Most of us have watched many hours of press conferences and news reports and read more articles than we can count about COVID-19. Like it or not, this disease has fundamentally changed our country.
My reaction to both this pandemic and the response of federal and state leaders has evolved over the last few weeks. Federal and state officials are now taking this threat seriously. Regardless of motives, they have become engaged, work on responses and establish rules based on recommendations of health experts. Health experts talk about social distancing, and immunity, and flattening the curve.
But something has gnawed at me even as the response has improved. I now know what it is.
Leaders have failed to express empathy while setting rules. There has been so much policy and health talk, but not enough talk about the real human cost. When I say cost, I do not just mean lives or dollars.
Let’s face it. Even in the worst-case projections, it is unlikely that most of us will die or get seriously ill. Many of us will not even know someone who does. We are being asked to change our lives to defeat something that is unlikely to have much of a direct effect on our lives.
My generation and generations that follow really have never before been asked to sacrifice in a serious way. Many serve their communities, but it has been service that, while impactful, is usually not truly painful. Few (soldiers and some religious being the exception) have ever been asked to truly sacrifice a piece of their lives for the common good.
Yet, our country has a proud tradition of real shared sacrifice. Usually it has been during wartime or depression. Prior generations heard the call to arms and responded. They lived through food, clothing, tools and fuel rationing. Women worked factory jobs during World War II. Seniors and children contributed. Everyone did. Most people did not personally benefit. They did it for the greater good, not because they expected to see Nazis breaching our shores or because they had personal relationships with slaves. They did it because it was right and good. They did it because they were Americans.
Today, we are again being asked to share sacrifice. We all are working our way through it.
It is difficult to find childcare. It is sickening to see our investments plunge in value, jeopardizing planned retirements and retirement dates. Our social lives are disrupted. Our sports teams are on hiatus. Vacations are canceled. Working at home can be annoying. We can’t go to our bars, restaurants, libraries and events. We avoid crowds. It will cost all of us money. Some of us businesses will fall behind. We might have to wait a day or week to find toilet paper or bread.
All of that is a sacrifice. We do it because we as a society cannot stand by and watch thousands or hundreds of thousands or more of our fellow Americans die when we could have done something.
But the burden of shared sacrifice does not fall on our shoulders equally.
Many people are losing jobs. The impact affects some of our most vulnerable neighbors – single parents, the disabled, the uneducated and the disadvantaged. It can have a ripple effect, resulting in lost homes, ruined families and hungry children. For some, it is a terrible setback. For others, it can be truly tragic. Fortunately, we have a safety net that will somewhat temper the impact. But the impact will still be greater than what most of us will face.
But the impact does not stop with those people. The impact on them might not even be the greatest.
Others are losing their lives’ work. Many thousands of small business owners are scared. These people took their lives’ savings and risked it. They have spent years or decades struggling to build their dream, investing their blood, sweat and tears. They have mortgages and rental payments, loans, personal guaranties, and costs even when they are shut down. They are concerned for their employees. They have sleepless nights over the decisions they have to make. They are concerned about their families’ futures. These are the people who provide us meals, care for our children, invest in our properties, run our hotels, and make and sell us stuff we need or want. Many of these people are the ones who are the first to donate time and money to our charities and support our communities.
These merchants and small business owners run the risk of the same personal tragedies as their employees. Owing far more money, they also run the risk of years of lawsuits for unpaid bills or even bankruptcy. Yet, although they personally lose so much more, government always seems to find a way to help workers and the big employers. The little guy is ignored.
Most of these people are supporting the new-normal policies that are wreaking havoc on their lives. They aren’t complaining. They understand the concept of sacrifice. They know that what is happening is right, even though it is affecting them more than most of us.
In turn, if we really all are in this together – if this is shared sacrifice – we need to find ways to support them. And we must acknowledge the magnitude of their sacrifices.
As FDR said when imploring Americans to support the war effort:
I know the American farmer, the American workman, and the American businessman. I know that they will gladly embrace this economy and equality of sacrifice, satisfied that it is necessary for the most vital and compelling motive in all their lives.