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We all know the old saying that tough times bring out both the best in people and the worst in people. And right now, the coronavirus pandemic has brought tough times to literally billions of us all around the world.
For a vivid illustration of both the best and worst response to the pandemic, you have to look no further than the rash of small but disturbing protests taking place intermittently around the U.S. against shelter-in-place orders that are saving lives.
We’ve witnessed the sad spectacle of irate protesters equating “liberty” with shortsighted and selfish urges to deny the harsh reality that the vast majority of Americans are doing their best to cope with the pandemic. So much for the worst in people.
But we’ve also seen these protesters confronted by health care workers still in their scrubs and protective masks, silently shaming the selfishness of the demonstrators. The health care workers do this by simply being there and reminding people of the millions of Americans who are selflessly fighting on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.
Doctors, nurses and others working in hospitals and medical offices are the heroes in the war against the coronavirus. They show us the best in people and deserve the thanks and admiration of all us. They’re putting their lives at risk to stop the spread of a killer disease and they’re saving lives every hour of every day.
Meanwhile, the protesters don’t seem willing to put off a haircut, a manicure, a restaurant meal or even getting a tattoo in order to save lives.
President Trump seemed to encourage protests a few days ago by saying some governors have gone too far in imposing restrictions on businesses and tweeting that he wanted to “liberate” their states. Then he shifted gears Tuesday and criticized Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp for rushing to open up many businesses in his state.
"I told the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, that I disagree strongly with his decision to open certain facilities which are in violation of the Phase I guidelines for the incredible people of Georgia," Trump said. "At the same time, he must do what he thinks is right.”
The protesters don’t seem to understand that the state government orders requiring us to stay at home except for limited activities – like shopping for food or medicine, or getting medical care, or performing essential jobs – are protecting the health and lives of us all, including the protesters and their families.
The elderly and people with a number of chronic medical conditions are particularly vulnerable to suffering serious consequences – including death – from COVID-19. Even if protesters foolishly disregard their own safety, they should have compassion for these vulnerable populations and not risk getting infected and possibly killing someone in this category of people.
Inciting angry and excitable people in order to score some cheap political shots carries a risk of real violence.
My message to the protesters is simple: We realize you want to go back to work, restaurants, bars, beaches, tattoo parlors and many other places. We’re all tired of being cooped up at home. But are you willing to put off getting out long enough to save some lives?
Several things need to be made clear about the protests of the COVID-19 prevention measures. The first is that these protests are deliberately fomented by powerful interests for nakedly political reasons.
Protest organizers are advancing those interests by preying on the worst instincts of human beings under stress. They appeal to the partisan passions of people at a time we need to all adhere to the recommendations of our public health officials.
But the other important fact to bear in mind is that these attempts to cynically appeal to the worst of us are bound to fail. They will fail strategically in the sense that they will harm efforts to contain the coronavirus. They will fail politically by inciting the clear majority of Americans to reject their selfish premises. And most sadly, they will fail morally by besmirching what it means to be an American at a time of national crisis.
While the natural human instinct to rebel at any unwelcome and costly interruption of our normal routines is real enough, these protests have been organized and targeted primarily at Democratic governors – especially those in red or swing states.
A spate of recent articles in The New York Times and elsewhere revealed that the planning, promoting, and publicizing of these protests is being done by the same sort of AstroTurf organizations that launched the Tea Party.
Many of the recent rallies have been launched according to a template devised by the ubiquitous rightwing agitators at Freedom Works.
Deep-pocketed groups with connections to the White House are pushing these rallies in order to pressure Democratic and recalcitrant Republican governors into going along with President Trump’s desire to open up the economy way ahead of the timeline recommended by health care experts.
It’s no coincidence that all of the states that President Trump was tweeting “LIBERATE” about have Democratic governors. And it’s all being done in a desperate attempt to jumpstart the economy in time to help the president’s reelection bid.
You don’t have to be a doctor specializing in infectious diseases to understand that the premature lifting of the stay-at-home orders will end up prolonging the havoc wreaked by the coronavirus, as well as then prolonging the subsequent economic dislocation.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said this week: “If you jump the gun and go into a situation where you have a big spike, you’re going to set yourself back …. That’s the problem.”
Premature lifting of public safety measures like social distancing means we will be back to square one again with nothing to show for it but thousands of needless deaths. And that situation will clearly be seen to be the fault of those leaders who fail to work with public health officials to reopen carefully and responsibly.
Inciting angry and excitable people in order to score some cheap political shots carries a risk of real violence. This was pointed out by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker. The Democratic governor noted that concern for health and safety “doesn’t seem to be the message coming from the president when he tweets out ‘liberate Michigan’ or ‘liberate Minnesota’ or ‘liberate Virginia.’”
Pritzker added of President Trump: “He’s fomenting protests and I hate to say, that is fomenting some violence, and I’m very concerned about what it might mean for the country if he keeps doing things like that.”
In virtually every moment of national crisis that America has faced, leaders of both political parties called upon us all to come together and fight alongside each other. President Trump must continue to work and encourage us to come together and not to start fighting among ourselves.
We’re better than that. The people at the protests are better than that. I’d like to believe that our leaders are interested in saving lives and getting business and people back up and working.
One of the few bright spots of any tragedy is the opportunity for all of us to rise above our petty differences and to conduct ourselves in a manner that we can remember with pride, and that future generations can use as an example.
For the most part, this is exactly how we have met adversity in the past. Getting through tough times calls for making tough choices. Let’s make those choices with the welfare of our fellow Americans in mind, and let these tough times bring out the best in us.