When the bubonic plague struck England in 1665, a young pastor convinced the people of his village to self-quarantine in an effort to prevent the infection from spreading to neighboring towns.
The story of that time became “Year of Wonder,” by Geraldine Brooks. Today, over 300 years later, the story resonates with new meaning.
As you might expect, people behaved as humans do in crisis. Some were the toilet paper hoarders of their day. Some turned murderous and mean over food supplies. Many found grace in the crucible of fear and infection.
We are now in the throes of a destabilizing national emergency. As we go to press, the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus is increasing hourly.
The federal response has been profoundly disorganized, leaving citizens with little access to tests that could inform them about the progress of the disease. Central command is out of touch, literally and metaphorically.
The remarkable thing is how well we are doing — we regular folks who go to work and put food on the table and care for others.
Initially, we turned to President Trump for leadership and for an organizing plan to deal with the crisis. But the president has failed us, as he descends into an epic spiral of self-aggrandizement and miscommunication.
He doesn’t have the capacity for the humane gesture that this moment demands.
The miracle, to me, is that even without the blessing of sane and sound leadership, we, the people, are getting the job done. We are witnessing an incredible validation of the American spirit.
Citizens are stepping up, helping neighbors, quarantining themselves when necessary and taking all the steps a functioning federal task force would advise. (Except for the spring breakers in Florida, but they’ll catch up.)
We have governors and mayors and municipal leaders at every level who are taking charge of their communities and making sure that schools are closing when necessary, events are postponed, and civil order is maintained. This is a demonstration of democracy at its best.
No one had to tell The New York Times and The Washington Post to take down the pay walls on their websites so that anyone who needs the news can access it for free.
No one had to order the closing of all the social and entertainment venues that vendors shut down themselves to slow the spread of disease. No one had to order people to stay home if they feel sick.
One singular hero of the moment is Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health. He has spoken truth to power, often and early, deftly calling out the dangerous lies coming from Trump and urging a robust response to Covid-19 while the president was predicting an easy and early end to the pandemic.
We are being tested, as individuals and as a nation. According to Fauci, we are in for a rough patch for some months before the virus starts to burn out. If the federal government, specifically the Centers for Disease Control, can get tests out faster and find out how many are sick and where they live, we can begin to mitigate the effects of the pandemic as it spreads, state by state.
I read a piece in The Times by Jon Mooalem about the devastating 9.2 earthquake in Anchorage in 1964. He wrote about the horrific death and destruction, and how people behaved during the aftershocks. Instead of running for safety, they ran into danger to help their neighbors. Ordinary folks were putting out fires and moving beams and filling in at the police department.
Mooalem wrote about our present national disaster: “Washing your hands, staying home when you’re sick, limiting travel, keeping yourself healthy, not touching your face — little of what we’re being told to do feels particularly heroic or world-changing … But for a lot of us, it is, in fact, the job that’s in front of us right now — the role that these disordered circumstances are calling each of us, at a minimum, to play…
“…There are, and will be more, situations where helping more directly becomes possible and necessary — especially if we’re not getting coherent leadership, or even honesty, from those in charge. But we can’t afford to feel that canceling a school band concert, or suspending a basketball season, is a withering retreat; we must see them as parts of an empowered, collaborative undertaking.”
Copyright 2019 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.