When colleges and universities across the country shut down and federal interest rates were cut to zero due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I felt like this column was irrelevant. I no longer felt political commentary was important when millions of Americans were seeing their financial futures thrown into uncertainty and the health of their loved ones put at risk. Talking politics as usual seemed irresponsible in this time of global crisis. However, after experiencing the prolonged impact of the disease on our communities, I realized our national dialogue and spirit play important roles during these challenging times. As citizens of a free society facing a pandemic that has locked down our way of life, our voices will define how our country responds to the coronavirus. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic recession are testing the fabric of our society in a way it has never been tested before. Conquering this virus demands newfound political patience with U.S. leadership and patriotic resolve from the American people.
Addressing the pandemic requires a greater level of decision-making from authorities. Accordingly, our national dialogue plays an important role in analyzing government policy, which is in the limelight more so than before as protective policies bring immense disruptions to Americans’ daily lives. Civic officials at every level of government are being called to implement a response to the virus and inform the public of their actions. For better or for worse, we are relying on politicians to decide when stay-at-home orders begin and end, the duration of school closures and for how long public gatherings will be restricted.
Policymakers face profoundly difficult decisions and there is no painless way to handle this crisis. If national and state leaders reopen U.S. economic life to relieve those whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the shutdowns, they risk a resurgence of the virus. But if officials wait longer to better contain the coronavirus, they worsen the financial situations of millions of Americans. Neither of these outcomes is desirable, and it is difficult for politicians to admit their decision may involve putting some subset of the population into uncertain positions, especially those people most physically vulnerable to the virus. Partisan pundits and political candidates will attempt to capitalize on whatever pain the American public endures from the hard decisions made by incumbent policymakers.
Don’t buy it. Just as we seek to develop medical treatments to resist the effects of coronavirus, we should also build up our immunity against political opportunists who seek to divide and criticize in a time when unity is essential to fighting COVID-19.
Our national political dialogue currently requires exactly what it tends to lack: patience. Every decision officials make will have drawbacks, and we must not politically penalize those people who determine the ways in which we respond to the virus. Now is not the time to flood your mayor’s office with emails or organize protests in the street. It is not the time to launch social media smear campaigns against political figures faced with the choice between economic recession or the spread of a deadly disease. Our democratic republic is designed to punish unpopular decisions through mechanisms like our constitutionally guaranteed right to assemble, adversarial media scrutiny and ultimately voting unpopular policymakers out of office. But, at a time when social distancing and economic shutdowns have been used as tools to combat this pandemic, unpopular policy may be just what the doctor ordered. Additionally, reopening U.S. businesses may be a risky but necessary step to allowing families the means to put food back on their table. The latter choice may mean the virus spreads more quickly, but the economic destruction wrought by the virus may warrant taking such a risk.
I will not pretend to know what the right policy is to defeat COVID-19, but I do know that the word “unprecedented” has been thrown around quite a bit. There is no playbook to follow for a globe as interconnected as ours facing a pandemic like COVID-19. The media is quite talented at dividing us on every issue and, frankly, it can be hard not to listen to them. But we must resist the urge to turn on the people making difficult choices and instead demonstrate unity and political resolve.
We must toughen up and realize that, at best, this crisis will result in either a financially destructive recession or a resurgence of the virus. Therefore, we must become pandemic patriots, armed with a national resolve to weather whatever suffering lies ahead. That patriotism may mean extended stay-at-home orders or entering into an uncertain economy. In any case, we must embrace the coming situation with energy and optimism.
Over a century and a half ago, Abraham Lincoln led the country through a bloody war against an insurgency attempting to spread the existentially evil institution of slavery in our nation. He called on the people to band together to save the Union. Today, our existential evil comes in the form of a virus spreading in our communities. We must band together to protect Americans who are vulnerable to the coronavirus and ultimately rebuild our now damaged economy. We must commit ourselves as Americans to do all we can to contain the virus and jumpstart our economic recovery.
Extend political grace to federal, state and local officials trying to determine how to combat this crisis with the knowledge that their decisions will have some harmful effects either from a public health or economic perspective. Do what you can to foster a unified effort to repair our nation. As we face the evil that is COVID-19, we once again must ask not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country. While the coronavirus may be novel, the American patriotic resolve that will defeat it is not.
Sam Kehoe is a freshman in the College. Pondering Politics appears online every other Tuesday.