Comment: A Time For Heroes

As this issue of The Progressive goes to press, the ultimate scale of the COVID-19 pandemic remains unknown; its capacity for disruption is not.

Our fears have been stoked, our routines suspended, our sense of security shattered. Schools, restaurants, and workplaces are closed indefinitely, and millions of Americans in nursing homes and elder-care facilities have been shut off from contact with their loved ones.

Let us work to make sure this unfolding public health crisis has more heroes than villains.

This is a time for heroes, for people who will put serving and saving others above their own self- interest. It is a time for innovation and determination, as we learn how to cooperate and stay engaged with democracy, while practicing the new mandate of social distancing and staying at home.

We need to keep looking out for one another. Weathering this global storm will take all of our commitment and all of our grit.

As everyone should have expected, President Trump’s handling of this disaster has been a disgrace. After having disbanded the White House team in charge of preparing for a pandemic, he blamed the nation’s inadequate testing capability on Barack Obama (“I don’t take responsibility at all,” Trump said when asked); disputed the World Health Organization’s death rate findings in favor of “my hunch” that it was much lower; falsely claimed that “anyone who wants a test can get one”; and even hallucinated that “we’re very close to a vaccine.”

We have to accept that Trump is not and will not ever be a leader. He will never be able to soothe the nation or guide it competently. He will never be able to convincingly fake empathy for anybody but himself. He is not just an embarrassment but also a threat. He needs to be shunted aside until the next election can remove him from power. Or maybe he needs to be overthrown.

Our hope lies not in the President, who claims to have gotten his keen grasp of medicine from his “great super genius” uncle. It rests, rather, in the collective action being taken, especially at the state and local levels, to contain the novel coronavirus and care for its victims.

We have seen remarkable decisions to cancel public events and close businesses, at a gargantuan cost. There has been impressive cooperation from the public with new rules about hygiene and behavior. People have been responding in encouraging ways. Even those living under lockdown in elder-care facilities where no family can visit are doing their part in gracefully accepting this change in circumstance.

We cannot and never will go back to the way things were before this pandemic erupted. It will change the nation’s future direction forever, possibly for the better. If the most sensible strategy during a health care crisis is to make sure no one goes untreated for lack of funds, why can’t we always take this approach? If cooperating as a global community to survive an existential threat makes sense now, why can’t we do it to fight climate change? And why not take this opportunity to improve things for the low-wage workers who are now providing actual lifelines to countless others?

Of course, this pandemic will certainly bring out our worst as well as our best. President Trump, who embodies all of humankind’s worst instincts, has irresponsibly, inaccurately, and xenophobically referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” and a “foreign virus.” There have been attacks on Asian people and Asian Americans for being presumed carriers.

As Judith W. Leavitt and Lewis A. Leavitt, two retired professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, put it in a recent op-ed for our Progressive Media Project (see page 37):

“We are all potential victims, as well as potential spreaders of COVID-19. All of us. We are like the mosquitoes in the spread of malaria or dengue. This virus is not particular to any race, class, or nationality. Stigmatizing any one group impairs our ability to successfully combat this disease for all.”

Let us work to make sure this unfolding public health crisis has more heroes than villains. This is not just about stopping a pandemic but addressing the pathologies that underlie it, including bigotry and disregard for science.

The struggle for a better world is as vital as ever. This is our chance to show greatness—not just as progressives, but as a nation and as a species. It will be good practice for addressing the challenges to come.

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