In the time of covid-19
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FIRST PERSON

In the time of covid-19

Mindset matters. So does leadership. So does the experience of those before us

A hospital at Camp Funston, Kansas, during the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918.
(New Contributed Photographs Collection, Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine.)
A hospital at Camp Funston, Kansas, during the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918. (New Contributed Photographs Collection, Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine.)

Why is this crisis different from all other crises? It’s certainly a legitimate question, as a Passover unlike any others we’ve experienced approaches.

For openers, the pandemic is thrusting Millennials, Gen-Xers, Z-ers, and many Boomers into their first brush with delayed gratification, shortages, dislocation, and isolation in a collapsing gig economy. Will they burrow deeper into their social media silos? Will they cave to entitlement or adapt and transcend to surprising new levels? Will their attention spans buckle as the novelty of quarantine wears off and the grim repetitiveness of the situation deepens? Will they behave with class or crass during the worst societal reckoning of their lifetimes?

And for that matter, how will each and every one of us behave, no matter our age, religion, race, ethnicity, or social or financial status?

Secondly, the crisis differs from past cataclysms as its contours expand exponentially and defy quantification. The shock of September 11 was more immediate and palpable as the two towers toppled in plain sight; the anxiety of the financial meltdown of 2008 more pervasive and cascading; the stakes of the U.S.-Soviet standoff over missiles in Cuba more terrifying and apocalyptic. In other crises, the healing process began sooner (Superstorm Sandy), or a solution was perceived to be just over the horizon (Salk and Sabin polio vaccines; no anti-vaxxers then), or a tipping point was dramatically reached (Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech during the civil rights struggle).

Though some crises, like the Holocaust, will never heal or be forgotten.

Thirdly (or perhaps it should be listed first), in past crises, national will seemed to galvanize quickly behind decisive political leadership at the top. Contrast the stirring rhetoric and bold actions of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill during the Civil War, Great Depression, and World War II (even when they were dissembling) with the bloviation, bluster, mendacity, timidity, and indecisiveness burbling up from the current occupant of the White House.

Dr. Anthony Fauci

And a quick corollary here. Believe Dr. Anthony Fauci, not Donald Trump, about all things medical and preventative, and look to governors Phil Murphy, Andrew Cuomo, and Gavin Newsom, and the thousands of dedicated local officials and first responders, not Donald Trump, for proper guidance, precautions, and the latest updates. Trump’s performance at daily briefings amounts to little more than propaganda, agitprop, and puffery. To wit: denying responsibility for disbanding the pandemic preparedness unit in the National Security Council; ignoring early-warning government alerts in January; giving himself a 10 for handling events; labeling covid-19 the Chinese virus; taking every opportunity to politicize the situation and assail “sleepy” Joe Biden and his predecessors; sycophantically praising the private sector as doctors, nurses, and first responders plead for the most rudimentary supplies from manufacturers; and perhaps most risible, casting himself to a wartime leader after going to extraordinary lengths to avoid the draft during Vietnam.

I recall my parents, who endured World War I, the flu pandemic of 1918, the dizzying Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, the atomic age, Korea, the boom years, and Vietnam, describe living through historic events and crises with a certain equanimity and a mindset of we’re all in it together and we can trust our leaders (excepting Harding, Hoover, and Nixon). Mom only bent the rules once, she told me, and that was during World War II meat rationing. That was to get me my favorite, lamb chops. Dad waited patiently until 1950 to replace his road-weary 1940 Plymouth because of logjams in reconverting from a wartime economy. He was too young for the Great War, too old for the Second, and joined the National Guard under age, only to be summarily drummed out when found out.

The coronavirus presents itself as open-ended, fluid, no respecter of borders, with an incredible number of moving parts, and lacking an expiration date. So shalom to the new normal. Please take a moment to check your mindset, make self-quarantine as palatable as possible, and maintain social distancing (6-feet minimum) from your spouse, significant other, children, colleagues, or neighbors. The covid-19 landscape is barren and dystopian, with synagogues, churches, schools, and yeshivas shuttered or substituting remote learning and worship (what oxymorons!); shows, concerts, tournaments, and entire sports seasons canceled or erased; landmarks, museums, and parks gone dark; families forced to rediscover new definitions of togetherness and parenting; health care overwhelmed; supermarkets understocked. We are truly in unchartered territory, with the thrum and resonance of daily living silenced.

And after a maddening initial period of denial and inertia, authorities finally are scrambling to get ahead of the curve, or to flatten it, to use the latest jargon. Even by shifting to warp speed, we know that the latest test kits, masks, and ventilators, even cotton swabs, will remain in vexingly short supply, and that a vaccine is months, perhaps years off. And we don’t even know if covid-19 will make a second global sweep, or if the body builds immunity from its first exposure. We do know that any aid package ultimately passed by Congress, no matter how massive, will take weeks to trickle down to the people most affected.

The Jewish communities of Bergen, Passaic, Rockland, and Hudson counties find themselves squarely at the Ground Zero of shuttered stores and silent, surreal, streets. Yet a moment’s reflection reminds us that these particular communities are well positioned and conditioned to confront the situation, bolstered by the lessons of our history, the essence of our traditions, and our predisposition to be model citizens.

For Jews in hard-hit Bergen, as well as Tel Aviv, Texas, Paris, or for that matter anywhere, whether Orthodox and observant, secular or skeptical, the coronavirus has placed our tripartite pillars of ethical values, family solidarity, and sense of community to a test unimaginable only weeks ago. Although the powerful and pervasive currents of this scourge put everyone in the same boat, and we devoutly hope every boat will be lifted by a rising tide of recovery, the ark of Judaism contains a buoyancy sui generis. It is a phenomenon shaped by centuries of expulsion, ostracism, otherness, and genocide, transmuted into redemption, resolve, and tempered optimism. Our journey has been bumpier and more fraught than that of other faiths, but it has yielded additional layers of resilience. Factor in the inherent sense of Jewish obligation to do more than, proportionately; to be kinder than, exponentially; and to be excessively steadfast, compassionate, and empathetic.

So just how shall we comport ourselves in the time of covid-19? How shall we as Americans, as Jews, and residents of northern New Jersey and Rockland County, do our share, and a bit more besides, and do it elegantly and earnestly? We are talking beyond chesed, tzedakah, and tikkun olam. We are talking about the Jewish mindset of doing the next right thing no matter what, and of including in its parameters those beyond our immediate family, our synagogue, and our municipal borders. Hunker down in self-quarantine, yes; hunker down with a bunker mentality, emphatically no.

And a final rule of two: Keep washing your hands and don’t overstock the fridge or pantry.

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