It is a hard message for Americans to swallow. We traditionally believe that we always have resources that are big enough, smart enough, best-in-class enough, to meet the crisis. And, in fact, we do, but only if we use all of our resources.
What is our single most valuable and still not fully tapped resource for meeting the coronavirus threat? The American people.
Every single one of us is in a position to help in this crisis. Every single one of us can make a contribution to the success of our medical infrastructure. Every single one of us can contribute to reducing the likelihood that we will face a situation where we have to ration lifesaving medical resources.
How? Stay home as much as you possibly can. Convert your social interactions to telephonic or digital forms as much as you possibly can. The fewer physical social contacts each of us has for the next few weeks, the more slowly the virus will spread. The more slowly the virus spreads, the better our medical establishment will be able to cope. The better it can cope, the less it will have to ration.
William Hanage, my Harvard colleague at the Chan School of Public Health and a fellow parent at my children’s public school, put it this way in The Post:
“I want to be absolutely clear: Working from home is not guaranteed to stop you from getting the virus. It won’t. But it’s not about you. If you can work from home, it will delay your getting the virus. And that is a small but heroic act.”
Your actions can also support our country beyond the medical infrastructure by reducing the economic impacts of limited social interaction. See, to the degree that you are able, if you can find ways to continue making financial expenditures that you would have made had you not been minimizing your social contacts. Perhaps set up neighborhood donation pools to support that local coffee shop or diner whose business has plummeted, for instance. If you can take the hit, don’t ask for a refund for that show that got canceled. Give to food pantries that support students now without nutritional resources thanks to school closures. Maybe the government will also help, but why wait?
I have been painfully aware over the past two weeks that I have had better access than many to information about what is happening with the coronavirus and its trajectory of spread. I have received early notification that the opportunity for containment is gone, and the work of mitigation is what remains.
It is has been very clear to me that my colleagues in the Harvard community have had more and better information than my fellow parishioners, the servers in the restaurants and shops I frequent, and my relatives and friends beyond the academy. It’s not that the medical and public health professionals at Harvard and other institutions haven’t been trying to share information clearly and precisely. It’s not that Anthony Fauci isn’t routinely sharing good information. They are. He is. Nonetheless, a clear, simple, accurate message isn’t getting out.
We have a leadership vacuum at the top of our government. As scholars of social history know, members of a society with that kind of vacuum will take too long to understand their circumstances and, as a result, fail to respond effectively. But democracies have a singular power in this situation: They are better able to activate the engagement of citizens who are already accustomed to participating in government, and who can make contributions to solving the crisis in every sector of the society.
How do we activate every sector of society to do its part?
Good democratic leadership can clarify the situation a society faces, which is necessary to activate that special democratic power. Good leadership communicates where we are and lays out what actions each of us needs to take.
Given the leadership vacuum at the top of our government, we have to act like the democracy we are. We have to do the job ourselves.
Please pass this message on. You can help our medical system succeed in the face of this crisis by doing everything you can to reduce your physical social contacts over the coming few weeks. You are one of the heroes we all need.