How will we respond to the pandemic?

The headlines of the number of people who have contracted the coronavirus, the people who have died, and the fact that scores of people live in senior citizens homes that no longer allow visitors – all of this drives you to think of your own mortality. Michael Landon once said, “Whatever you want to do, do it now. There are only so many tomorrows.” But it is hard to do what you want to do and maintain social isolation.

The world has experienced pandemics before. The Black Plague swept through Europe and 60% of the population died. A century ago, there were a lot more doctors when the Spanish flu struck. But the Spanish flu killed more people than all of World War I. Pandemics have brought out the worst in humanity. Black Plague fear led to the slaughter of thousands of Jews. While the fear was nowhere as profound, at the height of the Spanish flu there were plenty of examples of fear, panic and racism.

Will the coronavirus pandemic change how we view the world, our country, or even our own mortality? Even before it struck, we were a politically polarized nation. There are far too many signs that we are becoming even more paralyzed by hyper-partisanship. We are in an election year and there are plenty of folks perfectly prepared to pour gasoline on the flames of our division.

The rise of nationalism

There is a natural human instinct to watch out for your own. Since World War II ended, the United States has been the world leader. The Marshall Plan rebuilt Europe. Today nationalism (or isolationism if you prefer that term) threatens to undermine the U.S.’ role in the world as a leader. Despite the fact that the coronavirus is oblivious to national borders, there are people who thought dispatching troops to the Canadian border to stem the coronavirus tide was not a nutty idea.

The United States blocked the G-7 forum from issuing any communique after other nations refused to agree to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s insistence that the communique refer to the “Wuhan virus.” Language is important, but is this where we need to focus energy? President Donald Trump questioned whether the U.S. should contribute to the World Health Organization. Last year the World Health Organization (WHO) published a plan to respond to the next pandemic. Not a single major country followed the WHO guidelines.

The lesson talked about at the end of both world wars — how to stop the next one — never bore fruit. The League of Nations failed, just as the United Nations seems to be failing during our present crisis. Will the world “learn the lessons” of the coronavirus pandemic? Will the richest nations help the most devastated nations economically but also in the sharing of medical research and pandemic control? Are world leaders prepared to temper their nationalistic instincts? None of those questions is likely to be answered in a positive, constructive way if the United States becomes captive to nationalist tendencies and strangled by hyper-partisanship.

Science should be viewed as nonpartisan

Former New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia said there is no Republican or Democratic way to pick up garbage. He should have included science as something that should be viewed as nonpartisan.

If the retreat from the U.S. position as a world leader is distressful, the fragile role of science in policy debates is equally distressful.
Hyper-partisanship has resulted in Republicans and Democrats having quite different views on the role and value of scientific experts in policy debates. Climate change has morphed into being viewed through a hyper-partisan lens, but it took a long time for that to happen. With lightning speed discussion about how to respond to the pandemic has broken down and become a partisan issue.

Smart new strategies needed

Metaphors about war are often trite, but they remain effective. Bill Gates says the pandemic is like a world war, “except in this case we’re all on the same side.” Everybody is reassessing their priorities and expectations. “In terms of shaping your view of government and life and what’s important, really jarring you … I think this generation will be forever marked by what goes on in this pandemic.”

Generals are always prepared to fight the last war. Aircraft carriers are important in conventional wars but, as we have seen, they can also be incubators of disease. To survive this crisis or avoid the next world crisis — which could come in the form of a pandemic or climate change — we cannot spend money using the same strategy as we used for the last war.
Governments will soon have to make major adjustments to their budgets. There are painful choices ahead. Priorities are going to be needed. Our health care system needs to be funded and ready for the next crisis. Our relations with other nations need to be strengthened. The world has figuratively shrunk. Isolationist rhetoric and vitriolic political snipping may make good soundbites, but they  will lead to disastrous policies.

Federalism frayed as re-opening begins

Although President Trump now says he is going to give governors the power to decide when to reopen the economy, he began the dialogue with the assertion he alone had that power. Like so much of what we have seen, there is no consensus about a lot to do with the legal ramifications of the stay-at-home orders. So, let’s be charitable and say the president’s view of the power of the president and federal government is debatable.

The orthodoxy of the Republican Party has been that power needs to shift to the states, and a case can be made that a lot of governors stepped up to the plate and have performed admirably well. Regional cooperation among states is happening. However, there are governors who kept the beaches open (Florida) and others who adamantly refuse to issue stay-at-home orders (South Dakota). Federalism has been frayed by a few states setting up border checkpoints to stop nonresidents. Police required those who travel from other states to give addresses where travelers plan to stay and warn them to be prepared for a follow-up visit from public health officials.

We could come out stronger

After each major health crisis of the last two decades we have started preparedness programs only to have those programs’ funding atrophy. The federal and state governments cannot let us be ill prepared again.

We cannot afford to be defensive. Holding people accountable is appropriate, but everyone made mistakes. Politics is a contact sport, so no one should be too Pollyannaish about the debate that will ensue in coming months. Morris Udahl often said, ‘Lord, give us the wisdom to utter words that are gentle and tender, for tomorrow we may have to eat them.’ And so perhaps as we search for answers, the vaccine for hyper-partisanship is gentle and tender words, because tomorrow we might have to eat them.

Overwhelming majorities of Americans say we need to cooperate with other nations to fight the spread of infectious diseases; 86% say it is very important. The world we live in is far more interdependent than centuries ago. States are more interdependent than when our nation was founded. So, what next?

This nation needs to temper our nationalistic instincts and hyper-partisanship. We need to demand that of anyone who asks for the privilege to lead us. We need to make both short-term and long-term policy decisions guided by what science tells us about the world we live in. Changing the political mores of a country as large as our is isn’t easy. But if we can we might even come out of this a stronger nation and a healthier planet.

Kevin S. Burke is a trial judge on the Hennepin County District Court and is on the Board of Directors for the National Association for Presiding Judges and Court Executive Officers and the past president of the American Judges Association.