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In trying times, the cream rises to the top

If it feels like we’ve seen this all before, it’s because we have. All of a sudden, we are all characters in our very own dystopian movie, with a virus on the loose that has already killed thousands of people around the world and has the potential to kill millions, a feckless President whose utter ineptitude has made a bad situation much worse, and a country that by the beginning of this week was on the verge of complete lockdown.

In an effort to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading at a catastrophic level, the country has resorted to measures most of us could not have imagined just a month ago. Schools are either closing or desperately trying to transition classes to an online format. Many workplaces are doing the same. 

Travel has been throttled, vacations canceled, the entire entertainment industry crippled. In the same week, the NBA suspended play indefinitely, the NCAA canceled its annual basketball tournament, and Major League Baseball postponed the beginning of the season for several weeks, if not months.

Music festivals around the country have been canceled, including MerleFest, a crushing blow to the economy in Wilkes County and to Wilkes Community College. This year’s lineup included Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss, John Prine, Melissa Ethridge, Mavis Staples, and dozens of others. According to Dr. Jeff Cox, president of Wilkes Community College (full disclosure: he’s my brother), tickets were selling for this year’s festival at a record pace.

There are stories like this everywhere, with devastating repercussions not only for the economy, but for all of those people whose livelihoods depend on these events.

Even so, leaders across the country are doing what President Trump could not and has not, which is to make tough decisions for the public good, while also expressing sympathy for those affected by those decisions and appealing to everyone for unity in a difficult, frightening time. Because that’s what leaders do.

By contrast, let’s examine what Trump has done, and not done. In 2018, his administration fired members of the Pandemic Response team and did not replace them, while also slashing the CDC budget to fight global pandemics. He has, from the beginning, downplayed the potential threat of the virus, saying it is like the flu (it isn’t — the mortality rate of the coronavirus is 10 times higher, according to actual experts in the field), while also flatly lying that “we’ll have a vaccine in a fairly quick manner” (experts project 12-18 months), among dozens of other misleading statements.

Obviously, the virus is not the president’s fault, but at a time when authentic leadership might have made a difference not only in meeting the public health challenges and slowing the spread of the virus but also in calming the fears of a frantic nation, we have a president whose narcissism makes him about as poorly cast in that role as one could possibly imagine. In the end, everything is always about him. Which is why it’s a good thing that other, more genuine and effective leaders have filled the vacuum and did what had to be done to contain the virus.

Predictably, Americans are all over the place in their own attitudes and responses to the rapidly changing landscape of the past couple of weeks. Some people have been hunkered down for a week or more already, surrounded by a makeshift fort of toilet paper rolls and bottles of hand sanitizer, as if they are not expecting to leave the house (or their Y2K bunkers) again until around Thanksgiving, if then.

Others are carrying on as usual, going to restaurants, the theater, the gym, or anywhere else they please as if the entire threat is either exaggerated or a hoax, as some conspiracy theorists suggest.

Most of us are somewhere in the middle, washing our hands eight times a day, making daily decisions about when and where to venture out, trying to practice “social distancing” without isolating altogether — at least not yet — and staying as positive and as centered as we can in such unsettling times.

As you find your own way, remember this: for every jerk out there buying up all the hand sanitizer in six counties and then trying to sell it online for a profit, there are five people out there taking groceries to shut-ins, donating money to strapped charities, and looking for any chance they can find to make a difference. As Fred Rogers once said, “Look for the helpers.”

That’s the America I remember, the great one. Even in these troubled times — especially in these troubled times — it’s good to see her again.

(Chris Cox is a teacher and writer. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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