Woman shops with mask on to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

We’re all in the same boat; it’s called ‘Gen V’ – for Generation Virus

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday April 26, 2020

Last week, the US President and the White House Coronavirus Task Force issued federal guidelines for states to follow to re-open the nation’s economy. 

This decision caught the attention of many – especially grassroots Americans and those in their bonus years, i.e., those most likely to die from the coronavirus if they are infected.

This decision was also welcomed by many – and especially small business owners and people everywhere who want to get back to work. 

The commitment to get back to work ASAP was especially welcomed by families with children in school where one or both parents work from home.  It’s hard to work from home while simultaneously home-schooling young children, unless you farmed them out to grandparents. 

I learned this the hard way when I mentioned to my Bonus Years web meister, Kaely Linker, “This must be a great time for you to catch up on all your projects.”

Her reply unveiled my naiveté, “You’ve gotta be kidding.  Both my husband and I work at home.  When the kids leave in the morning, Chris retreats to his home office and I go to mine.  But not since the coronavirus.  Now, after breakfast, there’s no school bus.  The kids stay home, and Chris and I spend most of the day home schooling our kids – a process of learning by doing.”

Linker’s story made me think: the next Teachers’ Appreciation Week is likely to have sell-out participation of parents and grandparents more grateful than ever for the job that teachers do.  For sure, apple bins at the supermarket will be empty.

Linker’s point is another example of where we’re all in the same boat but not all in the same weather conditions – and the need to be cautious about generalizing too far from our own personal experience.

In fact, the weather conditions vary enormously state-by-state and community-by-community – from calm billows to hurricane force.  For example, compare coronavirus deaths in Alaska (9+) with deaths in New York (19,000+). 

These wide variations in the impact of the coronavirus are, fortunately, also reflected in national policy making. Here I’m referring to the administration’s new policy to leave the tactical re-opening decision to each of the state governors. 

Leaving the decision to re-open in the hands of each governor – state-by-state and more likely community-by-community –  is smart because state governors are in the best position to coordinate with local leaders to know whether a specific area is safe to re-open.

It’s smart because the COVID-19 threat in a densely populated urban area such as Baltimore is very different from rural Western Maryland.

Because coronavirus infections and deaths vary widely – both among and within the states – we again see the value of our federal system of governance. 

The division of powers between the federal and state governments provides a lot of advantages to the US in a situation like the coronavirus.  For one, the states can serve as laboratories for policy experiments – and we see that today with different states taking different approaches to mitigation and lock-down. 

Federalism was also designed by the Founders to give states the ability to address unique needs arising from the huge cultural, economic and demographic diversity of the US.  So, turning the tactical decisions of when, what and how to reopen over to governments closest to the people – to leaders who best understand local situations and are most responsive to local realities – is a giant leap in the right direction.

Problems that are uniform should be treated uniformly by the federal government (e.g., national defense); problems that exist everywhere (e.g., highway maintenance) but present themselves very differently from place to place (e.g., you don’t need snowplows in Florida) should be treated differently and handled by state and/or local governments.

However, the nation’s governors also have a noteworthy disadvantage when it comes to leading their constituents – especially compared to the president or even the big city mayors.  I’m referring to crisis communications.

Think about it.  A president of the US can communicate directly with his constituency – the whole of the American people – by calling a press conference or staging a daily “health briefing” on the coronavirus crisis. 

Not true for a governor.  There’s not a single news outlet in Maryland or New York or North Dakota that reaches all the people directly – not print media, not radio and, given the digital divide, not even the Internet. 

When a governor has a good reason for what he is doing, he has no way to communicate that as directly and effectively as a president via national media networks or a mayor, who has access to local TV and radio and usually one or more local newspapers.

That’s why re-opening decisions at the state and local levels are likely to see more push-back by citizens who invoke “common sense” to protest new or continuing restrictions on the free movement of citizens. 

As one highly placed Bonus Years reader wrote to me last week, “Let’s be reasonable. You can’t buy paint, rugs or seeds but it’s OK to buy liquor, pot and lottery tickets?  That violates common sense.  Taking people from high risk areas (like prisons) and sending them into the community?  Subways and buses running but restaurants closed?  No boating with my family but it’s OK to kiss my kids goodnight and sleep with their mother? No church services, even if in your car?  I want our political and public health people to ‘follow the science’.  But I see NO science in too much of this.”

Perhaps there are good reasons for some or all these restrictions, but as grassroots involvement increases, narrow technocratic restrictions will be increasingly subjected to the test of common sense.

As one observer opined, “Burning down the village to save it didn’t make sense in Vietnam and doesn’t make sense for COVID-19.”

Indeed, if the public is to comply, it is for state and local leaders, including scientists, to find a way to communicate “why”.  Democracies don’t work if the only answer is “Because I said so!”

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2 Comments

  1. Bob Bennett on April 28, 2020 at 8:48 pm

    Phil

    Well thought out and the way we should go forward. I really enjoyed your perspective.

    I live in Florida and Governor DeSantis is doing things mostly as you recommend. Florida as a state is widely diverse; culturally, ethnically, financially, etc and requires different decisions than other parts of the country. We will find out in the next few days and weeks how far he goes with treating the various regions of the state individually; tough to do. He seems to really understand that opening up safely requires continued vigilance. He also knows that opening up successfully will only work if people feel safe.

    A Voice from the Past — Bob Bennett

  2. james kelly bickford on May 1, 2020 at 8:55 pm

    Nice job as usual.
    However I believe although we may all be on the same turbulent sea with COVID19, we’re hardly all in the same boat. While some scramble to home school their children, others are trying to figure out how to feed their’s. Just another example of Florida’s broken unemployment system. Still only 25% of the received unemployment claims approved. That’s not taking into consideration the vast number of unemployed still not able to access the broken website.

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