ALBANY, NY — March 17, 2020 — There is no template for leadership in a time of plague. What we want from leaders may not be what is needed. Assurance, protection and cheerfulness are what we supply to children in a crisis. Truth and warning would serve us better.
Nor is there a model for how to behave in our private lives in a time of plague. We instinctively reach for human contact when we are threatened. Now we must avoid congregating and touching.
Nor are the new modalities of communication adequate to the times. We have lost the authoritative filters of news and fact. Opinion and rumor dominate electronic media with little information coming from trusted countervailing sources.
Finally, we are forced to acknowledge how little we really know about most things. The panic exhibited by our economic masters of the universe, as markets collapse, is outdone only by the honest befuddlement of the chattering class. Individually, we don’t know what to do. Work? Shopping? Movies?
Confronting such truths in turn initially brings an overwhelming sense of helplessness. But slowly we are starting to get advice that seems trustworthy, even in the midst of the false optimism and hysteria that oscillate before us.
There are models of leadership that shine. Bless Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads an obscure federal agency -— the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health — and has emerged as the voice of science and honesty. He understands the science and art of public health. His intelligence, concern and demeanor come warmly through the television screen. The local officials in Westchester who are on the front lines of decision-making are calming and recognizable. The armed competence of the governor helps.
From our current leaders will come both constructive and destructive behaviors that won’t be hard to recognize. Particular economic and public health policies will sort themselves out. There is little anyone can do to affect this. The noise is inevitable.
For the rest of us, the best advice seems to be to stay home and wash your hands. OK. But once we’ve absorbed and taken that advice, there is an opportunity worth considering.
Amid the noise there is benefit to an active silence. The challenge is not just philosophical; there are practical questions that need consideration.
This plague can be viewed as a harbinger of a changed world. We have recognized the realities of wildfires and melted glaciers. Can we anticipate a world of regular microbial invasions even more virulent? Can we combat such things without change in our most basic institutions? Is health care a right or is it apportioned on ability to pay? How many hospitals, or respirators, or vaccines do we need? Who will pay?
Perforce, we will have the time to consider such things and others. That itself is an opportunity not to be wasted. Beyond the present havoc, this plague is a warning about our future. We are likely to come through the present crisis battered but intact. But the new realities are undeniable and must be confronted. Think about them.
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Original publication by Times-Union on March 15, 2020.
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Richard Brodsky is a former state Assembly member.