What a Good Leader Could Have Said in Feb 2020
honest discussion of the approach of the COVID epidemic
I wrote most of this in rough draft in e-mail to a friend a few days after the nation learned that the White House knew by late Jan or very early Feb of 2020 that the COVID epidemic was on the way and was going to be very serious. But the man who is supposed to be our leader (and supposed to care for the welfare of all persons in our nation) decided not to tell us the truth "because that might cause panic".
So here is what a truely wise and good leader could have said at that time. (If only Obama had still been POTUS or if Hillary had been POTUS, what they might have said.) "Yes there is danger that you should fear, but face that fear with courage and let it inspire you to take approprate precautions for your own safety and safety of others."
(written prior to Oct 2, and I don't think I need to comment on that development. I could have said something about "stone walls and iron bars may or may not a prison make, but they do not make a barrier to disease.". Now we have a great lesson that the virus does not discriminate between rich and poor, citizen or immigrant, Democrat or Republican or Independant, low status or high status, humble or hubristic, nor powerful or powerless. )
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I'd been thinking about this in response to all that is coming out about what Trump knew a lot earlier than the rest of us but didn't tell us because he "didn't want to cause panic".
A real leader (and Obama would have done it beautifully with his calmness and rationality and Hillary perhaps could have invoked the role of "mother of the nation", role of protector, not to mention as student of public health issue) would have addressed the nation in early Febuary, telling the truth about the danger we were going to face, what was then known and what we still needed to learn, and why we should not panic but let fear of danger motivate us to take sensible precautions.
A few of my advisers suggested that I not give this speech, that I delay disclosing the dangers of the COVID epidemic because "it might cause people to panic". Well, I have a better idea of the good sense and sensibility of the American people. We can face danger with resolute courage and wise precautions.
People, this is a very dangerous disease. We don't yet know enough about it, but it is clearly very dangerous. This is NOT a cause for panic but it IS a cause for fear, the kind of fear that motivates a protective response. Panic is always our enemy but fear can be our friend. Courage is when you fear the danger but you choose to face it and combat it.
For a familiar example, just think about some everyday actions. We look both ways before stepping into the street (and teach our children to do so) and we fasten our seat belts when we get into our car. Why ? Because we are afraid of getting hurt or killed by a collision. Now that's a very realistic fear and it motivates a realistic response that reduces the danger. The self-protective precautions have become so much a habit that most of the time we are not even conscious of the motivating fear.
I'm sure you all can think of countless other examples.
I know some of you may be thinking of the big epidemics of the past. They killed a lot of people. But we are so much better equiped to deal with this COVID epidemic and to keep infections and deaths as low as possible.
The Black Death, also known as Bubonic Plague, of the mid-14th century killed about 1/3 of the population of 14th century Europe. But medical knowledge then was very slight, and most of what they thought they knew was simply wrong.. They knew nothing about bacteria, they knew nothing about fleas as transmission mode, and they had no antibiotics or any really useful drugs. All that people knew was that when dead rats started to appear, it was time to panic and flee. They fled carrying the disease with them. If anyone in the area got sick, it was time to panic and flee; but illness had already invaded.. Some villages tried to forbid outsiders to enter, sometimes too late, and in any case they couldn't keep the rats from entering. They simply had no defenses.
Contributing predisposing factors to the ease with which Plague was spread include some preceding famines and poor diet at best, leaving much of the population weakened. During those famines, some people in desperation had eaten their dogs and cats, thus these otherwise helpful killers of rats were no longer available. Rats and fleas were just taken for granted as a normal part of life. Most people had little oppertunity for bathing or other bodily sanitation.
The Influenza of 1918 was a big killer here and world-wide. A true pandemic, with over-all deaths probably about 5% of population. But it came before we had much of the tools and knowledge we have today. Before we had any antibiotics, which are not effective against viruses anyway.They didn't have any anti-viral drugs. Before we could do DNA sequencing of viruses, and before we knew that DNA is the genetic code. Their hospitals were primative by today's standards.
But the city of Los Angeles , under leadership of the Mayor and the Board of Health, acted promptly to close schools and public gatherings and to promote the use of face coverings (which were primative gauze masks). They didn't have TV and the Internet to promote these measures, but the newspapers did a lot of promotion. The result was that L A had one of the very lowest infection and death rates in the nation, just below 1/2 of 1%, far lower than the rate in the country generally where such measures were not taken.. And that is how we can be confident that similar measures taken today against COVID will greatly reduce deaths.
We today are in much better situation.
Today we are blessed with a lot of knowledge and tools that were not available in earlier epidemics. You've heard the acronym STEM, meaning Science, Technology, Engineering , and Math. Perhaps we should add a second M for Medicine, though really modern medicine very much Science-based.
STEM or STEMM is what will get us through this epidemic.
The Science of Medicine is already decoding the DNA of the COVID virus (or the RNA if it's an RNA virus) and that will be a huge help in designing drugs and creating a vaccine.
Technology and Engineering will test and refurbish warehoused ventilators and get them hospital-ready and will gear up to manufacture more ventilators and other needed equipment. Likewise we will ramp up production of medial quality face masks and standard face masks so that they will be available for all. We did this for much more complicated manufacturing during WW II, and we will do it again now, though I can't think of an appropriate nickname that's equivalent to "Rosie the Riveter" right off the top of my head, but in the poster her iconic bandana will now be covering her nose and mouth rather than her hair.
The discipline of Logistics, which is based in Math, will guide us to move medical personel and needed equipment and drugs to where they are needed. Epidemiology, also based in Math, will keep us on track to see where our precautions need to be tightened and where they might be relaxed or re-tightened. Epidemeology will predict where people supplies are needed and Logistics will show the best ways to them there.
So, yes, COVID is something to fear, but that fear should motivate the many measures we all can take right now to reduce the danger to ourselves and to others. In a moment I will turn the podium over to Dr Fauci and our other medical experts who know so much more about this than I can. They will tell you what is known today, what we need to learn, and most importantly how we can all act to reduce the danger. and then I will close with demonstrating some of their advice.
First I am going to talk about and demonstrate individual actions that we all should be willing to do.
Now the leader demonstrates the nasal test swab. "yes, it's undignifited and yes it's a little uncomfortable, but enabling those who test positive to isolate themselves is critical to reducing the spread." If those who test positive can stay home for the infectious period, which we think is no more than 2 weeks, that can greatly reduce the spread of this disease.
Now the leader demonstrates the use of disposable face masks. (If it's Obama doing this, he can throw in a joke about those big airplane ears being a blessing.) Face masks are your greatest protection for yourself and to protect others. You can use either commercial masks, which might be in shorter supply for a while, or you can use a kerchief or bandana.
Then the leader demonstrates the use of ordinary folded over neck-kerchief / bandana as a face covering. Perhaps also demonstrates adding stitching on hair loop elastics to hold sides of kerchief upwards to your ears. Hillary could have mentioned that these are the hair loops one is used to using to hold a pony-tail or braids, and "aren't you glad you've got a woman to teach you about sewing and hair loops"
The leader demonstrates hand-washing for full 20 seconds, perhaps humming "Happy Birthday" as a time aproximator. Obama could joke about playing or not playing the role of Pilate in the Xmas play at school. Hillary could joke about having wanted to play Lady Macbeth in the play at school. Hillary might also recommend hand lotion as beneficial if one does much hand-washing or drying effect of alcohol-based cleansers , and "aren't you glad to have a woman to tell you this."
Perhaps the leader also demonstrates wearing gloves, such as vinyl fronted garden gloves, as a way to reduce hand contamination when one is outside one's home. Thus reducing repeated hand-washing during such excursions.
The leader and a family member demonstrate distancing of 6 feet or more. Maybe using a dog leash (Bo Obama could make an appearance here) a a 6 foot measure. Bring in two grocery carts as a 6 foot measure. "I know it can be hard to keep 6 foot distance in store aisles, but try your best and be very sure to wear your face covering and turn your face away from the too-close other person as you pass. Pause when you need to do so to give space to others."
The leader demonstrates non-handshake greetings , such as simple hand wave, namaste hands-together-on-chest, bowing , or "for you Trekkies out there" the "live long and prosper" hand signal.
The leader closes by saying that using masks, keeping safe distance, and washing hands , and not shaking hands are not very hard to do. It's a matter of forming new habits. Well, OK, making new habits is hard at first, but it becomes easy and normal. These are the individual self-protective things you each can do. These may not cut your risks to zero, but they certainly will cut your risks substantially.
I promise you that I will do my very best to set a good example in these matters , and my family and staff will do likewise.
I ask that every American please set a good example for others around you. Parents, set that good example for your children. Children , set the good example for your siblings and remind your parents to follow the rules. Everyone, you may not think you are in a position of influence, but there is at least one person somewhere around you who does take notice and is influenced. We must all set that good example. And we should all want to protect ourselves and not be a source of harm to others.
Also look around you, thinks of your community and think about what you might be able to do to help others get through this difficult time. Maybe there's a Meals On Wheels program you could participate in. Maybe there's a group that has been handing out meals to the homeless and that now could also hand out masks. Maybe you are handy with a sewing machine and you could make masks to give to others in your community. Maybe it's just doing a phone-in check up on a neighbor and ask if they need some kind of help. (Here's where Hillary could quote her favorite Methodist dictum : "do as much good as you can whenever you can for as long as you can.")
And now to discuss the public changes we are going to have to make for however many months. We probably have to do these things until either a proven vaccine is available or a highly effective medicine that is curative is available. We can't predict how long that will be.
We need to be closing down public gatherings where masks and distancing wouldn't be practical or might not be sufficient, and that's going to be harder. That means closing many indoor public spaces and avoiding close crowding outdoors. Some compensations are possible , such as ordering take-out meal instead of sitting in a restaurant. Perhaps holding some gatherings outdoors with wide spacing instead of indoors. But for other situations where compensation is not possible, giving up something for a while is better than dying and thus never again having that something.
Working remotely from home is going to be easy for some jobs, impossible for some others. Long term there may be pay-off in that some jobs will convert to "telecommute" for part of the work week. That could mean higher productivity with fewer hours away from home. It could mean an improved lifestyle for some.
Using telephone and internet for socializing with friends and family is something our young people, our "internet natives" , find easy, and we mostly older "internet immigrants" can learn. Not being able to hug your close friends, that's going to be a real deprivation, but helping your friends survive is well worth it.
Closing public schools and putting schools on-line is going to take effort , but the pay-off could be that it makes quality education available to everyone, child or teen or adult. It could make "going back to school" or "lifelong learning" very available. Likewise learning new or upgraded job skills on-line could be another pay-off. But remote learning and remote socializing is really dependant on having a high speed internet and having a computer that connects to it.
We need universal cheap high speed internet to spread nationwide, including our more remote areas that currently lack it, and we'd need cheap and easy to use laptops or tablets available for everyone, especially school children. But those things can be done, and if we do them the long term pay-off could be enormous.
Some of these measures will take funding, and I call upon Congress to provide that. Keeping our people alive and continuing to educate our young has to be our most important priority in every way, including spending priorities.
Finally, I call upon all of you to refrain from letting anyone turn this epidemic into a political issue. There may be legitimate differences of medical opinion as to the best way to accomplish this or that, but those are science questions, not political issues. This virus does not distinguish between rich and poor, politically powerful or powerless, native born or immigrant, citizen or non-citizen, race or ancestry, or what party you support. We've got plenty of other issues that we can fight about politically, but this is one issue that must remain non-political. This affects us all and we must all do our part to combat it.
Dear friends, this is a time of fear and danger but it's also a time of opportunity. We can get through this if we help one another. (This is the perfect time for Hillary to say "stronger together" Bernie Sanders would close with "le chaim" = "to life").
All our leaders MUST set good examples, always practicing mask weariing, non-handshake greetings, and social distancing. "Do as I say not do as I do" just doesn't work well.