Doty: Symptoms may include loss of smell and taste, cough and increased homicide rates

Did COVID-19 make American cities dangerous, or have they always been?

Matthew Doty

I first started hearing about the rise in violent crime in Minneapolis about a year and a half ago, just before the pandemic came to the United States. At the very beginning of 2020, my parents began urging me to always walk in a group and not stay out late, and news articles and screenshots of SAFE-U alerts poured into group chats with friends. Minneapolis appeared more dangerous by the week. And when COVID-19 began to sweep through the country, so did a “wave of violence,” that eventually resulted in a historic 30% yearly increase in homicides in major cities across the United States. News reports increased, politicians shifted their focus towards combating this new trend amid social unrest and bad police public relations, and there was almost no escaping the idea that somehow COVID-19 was responsible for the increase. And with the compounding effects of job loss, cultural anxiety and financial insecurity, maybe it was — this time. True, the increase this last year was unprecedented in that it came on the tail of a long decline, and it deserves our attention. But if we only think of solutions that address the current increase in violent crime, we are sorely missing the point.

It is a little absurd to only compare current rates of crime to our own past rates of crime. If we do that, we quickly realize that even with the dramatic uptick, we are still “well below historic highs” for the national homicide rate, according to a report from the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice. A finding like this takes some wind out of the crime-panic sails, especially given that many say the (very real) rate increase is simply a consequence of this once-in-a-lifetime situation. If we only look to our own recent past when making these comparisons, the cause becomes simplified (the increase must just be the pandemic, it will go away) and the effect seems less severe (we are actually around half the historic absolute homicide rate set in 1995, so why care?). But when in recent history were American violent crime rates acceptable?

Describing the current situation as COVID-19 induced implies that all we need to do is stop the surge to get things back to normal. But what is “normal” for the United States? It is nearly impossible to argue that the United States is not a violent country given our status. We consistently rank higher than other stable, developed nations for gun violence and homicides (the same statistic with a 30% increase) despite our decreasing numbers in recent years. In fact, many of the same countries saw an overall drop in crime during the pandemic, including property theft, burglaries and assault with negligible or inconsistent numbers on homicides. Something about our COVID-19 crime numbers is different from those of other countries. The rise in violence is not simply a result of COVID-19. It is a result of the United States’ continued trouble with violence, influenced in part by the pandemic. If the root cause were the virus, other countries would have experienced the same thing.

This is not a random blip in our overall relationship with violent crime, not a random boost in our numbers. I have heard a lot of people describe this plight as “the violence epidemic,” but I would go further. Gun violence in the U.S. is unlike real epidemics like H1N1 or Ebola, which came and left our country relatively quickly. High rates of violence have always been present, especially in our cities, sometimes aggravated by factors like COVID-19, and we apparently have yet to find or implement any lasting solution to it. If all we want to do is get ourselves back to those pre-COVID-19 numbers, sure, add a few more cops to those neighborhoods experiencing the largest increases as many politicians advocate for, or add more streetlights to high-crime areas. That may work in the meantime. But if we want to stop the problem at its root — brace yourself — it may take some more enduring structural help.

Stricter gun laws will certainly help some of the root causes for our brand of violence; it has been reported since the 1990s that the U.S. has less of a crime problem and more of a violence and homicide problem, which correlates highly with the amount of guns (legal and illegal) that we have in civilian hands. But even gun control will never be the catch-all solution to the multifaceted issue of gun violence.

Greek philosopher Aristotle famously said, “Poverty is the parent of crime and revolution.” The quote can be troublesome in certain contexts, but it points out the reasons why many people are put in situations in which a violent crime may be committed like financial insecurity or community instability. Aristotle obviously falls short in his failure to recognize the multiplicity of other reasons that one may commit a violent crime, nonetheless the correlation between poverty and violent crime rate does pan out. If we really want to address violent crime, we as a society need to start putting our money where our mouth is. We need to help provide stable living conditions and more routes to financial stability and mobility in certain communities. Ways to begin this are through long-term investment in affordable housing and our underappreciated public schools, not by additional police presence alone.

The current attention given to violence in politics and the media, despite its laser-focus on the increase, can and should catalyze a national conversation about violent crime that goes far beyond the current situation. If it takes this dramatic increase to get our attention, so be it. I just hope that we stay focused on the broader picture. The rise may in some ways be caused by COVID-19, but our baseline levels of violent crime are far too high and will remain so long after vaccinations.