“Rough waters are truer tests of leadership. In calm waters, every ship has a good captain.” — Swedish proverb
One reality scares me more than any other about the growing coronavirus epidemic, the virus that, as I write this column, has spread to 65 countries, infected more than 90,000 people and killed at least 3,056, including two victims in the United States.
Yes, a part of me fears contracting it myself, a pretty normal response to a virus the likes of which our world has not seen since 2002, and which some fear may echo the worldwide 1918 flu pandemic.
And yes, I worry that as cases increase in our country, the effects may hit closer and closer to home, and so I am concerned for the older folks in my life and children too, those who might be most threatened by it. I worry about the potential disruption it might cause in my little world: will the church I serve have to temporarily suspend worship and other public gatherings? Will the run on hand sanitizer and surgical masks that has caused shortages extend to more and more consumer goods: food, gas and other essential supplies?
All those things definitely register on my anxiety index and yet, here is what scares me the most right now: that the people we have elected to lead us are ill prepared to move us through this epidemic, with competency and care. I fear that the people at the top — the politicians, not the scientists, not the doctors and researchers, not the first responders — no, the pols: they seem to be kind of winging it right now. Making it up as they go along.
I made the mistake of watching a recent White House news conference at which the assembled elected officials from the top on down looked, well … kind of confused and they seemed to speak with a false confidence and now they are going around the country scolding the American public for our fears, telling us, “All will be well!”, acting as if they say this enough times, it will actually come true.
I worry more angst is being expressed by these folks about the drop in the stock market than the emerging public health emergency. I worry that the proposed 2021 budget for the main government agency to deal with the epidemic — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention— calls for a 16 percent reduction in funding; and that in 2018, the team within the White House responsible for coordinating our nation’s response to a worldwide pandemic, it was fired, and has not been replaced. I worry that although new funds to fight the coronavirus have been requested by the White House, nothing, absolutely nothing, has been done in Congress, as the Democrats and the Republicans bicker with each other. Blame. Point fingers.
Welcome to the sandbox called Washington, D.C.
I think of past times in our history, when great leaders have risen up to meet whatever the crisis was in their time, and that they did so with courage and wisdom and competence. Think Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s stirring address the day after Pearl Harbor or John F. Kennedy’s somber but reassuring TV speech in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, or George W. Bush’s calm resolve after 9/11. If the epidemic turns into a pandemic, do we have leaders with the right stuff to lead us through whatever lies ahead? Will they rise to the call of history?
I worry about the feeding frenzy and journalistic orgy happening around the virus: the blaring and bold headlines in the newspaper, the breathless news reporters falling all over themselves to report worst-case scenarios. Let’s be clear: the coronavirus is a threat but it is also a journalist’s dream, a media company’s mecca. In 2020 Americans have more access to more news from more outlets than ever before. Normally I’d say that’s a good thing, but now? This flood of news is confusing at best, overwhelming at worst. Who to believe? Who is giving out measured and wise information and who is spreading rumors and fake news to their own advantage or to drive up ratings or even to garner votes?
If our leaders are not doing enough, if the press is as much a part of the epidemic as any medical challenges, what then can we do as citizens? My advice is simple, advice I’m trying to follow myself. Go to the best sources for true and dependable information: CDC.gov; and the website of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health at mass.gov/orgs/department-of-public-health. Speak to medical professionals directly: your family doctor or nurse practitioner. Make a commitment to check in on the older people in your life: they are more worried about this than anyone else. Organize in your own local community, in your city or town or your church or mosque or synagogue or your neighborhood association and talk together, about what we can do to help each other as the situation continues to develop.
And pray too, if that is a part of your tradition and life. I’d say not so much for a medical miracle as for leaders to guide us through these rocky shoals, leaders who inspire confidence and calm with their wisdom and commitment to serve the common good, above all else.
How great would it be if that kind of political leadership was catching?
Take good care.
The Rev. John F. Hudson is senior pastor of the Pilgrim Church, United Church of Christ, in Sherborn (pilgrimsherborn.org). If you have a word or idea you’d like defined in a future column or have comments, please send them to email@example.com or in care of The Press (Dover-Sherborn@wickedlocal.com).