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Panic in the Time of Pandemic

How we behave in crisis determines our legacy

By Phil La Duke

We can beat COVID-19, but like most things worth doing it will challenge us.  It will be more than hard. It will call to the best in all of us. It will be scary, and I wish I could comfort you. But storming the beach at Normandy was hard and many died in the attempt, and I have never met a survivor who described it as anything but terrifying.  Bravery isn’t the absence of fear, rather it is overcoming your fear and doing the right things.

To beat this epidemic we must all walk the line between panic and prudence. Hoarding masks, guns and ammunition, and hand sanitizer and clearing the shelves of every conceivable (and mostly non-nutritional) food is not a rational response, but ignoring the crisis and the orders of officials to stay home isn’t a rational response either.

FDR famously said, “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”

“Nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes” sounds like what we are facing now. Not a virus, not a pandemic, not an epidemic, but a bugaboo. An invisible specter that can neither be seen nor confronted that leaves no alternative to panic; a shadowy apocalyptic figure that doesn’t ride a white horse but has a first-class berth on a luxury cruise ship.

Roosevelt was talking to a different generation, the greatest generation.  I have heard people gripe about the designation of “the Greatest Generation”. I literally heard someone ask what did THEY do that was so great?   Well for starters there was the Great Depression. I remember talking to my late father about what it was like living through the Great Depression (and World War II, but I will get back to that). My dad explained to me that even as a child he knew things looked pretty grim, not because his parents behaved in any sort of panicked frenzy, but because everyone wondered if this was just the new normal, if from this point on, things would always be economically disastrous and would never improve.  In the worst economic climate in U.S. history, the economy was not the first issue on Roosevelt’s mind; no he addressed the fear that seized the nation. Roosevelt’s speech gave people hope, and while some still decry him as a Socialist monster, he gave people hope, and hope is in short supply.

Roosevelt also talked about the concept of being a “good neighbor”.  To be fair, I should warn you that he was speaking about foreign affairs so I am presenting this quote out of context, but I don’t care. He said, “I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor, the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others, the neighbor who respects his obligations…” We need this sentiment now more than ever. A good neighbor doesn’t hoard bottles of hand sanitizer and surgical masks causing shortages or ignore emergency orders to stay at home. Panic is the deepest kind of fear so profound that those in its grip feel compelled to pull others under its spell, panicked people can only feel temporary relief by posting specious social media posts designed to foment fear, thus justifying their terror.

The other thing that made the Greatest Generation just that, was World War II. On another occasion I asked my father why so many people were so eager to join in the war effort; were people so much different back then? He looked at me in genuine surprise and confusion, before he said, “we didn’t know we were going to win. For all we knew we would be speaking German. People didn’t and fight and die for their country as much as they fought and died for the people left behind. America wasn’t a superpower back then, in fact, if there was a superpower it was Germany.” My father had a complicated relationship with his military experience. He had flat feet and was unable to march so while he was found fit for duty he was also judged unfit for combat.  You have to understand that any man between the ages of 16 and 35 who was not in the service was judged to be crazy, a criminal, or otherwise defective and suspect. Back at home everyone did what they could to support the war efforts from enduring rationing to buying war bonds to collecting tin and war profiteers were dealt with harshly. But today, when someone coughs people turn on him like a rat in a cage.

We didn’t know the Great Depression would end and we didn’t know we would win WWII, but they both did. It’s easy to look back and forget how things might have turned out. But this article isn’t about The Greatest Generation, or the Great Depression, or WWII or my dad.  This is about us. The COVID-19 crisis and how we behave now will define us. This is our great battle, and we have to ask ourselves how we will want to be remembered. Will we be proud of hoarding vital supplies? Will we be proud that we succumbed to panic? Now is the time for each of us to step up.  We are all going to die. Most of us won’t die of COVID-19, but someday, somehow, we will all die.

I believe we as a people have it in us to weather this storm and come together and emerge victoriously. It’s time for each of us to decide how history will judge us, as wise and cool-headed or panicked and disgraceful. 

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