On February 27th, we met for drinks. At that point, COVID-19 still felt like something far away. We talked about a lot of things that evening, and it was only at the end that the subject came up. Our conversation went something like this:
Sara: “I’ve heard that DC is probably going to be shut down within a few weeks and that it’s likely to remain shut down for months. I don’t really see that happening, but I’ve been advised to stock up on food for at least the next 3-4 weeks!”
Nancy: “That’s crazy! There is no way that can happen here. It’s basically the flu and there is no way I’m letting that get in the way of my trip to Cabo San Lucas.”
Guess which one of us knew what she was talking about?
We started this crisis off like almost everyone else, expecting that it was going to be a tough couple of weeks and then we’d all get back to normal. But as the days have turned into weeks and the weeks now seem destined to turn into months, the reality of the magnitude of this moment is beginning to hit us.
As we settle into our new reality, we both sit comfortably in our homes, still employed, and (knock on wood) healthy. We don’t want for food and we are able to regularly speak with those we love. Neither of us are carrying the added burden of homeschooling children, juggling parenting while maintaining regular office hours, or cohabitating with our partners. But even in our relative comfort, we are carrying a lot. We both have parents in their 70’s and 80’s who continue to dismiss the gravity of the situation. Two have underlying health issues, another has had a time-sensitive surgery delayed because it is now deemed “elective,” and more than one of them refuses to stop going to the damn grocery store. There are organizations to maintain, relationships that are strained, and almost all of our usual coping mechanisms are unavailable to us as we muddle our way through this.
Today’s coronavirus pandemic is not so dissimilar to yesterday’s World War II. We are in crisis, and it’s moments like these when we are reminded of the greater good.
But even in all of this chaos, we see an opportunity for real change. Times of upheaval and crisis test our mettle and resilience with challenges that we were not prepared for. But they can also lead to systemic change that would be impossible without such a catalyst. For example, the British National Health Service (NHS) emerged right after the end of World War II, when a real sense of community (and leadership) was so desperately craved. In the United States, the Work Projects Administration (WPA) emerged after the Great Depression, which employed millions of Americans leading to nationwide improvements in transportation, the rural power grid, and new public parks and buildings around the country. Today’s coronavirus pandemic is not so dissimilar to yesterday’s World War II. We are in crisis, and it’s moments like these when we are reminded of the greater good.
Like an earthquake that releases decades of built-up tension in seconds, this crisis will offer opportunities to rapidly change systems that seemed immovable before. So what will we make of this moment? Can we finally address our out of control military spending and redirect those funds to programs and services that would better ensure our physical and economic safety? If there is one thing that COVID-19 has shown us it is that decades of unchecked and unaccounted for military spending have not ensured our national security. We can’t bomb our way out of this one. If we were to broaden our definition of national security and invest in all of the systems that are required to keep us safe — public health, cybersecurity, infrastructure, housing, and employment — we would be far better prepared the next time a crisis comes our way.
What if we take on the classist and racist health disparities in the United States and transition to a new reality that ensures that all Americans have access to quality affordable healthcare? Our current healthcare system, which offers one standard of care for those with resources and another for those without, is immoral and absurd. Most other countries, including many less affluent than the United States, offer some form of basic healthcare for all. This virus is proving how profoundly ignorant and cruel it is to ignore basic healthcare needs. People of color are dying from COVID-19 in disproportionately greater numbers. Frontline essential workers — health aides, grocery store employees, and gig economy workers — are typically low-paid, at the greatest risk of contracting the disease, and much less likely to have access to affordable health care.
Will we finally recognize that the appalling lack of diversity in elected officials and national security ranks is a threat to our safety and begin to elect, hire, and promote women and people of color in representative numbers? You know which countries have had the greatest success at limiting the impact of COVID-19? Those led by women. Germany, Taiwan, Finland, New Zealand, Iceland, Denmark, and Norway have acted quickly, and decisively, and reduced the loss of life in their nations. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen took action in January when the disease first emerged. Among other steps, she immediately ramped up domestic production of face masks, rolled out nationwide testing, and implemented punishments for spreading misinformation about the disease. This is not to say that women or other underrepresented groups are inherently better at addressing a crisis. However, leaders who have different backgrounds and experiences often bring a more inclusive perspective to the table that leads to better outcomes.
This moment does present opportunities. Something good will come out of this, but exactly what, is up to us. For now, we are staying in touch with our friends, family, and each other — from a healthy social distance. We are walking a lot, enjoying the season and the foliage in our respective neighborhoods, and counting our blessings. Finally, we continue to seek inspiration from our friends and family across the pond, and, like them, we will keep calm and carry on.
And maybe vacation in Cabo San Lucas next year…
Nancy Parrish is the Executive Director of Women’s Action for New Directions, which builds women’s political power to advocate for security and peace with justice.
Dr. Sara Kutchesfahani is Director of the N Square DC Hub, which seeks to power a network of innovators committed to ending the nuclear threat through unlikely partnerships, breakthrough ideas, and world-changing projects.