With a school year steeped in uncertainty and a nationwide election of high consequence bearing down on us in the midst of an historic pandemic – itself an event that continues to elevate multiple societal and economical anxieties with every passing day – we can’t help but wonder how we have already endured nearly half of a year of this new way of life.
People are great at adapting to whatever environment and situations they find themselves in. Inuit tribes in the Alaskan tundra developed methods for making insulating homes out of snow, while the native peoples of the Sahara Desert have mastered ways to stay cool and eke out an existence in an area that can get as hot as 135 degrees Fahrenheit.
But nobody can be conditioned to deal with a pandemic, and nobody can quickly adapt on the fly to a sudden and extreme change in the way life itself is conducted day to day. Perhaps this is why, as a humongous country with hundreds of different cultures mashed into one expansive piece of land, we’ve been unable to unify in our response to this virus, either scientifically, societally or socially. Turning such a large and complicated ship around against the current is proving to be especially complex, even when trying to implement common sense health practices to prevent the spread of disease.
This is certainly not to say that we should let federal executives and legislators off the hook for their unprecedented lack of leadership. No rational person can defend the decisions made by the Trump administration (or, more accurately, the lack of decisions made) from the onset of this crisis. Nor can anyone rationally explain the complete lack of urgency that has beset the Republican-majority Senate in failing to even try to meet the Democrats halfway in order to address the clear need for more economic support among the over 30 million Americans that are unemployed to help keep the economy from collapsing entirely before leaving for a very undeserved summer vacation.
In Rhode Island, we’ve been fortunate enough to experience better leadership and as a result, our situation is not as dire as seen in states across the country where the prevailing thought was to continue to ignore the warnings of health experts. Still, the economic prospects faced by business owners big and small in the Ocean State remain grim. The legislature must be sweating bullets thinking about how on Earth they will go about passing the next budget in the midst of such uncertainty.
At the beginning of August, about five months since this all started, we don’t yet know what schools will look like in a few weeks when they’re expected to open. We don’t have a state budget. We don’t have a tangible plan for enabling people to vote safely and effectively to fulfill our most basic Democratic function. While a lack of urgency doesn’t seem to be the root cause of these issues in Rhode Island, it is getting harder by the day to accept the apparent fact that truly nobody, not even the most expert of experts, can say with certainty what will happen next, or what the right decisions are.
There is a sense of impending helplessness about living in the midst of a pandemic. We’re facing an enemy that cannot be seen, cannot be visibly defeated and we cannot be assured it will not simply return with a vengeance once we think it has been contained. This is why leadership – although we love to poke and prod at it especially here in Rhode Island – is truly so important. A good leader can ease the worries of those they lead by at least having a confidence about the way they navigate a crisis.
The leaders in Rhode Island still have time to solidify their currently-high grades as effective leaders through this crisis, but the major tests are coming soon when schools open their doors and people look to head to the polls (or their mailboxes) to vote. Whether recovery is possible from this crisis will remain to be seen for a long time.
We can only hope this moment of chaos has merely exposed essential flaws within the tenants of our system that will be addressed and reinforced for the next crisis, rather than broken them beyond repair.