On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization said COVID-19 was a pandemic, and the world closed. Offices, schools, businesses, travel—everything stopped. As though we were prepping for a nationwide hurricane, there was at first a run on toilet paper, and then the rest of the grocery shelves were stripped bare. Nursing homes in Seattle and New York were losing people faster than the coroners could work. Refrigerated trucks became makeshift morgues. We isolated from our friends and families. Infections and death increased exponentially. “Flatten the curve” became a mantra as our infectious disease-related vocabulary expanded. The things we took for granted about everyday life became stark reminders of our helplessness.
As usual, those with the least suffered the most. Inequities were laid bare. That we are not a fair or equal country has never been more obvious. Our essential workers— farmers, food processors, drug store clerks and pharmacists, delivery people, and grocery store workers—have paid a particularly high price. Most are minorities living paycheck-to-paycheck in places without good healthcare options or the highspeed internet connections that have become education essentials.
In the moment when we needed everyone to pitch in, Amazon, Apple, Google, and the rest of the high-tech titans didn’t do enough to ensure poor kids had computers or internet access when schools shuttered.
Our police, fire, EMS, ER and ICU staffs, docs, and nurses worked tirelessly, and at great risk to themselves and their families, as they tried to stem the tide. I’m concerned for their mental health going forward. No one should have to bear witness to so much suffering. The human mind and heart are not made to absorb tragedy on this scale. Some significant number of those healthcare professionals who watched helplessly as they lost patient after patient, will suffer from PTSD. Let’s make sure we don’t forget them, or we will have a secondary infection: suicides. It’s especially concerning because we haven’t done very well in that battle where veterans are concerned.
For the families who had to watch on screens as their loved ones died alone, the light at the end of the Covid tunnel is not as bright or promising as it is for the rest of us. I hope we remember that as we, the lucky ones, return to normal.
Now, exactly one year and more than 545,000 American deaths later, we are beginning to see stirrings of a normal life. That we are 4.4% of the world’s population and own 20.1% of the deaths is an embarrassment.
While the desire to “downplay” the crisis to avoid a panic undoubtedly was a bad call that showed us government at its worst, Operation Warp Speed is an example of government at its best. It funded a solution in just a year—that’s five times faster than any vaccine in history. We’re now getting as many two-million shots in arms every day.
It was hypocritical of the former president to take his shots privately. He petulantly refuses to promote the effort publicly like his predecessors. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, “Nearly four in ten Republicans and three in ten rural residents say they will either ‘definitely not’ get vaccinated or will do so ‘only if required,’ as do one-third (32%) of those who have been deemed essential workers in fields other than health care.” Our next challenge is making the efficacy and safety of the vaccines clear to everyone. That would be easier if Trump pitched in.
Perhaps the Reagan-era trope that government is incompetent and only makes matters worse is receding. As David Sanger wrote, “When properly organized, the same government that mobilized for World War II and landed men on the moon can in fact save lives on a mass scale.” But, As Dr. Fauci said on NBC, “Even simple common-sense health measures took on a political connotation. It wasn’t a pure public health approach. It was very much influenced by the divisiveness we have in this country.” President Biden has had the last word here, and it is optimistic: “Put trust and faith in the government to protect its people. Government isn’t a foreign force in a distant capital. It’s us; it’s all of us.”
Competence in leadership goes a long way. Look particularly at South Korea, Australia, Israel, and the other countries that gained early control of the outbreak. Had our leadership played up the seriousness of the virus, and advocated for the mutual sacrifice of social distancing and masking, as opposed to making fun of those who heeded the science, this journey might’ve been easier.
Grace and hope, patience and kindness. That’s the prescription for our well-being.
Now, let’s get vaccinated, so we can eat out, hug our kids, and go watch the Padres mount a pennant drive!