been infected and more than 80 have died. State officials set off one of the worst outbreaks when they inadvertently transferred infected inmates to San Quentin. A recent court decision ordering the state to significantly reduce the population at San Quentin said officials had acted with “deliberate indifference” toward inmates’ health.
Crises create opportunity. The predations of pandemic are also a chance to spur changes that help bridge divides in California, to build faith in government and to promote the sense of a common good. Leadership could hasten efforts to deliver potable water to the million Californians with poisoned water, a task even more critical during the pandemic, or provide internet access so schoolchildren don’t have to sit in the parking lot of fast food restaurants to do their homework.
All across California are tangible reminders of another crisis, the Great Depression. Public works projects became popular economic saviors; hundreds of schools, parks, libraries, courthouses, murals, bridges, dams and hiking trails today are testament to the New Deal spending on services, recreation and art.
The public works of the Depression “continue to haunt” California with their “expressions of shared value and public life, achieved after a great controversy,” wrote the historian Kevin Starr. “Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, visiting an improved campground, Californians of the 1930s, torn from each other by so much social controversy and economic tension, were re-reminded that they still possessed something in common: California improved. California as a public place.”
The pandemic is far from over; perhaps that sort of unity can still arise. That would take leadership more focused on nonglamorous but essential government functions. A strategy that looked to score runs by hitting single after single, rather than always swinging for elusive home runs. So far that leadership has been in short supply, and California remains in its own way just as divided as the rest of the nation.