The reality of Covid first hit me on March 19, 2020. Kennon and I had just returned from two weeks in Arizona and settled back into our apartment home in Deerfield, an Asheville, NC congregate community of more than 600 people. On the first morning back, the clinic office called and asked us to quarantine for two weeks. My first thought? This is crazy! But I trusted the leaders and complied with their requests. Now, 18 months later, I see how prescient and responsible our healthcare team was in those early days of the pandemic.
After a year of ZOOM meetings, masking, limited in-person social contact, and no time spent with our daughters and grandchildren we were easing back into a more normal rhythm when the Delta variant struck. Because 98% of us at Deerfield are vaccinated, the new restrictions were not as limiting, but we closely adhered to a “better safe than sorry” style of living. We wear masks in communal areas, mask-up when in grocery stores or any public indoor space, and refrain from large-group indoor gatherings.
I am grateful for the professionalism, diligence, guidance, truthfulness and support of our community’s leadership. I am equally grateful for my neighbors. Almost all of us (sometimes with grumbling) consistently followed the leadership provided by our management and the healthcare team. This illustrates a major truism in any leadership challenge: it takes both sides of the two-sided coin to succeed. Leaders need to speak the truth and project professional competence to earn the trust and confidence of their community; and, the people they are leading must be willing to follow, even when doing so is tough.
An Irresponsible Mess
Much of what has gone wrong in America’s response to Covid stems from a failure on both sides of the Covid coin. Early national leadership was an irresponsible mess. First, the danger of the pandemic was downplayed by the President of the United States: “It isn’t any worse than the flu and we have it under control” he said.
Then, when physicians and other scientists told the nation hard truths about the extent and potential deadly impact of the pandemic, they were dissed and dismissed by many. When scientific analysis and advice contradicted the false information being put forth by President Donald Trump they were attacked and threatened with violence. When a short-term shuttering of businesses was mandated by leaders in many states, Covid deniers saw it as an assault on their freedom rather than an action to save lives, and they rebelled. The political environment was so hostile to science that even wearing masks and social distancing were often portrayed as needless precautions.
Much to the credit of President Trump’s administration, hope came onto the scene with the incredible accomplishment of producing vaccines. After trials and review some were approved as having “met the FDA’s rigorous scientific standards for emergency use authorization…and the public can be very confident that this vaccine meets the high standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality the FDA requires.” But the COVID deniers again rejected public leaders, said “no” to the shot, and adopted a new tag: Anti-Vaxers. And, this brings us to today.
The refusal of some to be vaccinated and to wear masks puts millions of us in danger, but the resisters don’t care. As one person told me, the people who die unvaccinated “are martyrs for liberty.” The distance between those of us who received our shots, wore our masks, respected scientists and limited our interactions with people outside our bubble, and those who drink the presidents Kool-Aide has become an impenetrable gulf. And the gulf continues to widen as Republicans in Congress and state governments fan flames of discontent.
It is a sad state of affairs. If more than 70% of Americans were vaccinated, we would be close to reaching a level of herd immunity. But that number is stuck on 55% today. Refusal to take the shot has become a battle ribbon to pin on the chests of ardent Trump supporters.
The ongoing success story of my residential community could have been the norm for the nation. The national political leadership was there with President Joe Biden in the White House, and with Dr. Anthony Fauci and other professionals working at the CDC, the National Institutes of Health and the FDA. Their single focus was on beating the virus, and they told us how to do it. Unfortunately, led by an ex-president whose single focus is himself, a large number of Americans chose to follow foolishness instead of science and commonsense.
It is a tragedy and 2,000 Americans are dying every day because of it. I wonder how many of the 678,557 Americans who died with Covid would be alive if everyone had followed leaders who stepped forward with the knowledge, courage and ability to combat the pandemic. But, alas, too many people chose instead to join a former president in the shadow world of conspiracies, lies and misplaced loyalties. America’s problem today it not a lack of leadership, it is a lack of followership.
Bill Jamieson’s career has included leadership positions in business, government, and education. He was also an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church and his ministry centered around advocacy for low-income families and children.