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The Coronavirus Pandemic: Leadership and the Ability to Admit the Hard Truth and Inspire them to Greater Things during an Existential Crisis

 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Winston Churchill said:

“There is no worse mistake in public leadership than to hold out false hopes soon to be swept away. The British people can face peril or misfortune with fortitude and buoyancy, but they bitterly resent being deceived or finding that those responsible for their affairs are themselves dwelling in a fool’s paradise.” 

I think that Americans, once we strip away the veneers we have laid over our society, and tear down the walls that ideologues have tried to divide us will realize this, probably sooner rather than later.

As we approach an total 80,000 deaths attributable to the novel Coronavirus 19 I am reflecting on it and the 1918-1919 Great Influenza. I am not so much thinking about similarities in the viruses, but both were, or are highly infectious, airborne, and could be spread through touching droplets of it from tables, chairs, doorknobs and then wiping one’s face without having thoroughly washed their hands.

Likewise, since no vaccine existed for either. It was not until the 1940s that one was developed for the H1N1 Great Influenza, and still none today for COVID 19. While virologists and researchers are working around the world to find one, most experts believe that one will not be available for a year to eighteen months, not including the manufacturing and distribution time should one be developed.

Like 1918-1919, which actually continued through 1920, the only defense was what we call non-pharmacological interventions. It is like going forward into the past, and unsurprisingly many of these interventions are as unpopular today as they were in the Great Influenza pandemic.

The interventions included then, and now are well known. They include what we now call Social distancing; the prevention of the spreading or inhaling of infected droplets from coughing, sneezing, or being in the close proximity to an infected by the virus by wearing face masks; as well as frequent hand washing, wearing protective gloves when needed, and sanitizing work stations, and common areas where people gather. Some states and cities even criminalized spitting in public places.

In 1918-1919 these measures were all taken by local or state authorities businesses were closed, sporting events, including the NHL Stanley Cup were postponed or cancelled. In some municipalities mayors, like that of St. Louis shut down church services, and did not cave in to immensely powerful clergymen, like the Archbishop of St. Louis. Cities that took these measures in 1918-1920 and didn’t let up even in the face of public pressure minimized their deaths and ensured that hospitals were not overwhelmed. As a result, even with the restrictions life began to resume at a normal pace.

In the cities that eased up, or eliminated their non pharmacological interventions in the face of public pressure, the influenza returned with a vengeance because there were still far too many people who had no immunity to the virus. Of course the pressure was do to business leaders, politicians, and religious leaders. One group even called itself an “anti-mask league.” But even though there was public opposition to these measures, even some protests, which by and large used the same rational as today’s protestors, there is no instance of protestors invading state capital buildings, or city halls. Nor did they resort to violence or threats against local leaders. Likewise, unlike now, they did not have the active support of the President, or nationwide television and internet media outlets to spread their message and threaten state and local government officials.

Likewise, there is the difference in the attitudes of the Presidents during each pandemic, Woodrow Wilson during the 1918-1919 pandemic, and Donald J. Trump today. The two were very different, Wilson was a native of Virginia, a Democrat, an academic, and a former university professor and President of Princeton University when drafted to campaign for the governorship of New Jersey, which he one in 1910. His policies as governor propelled him into being nominated as the Democratic candidate for President in 1912. He won the election, mostly because the Republicans were divided by the candidacy of Theodore Roosevelt running as a third party candidate and the incumbent, William Howard Taft. They split the conservative vote and had just over 50% of the vote between them. Wilson lost progressive votes to Socialist Eugene Debs, who garnered 6% of the vote. Wilson’s 42% was enough to garner a majority in the Electoral College.

Wilson’s policies were more progressive than most Democrats of his era, but not nearly as progressive as Teddy Roosevelt or Eugene Debs. Though he championed and helped establish the Federal Reserve and anti-trust laws, Women’s Rights, and those of workers, he remained a Southern Racist and segregationist at heart. His actions as President set back the civil rights of Blacks, in the military and civil service, and his premier of D.W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation legitimatized the rise of the second birth of the KKK. However, they were enough to ensure that he barely won re-election in 1916.

Wilson led the effort to have Congress declare war on Germany and its allies in April 1917, and once war began he became completely focused on it, and it was only. Nothing else mattered. In regard to the Great Influenza he made no public statements about the pandemic, and when the war ended he went to Europe and remained completely engaged in fighting for his 14 Points and the establishment of the League of Nations. He was unsuccessful at Versailles which his points were swept aside by Britain and France, and defeated at home when Congress refused to ratify the treaty establishing the League of Nations. He was a believer in internationalism and not nationalism or isolationism. He suffered a stroke which left him incapacitated for most of his remaining year and a half in office. All that being said he never sought to undermine physicians and scientists, or state and local governments doing their best to contain the virus, even as they searched for a cure.

I won’t go into his differences with President Trump other to say that Trump would have supported his racist policies, and opposed Wilson’s progressive policies. Likewise he would have been an isolationist and not an internationalist.

The big difference in the men is in how they chose to deal with pandemics that where killing tens of thousands of Americans. Wilson remained silent and focused on prosecuting the war at whatever cost. That being said he did not interfere with the efforts of the newly established National Health Service, or the heads of the Army and Navy Medical Departments, the American Red Cross, or the states to fight the virus and save lives.

While Wilson remained unengaged, he didn’t interfere with efforts of others to to fight it, however, he could have done much more. That is very different from President Trump who has tried to discredit scientists and doctors, creditable intelligence reports, going back to December of 2019, issued conflicting, contradictory, and completely false statements about the virus. He is now doing his best to undermine the only effective measures outside a vaccine to stop the spread of the virus, even when his administration published a report that if the guidelines were not strictly adhered to, would result in a doubling or tripling of death from COVID19 by this summer.

Unlike Wilson who was so focused on winning the war as well as the peace, Trump is only focused on his power, authority, and self-image, without any concern for how many Americans might die. He has a fantasy that he can make things go back to they way they were a few months ago, and in that world facts, science, and history, have no importance. Nor do human lives. He insists on the testing of anyone near him, and to be tested regularly, inside a tightly sealed location, even as he disparages the importance and efficacy of testing for the general population. When he is exposed to the virus he goes into a volcanic rage that his staff is not doing enough to protect him. I guess he is experiencing what many Americans have felt since March.

A members of ReOpen Maryland wearing a custom face mask listens to a speaker during a road rally procession calling for the re-opening for the state of Maryland amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Sailsbury, Maryland, U.S., May 2, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner

Even so he allows his Attorney General, Bob Barr, to threaten States and cities with lawsuits or penalties that he believes are excessive “draconian” measures to maintain public health and safety. This is nothing but an authoritarian or dictatorial measure. If successful it will forever destroy the separation of powers between the states and the Federal government established by our founders in the Constitution.

I’m sorry, but that is not a leadership trait. It is the trait of a pathologically, narcissistic, sociopath, who has no concern for anyone but himself. No American President has ever behaved in this kind of manner. That being said he is preying on those who believe conspiracy theories. He is stoking their distrust the government, and encouraging them to have less empathy than they already have for other human beings that they believe to be weak, or whose lives are expendable. To use the terms of the Euthanasia proponents of to 1920s and 1930s, and the actions of Hitler’s SS medical and euthanasia experts, such people, the weak, the by the chronically ill or those possibly afflicted with terminal disease, the mentally ill, the elderly, the poor, or anyone else considered to be Life unworthy of life.

The focus of this President is his political survival and it does not matter how many people have to die to revive his personal myth of creating the greatest economy in history. So he has countermanded his own directives, and undercut and discredit the scientists and experts who know how to best deal with a pandemic and it’s human and economic effects,  in order to attempt to recreate a mythical past that any worthwhile scientist, economist, or historian, would not expressly condemn as a myth, fantasy, and ravings of a man who created nothing, and who was a failure in almost every enterprise he undertook. The numerous corporate bankruptcies, the multiple failed marriages, the unfulfilled promises of his campaign and presidency, as well as the tens of thousands of fact checked lies and distortions, that he has told during his campaign and throughout his Presidency bear this out in lurid detail. Dwight Eisenhower noted: “The supreme quality of leadership is integrity.” It is something that President Trump has never understood.

Now in the middle of the COVID 19 Pandemic, he has ensured that a pandemic which would have killed many people, and harmed the economy regardless of who was serving as President, was made worse by his words and actions. When it was first identified and there was a chance to prepare with a unified whole of government response, he ignored it. He denied it would come to the United States. He minimized it once it arrived. Then he declared himself to be a wartime President, but made unfulfilled promise after promise, and ignored actionable intelligence going back to January, if not before. Likewise, he abandoned responsibilities which are normally those of the Federal government, and pushed them off on the states. It would have been like Franklin Roosevelt telling the governors that fighting the Second World War was their job.

I do not want to sound harsh but I value truth and competence in a public office holder above allegiance to any political party. But the President’s actions have made both the public health and economy more than they should have been.

As of now there have been over 78,000 deaths in the United States and over 1.3 million infections, of which over a million are still active cases. Around 2,000 people are dying per day, and the daily infections are creeping back up to 30,000 a day, even as deaths and infections in New York and New Jersey, for long the epicenter of the virus have sharply declined. At the same time the states most resistant to the non pharmacological interventions, those with massive protests, are starting to increase by large numbers since their state governments started ignoring public health guidelines, and opening up their states to business with limited regard to public health and safety.

As a side note, my wife Judy and I both tested negative to COVID19 following a possible exposure of her that resulted in a fever. I had not symptoms, but since we live together I felt being tested was the right thing to do.  I could not take a chance that We spent the last three days under quarantine waiting for the results, and no matter what we do we always wear masks, social distance, and minimize our public exposure, and take no chances that if we got infected we would not infect anyone else. It’s called being a responsible human being.

By the way the doctor at the clinic where we were tested said the masks that Judy makes are the best that he has seen and probably as effective as an N-95 because of the number of layers of fabric, the removable polypropylene layer, the adjustable nose piece, the adjustable straps and the excellent seal.

But before I close let me talk about masks. They take a while to get used to wearing if you never have worn them before. Some people find them to cause claustrophobia, and some people hyperventilate. The key is to find a comfortable clothe mask that is more than one layer thick that has an adjustable nose piece, and provides a tight seal around your nose and mouth. If you find yourself hyperventilating, calm done and take a few deep breaths. Then when you are wearing it in public make sure that you are wearing it correctly. Make sure you have a good seal and ensure that both you mouth and nose are covered. This serves a twofold purpose, to protect others in case you have the virus, and to protect yourself from getting it. Back in my Army days in Cold War Germany we had to learn to live wearing an M-17A1 protective mask, as well as a protective suit, heavy rubber gloves, and  rubber overshoes to wear over our boots for up to twelve hours at a time. Trust me, none of the cloth protective masks, or medical masks being used today are nearly as claustrophobia inducing as one of them.

If you one of the fools that protests social distancing and wearing masks as attacks on your freedom, including your religious freedom, please don’t call yourself “pro-life.” Your words and actions show that you are not, and that you do not care about the lives of others, especially their right to life, which among the three unalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence, is first, ahead of liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Likewise, attacking state houses and city halls while assaulting police, while outfitted in body armor, helmets, and carrying assault type weapons, high powered rifles, and semiautomatic handguns with large magazine capacities is not patriotic, but criminal. I have served this country in peace and war for coming up on 39 years, and I don’t see such actions patriotism but terrorism. The interesting thing is that most of these rallies are being led and financed by anti-government White Nationalist, and Neo-Nazi groups who want to start a civil war.

Honestly, when I see politicians, pundits, and preachers trying to push for trying to go back to how things were a few months ago with the virus still rages is beyond me. If they succeed they will ensure that the number of infections and deaths spike higher than previously, and do far more damage to the economy, especially if people ignore the non pharmacological interventions, which are our only defense right now until a vaccine is developed and widely distributed.

Despite this I am not a pessimist or fear monger, but a realist who believes that we can beat this and eventually be better off than we were. Like Winston Churchill in the dark days of the Blitz said to the beleaguered but not defeated British people:

“We shall go forward together. The road upwards is stony. There are upon our journey dark and dangerous valleys through which we have to make and fight our way. But it is sure and certain that if we persevere – and we shall persevere – we shall come through these dark and dangerous valleys into a sunlight broader and more genial and more lasting than mankind has ever known.” 

I wish that President Trump were so inspiring and realistic. We would be better off today had he been more like Churchill, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt who said during the dark days of the depression with the clouds of war building in Europe and Asia:

“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 our battle to overcome the novel Coronavirus 19 we must never lose sight of what our fellow citizens suffer in order to simply try to jumpstart an economy that where unemployment has jumped to 14.7%, a number not seen since the Great Depression and where another quarter of negative economic growth will officially confirm we be in another depression. Since neither the Coronavirus or our massive economic problems will not disappear with the waving of a magic wand, we need face the reality as did men like Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. We need what we need now from our leaders is the brutal honesty to tell the truth as unpleasant as it may be, who will still inspire us to pull together as Americans, and human being and overcome this scourge, for we are not merely dealing with a pandemic and economic collapse, but every day we see the storm clouds of war gathering around the world.

We need leaders at the Federal, State and local level who are willing to speak truth rather than pleasantries designed to tickle itching ears and in the process avoid scrutiny. When he became Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1940, Britain and France were facing disaster. Nazi Panzer Divisions had broken through the French lines and were spreading behind the allied lines like a virus without a cure. Churchill told the members of Parliament, the people of Britain, and the world the truth, as unpleasant as it was. He said:

“I say to the House as I said to ministers who have joined this government, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering.

You ask, what is our policy? I say it is to wage war by land, sea, and air. War with all our might and with all the strength God has given us, and to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.

You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs — Victory in spite of all terrors — Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival…

I take up my task in buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. I feel entitled at this juncture, at this time, to claim the aid of all and to say, “Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”

That is what we need. We don’t need a man who calls himself a wartime President and then on multiple opportunities denies all responsibility for his actions on multiple occasions. We need leaders at every level who are willing to tell the truth and say, the buck stops here.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

 

 

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Routines Thrown Out of Kilter: A Good Friday Reflection in the Season of COVID

 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It has been a strange Good Friday, and for that matter Holy Week itself. With the Coronavirus pandemic and the resultant interruption of our normal daily routines, it has been hard to keep track of what day it is. This week was very busy at work and on Tuesday I actually asked a co-worker what day it was, and asked the same of Judy on Wednesday. I don’t know about you, but the end of my former routine has left me somewhat untethered.

But I guess that was the way the followers of Jesus felt on that first Good Friday. With the exception of John, and Mary the Mother of Jesus the rest went into hiding, fearing for their lives. Now instead of packed churches and Easter Egg hunts, family get togethers, or other celebrations, we have empty church buildings and most other events are cancelled, severely restricted, or modified due to social distancing and other precautions.

This doesn’t simply effect Christians, but others whose religious gatherings, such as the Jewish Passover which began last night, or Ramadan for Muslims which begins in May. Likewise, non-religious people have also seen their own routines thrown out of kilter.

I don’t really have any words of wisdom to share except to believe that whatever the new normal is, that we will find ways of building new routines, social, or religious as time goes by.

Today, I have tried to stay offline as much as possible, to take a step back, reflect,  think and pray.  I did this while I was sitting in social isolation while waiting for oil changes and inspections to be done on our cars. Likewise, I paid particular heed to the separation, and the physical changes, and barriers of different types, including masks while picking up a cup of coffee or Coke in convenience stores. I walked  down one of our city’s busiest streets only to notice the emptiness of businesses, churches, and traffic.

While walking to get coffee while waiting on the first car, I saw a Methodist church with three wooden crosses planted on it. One had a piece of black cloth attached, blowing in the chilliness of a stiff breeze. I paused, and in that moment I imagined more about the pain, emptiness, separation, and loneliness of that first Good Friday than I think I ever did before.

On my way home I received a call from one of our civilian workers. He believed that he and other workers had been exposed to COVID, due to their proximity to a worker who had tested positive. I was able to refer him to someone who had the influence to get an answer to him. I was happy to help, but I worry for him and others exposed to the virus.

But, for me, those crosses and that black cloth symbolized all that we are all going through today with this pandemic. The deaths, the suffering, the anxieties about the virus, and the devastating ripple effects: people being separated from family and friends at death, friends without jobs, people worrying about making car payments, rent or mortgage payments, utilities, and other bills, and wondering if their lives will ever be the same or return somewhat normal. That list can go on and on.

Add to it the separation from family, friends, and our daily routines, all of which to some extent we grieve. For me, the words of T.E. Lawrence ring true today:

“You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.”

Yes, that is the feeling,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Nothing Seemed Simple Anymore: COVID 19 and How it Will Change our Lives

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Barbara Tuchman wrote:

“One constant among the elements of 1914—as of any era—was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true.

Her words are as true as when she wrote the in her book The Guns of August, published over a half century ago. The fact is, that historically speaking all that we thought true about the world we live in has been changed in a historical nanosecond. Walter Lord, one of my favorite narrative historians wrote in his book The Good Years 1900-1914:

Economics were only part of the story. Almost overnight, Americans lost a happy, easygoing, confident way of looking at things. Gone was the bright lilt of “When You Wore a Tulip”; already it was the sadly nostalgic, “There’s a Long, Long Trail a-Winding,” or the grimly suggestive, “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier.” A mounting crescendo of screaming headlines… atrocity stories… U-boat sinkings… charges and counter-charges shocked the nation, jarred its faith, left a residue of doubt and dismay.

Nothing seemed simple any more. Nothing was black and white. Nothing was “right” or “wrong,” the way Theodore Roosevelt used to describe things. And as the simple problems vanished, so did the simple solutions. Trust-busting, direct primaries, arbitration treaties and all the rest. They somehow lost their glamour as exciting panaceas, and nothing took their place. But the problems grew and grew —preparedness… taxes… war… Bolshevism… disillusionment… depression… Fascism… Moscow… fallout… space… more taxes.

So the old life slipped away, never to return again, and wise men sensed it almost at once. Men like Henry White, the immensely urbane diplomat who had served the country so well. “He instinctively felt,” according to his biographer Allan Nevins, “that his world —the world of constant travel, cosmopolitan intercourse, secure comfort and culture —would never be the same again.” The Philadelphia North American felt the same way, but in blunter words: “What does this mean but that our boasted civilization has broken down?”

Perhaps it was just as well. There was much that was wrong with this old way of living —its injustices, its naivete, its waste, its smug self-assurance. Men would come along to fix all that. New laws, controls, regulations, forms filled out in triplicate would keep anybody from getting too much or too little. And swarms of consultants, researchers, special assistants, and executive committees would make sure that great men always said and did the right thing.

There would be great gains. But after all the gains had been counted, it would turn out that something was also lost —a touch of optimism, confidence, exuberance, and hope. The spirit of an era can’t be blocked out and measured, but it is there nonetheless. And in these brief, buoyant years it was a spark that somehow gave extra promise to life. By the light of this spark, men and women saw themselves as heroes shaping the world, rather than victims struggling through it.

Actually, this was nothing unique. People had seen the spark before, would surely do so again. For it can never die as long as men breathe. But sometimes it burns low, leaving men uncertain in the shadows; other times it glows bright, catching the eye with breath-taking visions of the future.

That being said, yesterday was a good but exhausting day. The CDC and the military, including the Navy, came to their senses over the weekend and decided to recommend that all Americans were face masks to prevent more infections from the novel Coronavirus 19. They decided that as a minimum that even improvised masks could reduce the spread of the virus, even though the masks might not be fully effective. However, I was recommending that to my chain of command every time that I could over the past month, only to be told that the Navy was following CDC guidelines.

I have served as an ICU and ER Chaplain during two pandemics and I have to say that some protection, any protection, is better than none. So I went to work yesterday with the mask that Judy made for me and began my walk-about ministry for the the day. it is amazing how serious most people are taking things now versus a week or two ago. I guess we are finally waking up to the fact that the novel Coronavirus 19 is like nothing we have dealt with in our lifetimes, and it is changing the world that we live in before our very eyes. What we thought was true just a few weeks ago, and our supposed invulnerability to disaster or disease, has been shattered.

I lost count of the number of people I spent time with and checked on throughout the day. Tomorrow I will do more of the same with other across the shipyard. One of my jobs as a Chaplain is to help advise the Commander and other leaders of the pulse of the command, without breaking anyone’s confidentiality. I can say that morale among our sailors and civilian workers is pretty good, although there is a lot of anxiety about the COVID 19 pandemic, and all the economic, social, and family impacts that it is causing.

The fact is that people matter. I will do video, phone, email, or other types of non-face to face ministry, in fact I advertise that fact, but where I really belong is doing face to face ministry, within the confines of social distancing, with my face mask and gloves on, is walking, listening, talking, caring, sharing, and praying for our people. My God, the burdens that they are carrying are immense, as I am sure that yours are at this time.

Thankfully, where I work, we have a caring chain of command, and I am blessed to be serving where I am now. Not everyone can say that about their workplace, military or civilian. Our people, military and civilian alike make me proud, and it is an honor to serve them in a time of crisis. A longtime friend, and reader of my writings here had misunderstood some things I said. He wrote me a long and thoughtful private email. I have known him since I was a sophomore in high school, and his dad, a pastor played an important part in my life and ministry, until he unexpectedly died on an operating table at the hospital where he served as a chaplain.

Instead of being offended I took the time to write my friend back, to both thank him for his thoughts, express my continued thoughts and appreciation of him, and let him know that he and his family were never out of my prayers. I then took the time to explain things in my life that led me to where and who I am today, that he might have misinterpreted. He replied, that my explanation really helped understand why I write the way that I do, and he said, “it looks like all that you have been through before have been preparing you for today.”  I agree with that assessment, without all the things that I have been through, experienced, learned, and sometimes painfully grown from, all have helped prepare me for today.

Let’s face it, it is really hard to completely convey one’s story unless you occasionally share a meal, visit, or drink together. The virtual world of blogs, social media, texts, and instant messaging is helpful, but it is not the same as sitting alongside one another. This my preference, despite being an extreme introvert, to push out where my people are, and yes, social distancing is painful, but unfortunately necessary right now, but within the guidelines I still push myself out, when all the other institutional caregivers switch to non-face to face mediums. I do use them, but as a back up to face to face, mask and gloves, observing proper social distance visits to the places where my people work.

So with that being said I must lay down my head, say a few prayers and read myself to sleep with our oldest dog surprisingly snuggled at my feet.

Until tomorrow, stay safe and be careful out there.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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