April 18, 2020

Needed: A Little Give and a Lot of Integrity

In this pandemic, some local officials have been too officious, and federal ones too deceptive.

It looks at the moment as if coronavirus wasn’t a huge tsunami wave that was going to knock down skyscrapers but a big, welling wave that came, filled the city, changed the waterline, will recede somewhat and well upward again. Maybe it’s not a curve but a curve within a roller coaster. Testimony from those who’ve recovered is not that when it’s over they feel 100%. Recovery takes time. It’s a sneaky, freaky pathogen. There have been reports on the disease’s possible effects on the heart and unanticipated neurological aspects. Early reports of individuals who’d gotten sick, tested positive, recovered, tested negative, then tested positive again were originally dismissed as problems in the testing. But scientists now wonder about reinfection, degrees of virulence, and whether new strains will be milder or more severe. Again, we are discovering the facts of the illness as we experience it.

The hellish thing is that when things open up on some coming Monday in May or June and people start to move around and interact with each other again, there will be an increase in new infections, followed by increases in hospital and ICU admissions. There seems no way to avoid this. On the other hand each day America is closed down more people will be out of work and lose a sense of hope. We have to be attentive to that too. What was most disturbing about the 10,000 people who showed up before Easter at a San Antonio food bank is this: They were people in cars. They were not “the poor.” They were working and middle-class people in line for free eggs and bread in America. Twenty-two million have applied for unemployment since the pandemic began, and it’s going to get worse. This is a never-before-seen level of national economic calamity; history doesn’t get bigger than this.

People need to support their families. They need to have lives. They know how tentative and provisional a sense of security is in the best of times. They see the numbers, they get the implications, and they think yes, there is a terrible sickness out there, but we cannot commit suicide out of a fear of dying. We’ve got to get this thing up and going again.

Ending the lockdown won’t involve easy decisions. The White House will lean toward getting business going again, while a lot of governors will lean toward safety. Both intentions are legitimate, honorable, right. Each side will have more than one motive. The president needs to forestall depression — the election is coming, and he wants to be Mr. Recovery. The governors have been praised in the media, including this space, for farsightedness and early lockdowns. In politics when you’re praised for something it becomes your move, then your only move.

Here are two small things that might help us get to a good decision and through the next few weeks.

One is integrity, the other is a sense of give.

On give: The governors, while generally impressive, are human, are experiencing new power and fame, and can give in to the lure of the dumb. What is needed is a sense of proportion and, crucially, respect for your people. Michigan’s governor misstepped this week when she ordered among other things restrictions on the sale of garden supplies in big-box stores. The aim was to reduce store traffic. Her enemies pounced: She’s banning gardening. She wasn’t. But she made a mistake.

Everyone’s chafing under lockdown. Everyone’s online, where rumors run rampant. Also one of the best things you can do right now is plant a garden in the backyard by yourself in the sun, getting some vitamin D.

Governors shouldn’t be so granular. Leaders need to think big and have some give. When rules seem punitive and capricious trust thins, and people who are already under pressure get mad.

People got mad last week when the mayor of Louisville, Ky., announced that congregants of an evangelical church couldn’t drive to the church parking lot for Easter services, stay in their cars with the windows rolled up, wave to each other, and listen to the pastor on the radio.

Why not? You can go to a Walmart parking lot, get out and shop.

A judge ruled against the mayor on religious-freedom grounds, but I think you could fairly detect an air of cultural condescension in the mayor’s decision. Those holy rollers gonna roll out of their cars if the spirit moves them; those snake handlers think a pathogen won’t bite. Is this a good time to add cultural antagonism to the mix? No.

Proportion, everyone. Respect people. Have a sense of give.

Since we’re on religious observance, governors are crowing that the Catholic bishops are fully supportive of all restrictions, they’re on the team. Yes, but they’re human too. After a quarter-century of searing church scandal, they’re aware they don’t have the standing to push back if they wanted to. And they’re enjoying the approval they’re getting for once from the press.

They were and are right to cooperate with pandemic strictures. The church is a citizen, too. But they need to show a little give. Their anxieties about the church’s standing have left them slow to think creatively about how to get the sacraments to the people in ways that are in line with public policy. Young priests who’ve inaugurated socially distanced parking-lot confession have offered a way, but more is surely possible. It might be inspiring to see normally nervous bishops begin this conversation with governmental authorities.

Eminences, cooperation is beautiful but don’t forget who you are. Don’t align too utterly with the state. Keep a safe social distance. You’re not in the same business.

Here’s the part about integrity. Our federal government has to stop making empty and misleading claims about testing.

Leave to history how much the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration were allowed to screw up. Since then, White House announcements on testing have been all showbiz. Tests are always coming in 10 days, they’re in the pipeline and being shipped next week, we’re scaling up. Wednesday Mike Pence crowed at the daily White House briefing: “We have conducted and completed 3,324,000 tests across the nation.” That’s barely 1% of the population three months into a crisis. That’s not an achievement, it’s a scandal.

President Trump said, “We have the best tests in the world.” If so, poor world.

There’s a complete disconnect between the numbers with which Washington mesmerizes itself and facts on the ground. Operatives give credulous cable hosts excited reports of new tests: You spit in a vial and results are immediate — it’s like a gender reveal, they shoot cannons with colors! We’re developing a home test that’s a pinprick. Elizabeth Holmes comes to your house; Theranos is on the case!

Ha ha, kidding, not true I think.

Testing is a national responsibility because a pandemic is a national problem. From the beginning it needed to be priority No. 1. It was never priority No. 1. If it had been, we’d have tests.

The federal government’s lack of integrity has been destructive. No opening of America will be sustained until it’s got right.

Republished by permission from peggynoonan.com.

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