19 March 2020
19 March 2020

Photo: Jim Stevenson

This is surreal.

No crowds in the city… no schools in session… people doing their best to isolate themselves, to — as my friends and family here say — be well and be safe.

America is now facing an unseen foe in the form of a new disease that has grown quickly into a pandemic, claiming lives in places as far apart as Wuhan, China… Milan, Italy… and most recently, the boroughs of New York.

How quickly life in this country has changed. In a matter of days, a threat — once dismissed by our president as “a hoax” — has become real.

Just a week or two ago, we Americans were going about our business with a sense of normalcy that few, if any of us, thought to treasure at the time.

We went off to work and school… watched the 2020 campaign for the White House kick into high gear with rallies and community events all over the place… and eagerly awaited college basketball playoffs and the start of the professional baseball season.

Now, we try to practice “social distancing.” We are told to stay away from groups larger than ten and ideally remain at home… to wash our hands constantly… to hope for the best and try not to dwell on what may be the worst.

The U.S. response got off to a late start. Coordination at the federal level was slow off the mark — leaving states and local health departments to take the lead. The initial guidance from the White House was confusing… partisanship slowed down the pace of congressional action… and at first it was tough to even get a handle on the extent of the problem because there just were not enough coronavirus test kits to go around.

The delay meant some Americans refused to take the whole thing seriously, while others worried endlessly that too many lives were being put at risk.

For weeks, President Trump denied there even was a threat and maintained that the virus was being contained (thanks in no small part to his leadership, of course). He eventually — well into the crisis — began to change course and declared a national emergency. But still many of his followers refused to see this disease for what it really is — a potential assault on the well-being of this nation.

A national poll released after governors and mayors began to order schools to close, and require bars, restaurants, concert halls and movie theaters to shut down, revealed a disturbing trend.

The survey — conducted by the Marist polling organization along with America’s big public broadcasting networks — showed a vast difference between political parties with an overwhelming majority of Democrats saying the coronavirus is a real threat, and most Republicans declaring the whole thing is overblown.

Overall, less than half of those polled said they planned to change their behavior by doing things like avoiding crowds and eating out less often.

By the time they reconsider, it may be too late.

Young adults, especially, are bucking the calls to take protective action — perhaps because most of the victims of the virus abroad have been the elderly and those with severe health issues like heart disease and diabetes. They forget that though they may not feel the full force of COVID-19, they can easily pass the virus on to those who would not be as fortunate.

And so there is an awareness campaign underway — featuring famous fathers and sons, movie stars and the like. Our beloved comedian/director Mel Brooks and his son Max are seen in one social media video that has gone viral (excuse the unintended pun)… action movie hero and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is in another.

Meanwhile, the number of cases of COVID-19 is continuing to rise.

The situation was summed up best not by our own commander-in-chief, but the President of France. In a speech to the French people, Emmanuel Macron issued a national — and global — call to arms.

“We are at war,” he said, adding “we are not fighting against an army, or another nation. But the enemy is here. It is invisible, elusive and it is progressing.  And this requires our general mobilization.”

If only the American people had heard similar words from President Trump a month ago. We might not have been able to stop the virus’s deadly march, but maybe we could have significantly lessened its impact.

And as we all know the impact is also economic. We are already seeing a stock market in free fall, and there are fears that millions of jobs could be lost as businesses are forced to shut down or see plummeting demand for their goods and services — from small family-owned shops to major airlines.

The Trump administration keeps saying that the long-term health of the economy is strong and it will rebound quickly once the virus has passed. Others say the pain will be prolonged.

The one thing we do know for sure is that we are likely to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic totally changed and the choices we make today will have huge ramifications both socially and economically.

It is going to be an endurance test for a nation that has come back from calamity before. Decades ago, “the greatest generation” got us through the trials of World War II with a mix of determination and sacrifice.

This time is different — with an unseen enemy that threatens the world. We are divided and unsure but there is little doubt we have the ability to somehow unite and rise above disaster again.

And as we ponder  what lies ahead, we would all do well to follow the advice contained in a poem by an Irish priest — Father Richard Hendrick —  that circulated on social media on St. Patrick’s Day:

“Yes, there is fear, but there does not have to be hate.

Yes, there is isolation, but there does not have to be loneliness.

Yes, there is panic buying, but there does not have to be meanness.

Yes, there is sickness, but there does not have to be a disease of the soul.

Yes, there is even death, but there can always be a rebirth of love.

Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.”



Paula Wolfson

Paula Wolfson is a veteran Washington correspondent who has covered three presidents and six presidential campaigns. She was the White House bureau chief for the Voice of America before switching to commercial radio, where she reported on science and health care policy, Recently she returned to her first love and is writing once again on American politics and foreign policy for halimiz.com

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