“These are the times that try men’s souls.”
That famous line, first published at Christmas 1776, opens the first of a series of essays collected under the title “The Crisis” that author Thomas Paine hoped would provide encouragement and inspiration to the average citizen during the war for independence. Paine’s goal was to show his fellow Americans that the battle against tyranny was moral and just.
Today, the crisis isn’t breaking away from a leader who abuses us for personal gain. (NOTE TO SELF: Actually, it kinda is. But I digress.) These times, the misfortune we face is contagion.
A game of numbers
Americans, like our neighbors around the world, are currently in a struggle with a virus that attacks indiscriminately, threatening the lives of young and old, weak and strong, rich and poor. As I write these words, nearly 785,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 worldwide, over 163,000 in the United States. Almost 38,000 have died – more than 3,000 in the USA – and those numbers continue to rise. Of course, those are confirmed cases. We can’t possibly know how many more are affected, since tests are still hard to come by and those afflicted can’t be diagnosed without lab results. If somebody – like, say, the president – tells you that he knows someone who had it but didn’t see a doctor and never got tested, that’s simply not true.
While medical professionals are doing amazing work at treating the victims of this pandemic, the response from our government’s leaders has been mixed. Some have called for drastic measures to restrict public exposure, while others have been slow to act. A uniform and proactive system of decision-making would make sense, but that hasn’t happened. That’s a big disappointment, because we’ve been through this before.
America has quite a history when it comes to hard times and tragedies. Just in the past century we’ve faced some really big ones. The stock market crash and the Great Depression. The Dust Bowl. Pearl Harbor. The Exxon Valdez. Katrina, Maria, Andrew, and many more weather disasters. Challenger and Columbia. The 2008 financial collapse. 9/11. Columbine, Sandy Hook, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and countless similar attacks. As different as they are, these events have one thing in common: recovery.
Sure, the scars are there. And some of the bounce-backs are incomplete. In some cases, most of the damage remains. But we always find a way to get better. And we will this time. But maybe, just maybe, this time we can learn to do better.
Take our latest calamity. The spread of the COVID-19 virus has led many of us to hunker down at home out of fear of exposure. (That is, after stampeding to our local stores to buy up as much toilet paper and disinfecting wipes as we could carry, lest someone else jump in line in front of us and walk away with one more roll than we have stockpiled.)
But, as enterprising Americans filled with that can-do spirit, we carry on. We found ways to work from home, take fewer trips to the store, and support our favorite restaurants as they learn new ways to provide take-out meals that don’t taste like… well, crummy take-out meals.
We call up our hometown independently-owned retailers and purchase gift cards for later, giving those mom-and-pop stores some much needed revenue at a time when customer traffic is next to zero.
We combine our shopping lists with our neighbors so we all don’t have to run to the stores at the same time.
We miss going to our houses of worship, but find new ways to bring those services home with livestreaming or on DVDs.
We find ways to entertain ourselves indoors and close to home, knowing that if we just tough it out and use good common sense, this virus spread will stop and life will return to normal sooner rather than later.
The one thing we don’t do is plan for the future. To be prepared for the next one. That’s where America could use some work. Look at how schools have been affected. Millions of children are home today instead of in the classroom. Schools are straining to find ways to continue their education at a distance, and teachers are scrambling to adapt technologies to make that happen.
Except… the technologies aren’t there for everybody.
If politicians want to show me that they’re worthy of our votes, I’d like them to put American connectivity high on their agendas. If we are the most advanced, most capable nation in the world, why don’t we have broadband internet access available to all? I don’t mean giving it away for free — sorry, Bernie Bros — but make it affordable and within reach of every household, from the congested urban areas to the wide expanses of our rural lands.
Every home should be able to connect to the web and at a cost that makes sense. A basic service, fast enough for email at least. (You want your kids to play Fortnite and need faster upload & download speed? Then you pay extra.) Same goes for cell service. There shouldn’t be a single square mile in this country that is a mobile phone dead zone.
And then, when the nation finally gives us the tools, we’ll see to it that those in authority do a better job of making contingency plans long before the next unfortunate event. We shouldn’t tolerate delays, and we especially shouldn’t put up with politicians who promise improvements but lie right to our faces and then lie about the lie.
We deserve honesty. We deserve truth. We deserve the facts. Most of all, we deserve leadership that will provide all of the above. Next November, we should vote for the people who will and not the ones who won’t.
(Originally published in the April 2, 2020 edition of the Morrisons Cove Herald.)