Only a few weeks into the pandemic, Leonard Pitts, Jr. — a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist with the Miami Herald — noticed a change in the behavior of certain segments of the country. In the response to COVID-19 and the question of when and how the nation’s economy should be reopened, he observed that as a country,
“(W)e seem to have tapped the U.S. Strategic Stupid Reserve. The result has been a truly awe-inspiring display of America’s matchless capacity for mental mediocrity.”Leonard Pitts, Jr., Miami Herald, April 24, 2020
This is one strategic reserve where the well never appears to run dry. Heck, in April we were just beginning to draw down on the stupid. I don’t have enough patience to cover even 1% of the calls upon this reserve since then, but one recent examples will suffice. Who would have thought back in April that this administration was going to smear the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the press while the president “was praising the public-health stylings of Chuck Woolery,* the former host of Love Connection, who logged on to Twitter to spout off some conspiratorial nonsense”?
That’s when the reality of our life today really hit me.
We are not coming out of this situation until a year from now at best. Eighteen months total of this COVID-19 dumpster fire is the best case scenario I can envision after reading the estimates of the real experts, our public health professionals. And it could easily be two years or later from the start of the pandemic, or March 2022, before we have enough confidence to live our lives with anything resembling our old normalcy. Of course, the doomsayers argue that we’ll never recover, but I’m not ready to sign on to that scenario. Yet.
Our death toll will likely be somewhere north of 200,000 by the election and many experts suggest it will be 300,000 by the end of the year. Consider that we lost 600,000 souls in the entire 1918 pandemic and you see where we are headed. We continue to lead the world in both cases and deaths from the coronavirus (and not because we test more — another example of the call on the Strategic Stupid Reserve). If we don’t change leadership in January, all bets are off. As Michelle Goldberg wrote in the July 13th New York Times,
“The country’s international humiliation is total; historians may argue about when the American century began, but I doubt they’ll disagree about when it ended.”
The realization that this will be a long haul led me to serious reflection.
I love our country and the democratic ideals on which it was founded but has never attained. In this crisis, we have to point toward those ideals and call out the political party and its leadership that refuses to stand up for the American people in the face of petulance, incompetence, and a stunning lack of empathy. And most of us need to recognize that we bear responsibility for, at the least, our complacency in defending democracy. Lewis Lapham says it best:
“If the American system of government at present seems so patently at odds with its constitutional hopes and purposes, it is…because the promise of democracy no longer inspires or exalts the citizenry lucky enough to have been born under its star. It isn’t so much that liberty stands at bay but, rather, that it has fallen into disuse, regarded as insufficient by both its enemies and its nominal friends. What is the use of free expression to people so frightened of the future that they prefer the comforts of the authoritative lie?”Lewis Lapham from Age of Folly: America Abandons Its Democracy
As we defend our democracy in the midst of a pandemic, we will have to fight those who, for whatever reason, pretend the virus is not a threat or who try to use their will to make it disappear. (There’s another of those draws on the reserve.) They are just playing into the hands of the virus and contributing to the disaster. Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy, says we need to learn to live with the virus.
“You have less chance of winning a policy debate against this virus than you do of … winning a debate against 2,000 angry 2-year-olds. People have to understand that. It’s like trying to defy gravity. Just because you want to doesn’t mean you can.”
We learn how to live with and ultimately defeat the virus by turning out the noise and listening to the experts. I recommend this early July online conversation between Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Francis Collins, the Director of the National Institutes of Health.** I found the information there on the current state of COVID-19 clear, thoughtful, and based in science.
Finally, although I will be essentially sheltering in place for the next year or more, I will dedicate myself to ensuring that I come out the other side with a real sense of personal accomplishment and change. My situation is rather benign compared to others and many fellow citizens face much greater challenges, so that’s the least that I can do. The number of friends and family members who have had COVID-19 is approaching a dozen in my case. One had a fever for six straight weeks while another was on a ventilator and remains in the hospital. Others had milder cases. We have good family friends who are grappling with very serious cancer issues in the midst of this pandemic. Some friends and former colleagues have lost their jobs or seen relationships frazzle. Others may be losing their apartments or homes. The saddest part is that it did not have to be this way, if we’d cared enough about our democracy and country to elect and support competent and empathetic leadership.
Accepting reality is the first step to beating the coronavirus and beginning to recapture the ideals our country was founded upon. This past week, I began to face those realities seriously. We are on this road for the long haul, and in many ways — if we want to fix our country — that’s a good thing. As the late John Lewis said in his 2017 memoir,
“Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.”John Lewis, From his 2017 memoir, “Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America”
Don’t stop caring.
More to come…
*In the “you can’t make this stuff up category,” Woolery’s son came down with COVID-19 just days after the former game show host tweeted that everyone was lying about the virus in order to impact the election. Woolery quickly took down his Twitter account.
**I was friends with Francis Collins’s parents and have watched his career for years, including his appointment to head NIH in 2009 by President Barack Obama and his reappointment to that position in 2017 by Donald Trump. Dr. Collins was also the 50th and most recent recipient of the prestigious Templeton Prize which celebrates scientific and spiritual curiosity. An evangelical Christian, he has long worked to bridge the gap between those faith communities who question science and the broader scientific field. Fletcher and Margaret Collins were both amazing people. I learned a great deal from them and I have a great deal of respect for their son.