It’s the evening of 31 December 2020, and I am grateful that this year is almost over. Newspapers, podcasts, etc. are collecting people’s impressions from the year—“lessons learned.” In one Washington Post entry yesterday (30 December 2020), the writer humorously wrote that she had learned that “nine times out of ten, take-out French fries are not good.” I’m sure we all have many humorous and not-so-humorous lessons from this year. Ever the professor, I provide a few lessons from the pandemic, which, alas, will not end at midnight when the ball drops in an empty Times Square in NYC.
Lesson 1: Leadership matters. Now, I will admit that this is trite and I have often been a critique of “leadership studies.” Maybe I still am. But no one doubts how some key decisions early in this pandemic were seriously botched (e.g., stocking enough PPE, ensuring adequate testing, calling for mask wearing, limiting social gatherings). In addition, no one doubts that some key phrases, words, speeches would have shaped the debate from one, at least in this country, of “Me first” to “We must act in ways that will help all.” Here I’m not just talking about leadership from the top-top (President Trump), but leadership in communities. Two weeks ago, the principal at a local school—he had been in the community for years, and was loved and respected—died of COVID. This is a school district where the leadership continued to have students study in person without masks; teachers were not required to wear masks; events like indoor basketball games were held without social distancing. Why did school leaders not make different decisions to protect people? What were the conditions—beyond just personal characteristics—that prevented them from making the hard choices?
Lesson 2: Government capacity matters, and in ways we may not have considered. We scholars of African politics are always harping on “lack of capacity” as an obstacle for the continent’s health and development. We often mean the lack of financial resources, lack of administrative structures, and lack of human capital. However, living in the US through this pandemic has shown that it isn’t just low-income countries that lack capacity when it comes to public health. In the US, we have suffered because of poor planning for future outbreaks (even though public health experts have been warning us!). We have suffered because of poor communication links between the federal and state governments, and between the private realm (pharmaceuticals, test producers, and local businesses) and public health experts. We have suffered because of the lack of state-level capacity and human capital. If we had a functioning health system with capacity, my university (of 1600 students in rural Tennessee) would not have found it necessary to set up its own testing and laboratory. It could have relied more on the testing system of the state of Tennessee. This lack of capacity—in terms of planning, logistics, human capital—continues to rear its ugly head. Yesterday the media reported that although the goal was to vaccinate 20 million Americans by the end of 2020, we have only vaccinated 3 million. The vaccine producers blame the distributors; the health care centers, the government; the White House, the states.
Lesson 3: Political elites are farther from understanding the real needs of this country than ever before. Over the last 6 months, the US Congress has bickered about providing additional financial relief to businesses and individuals. When Congress finally reached a deal before Christmas, the president threatened to veto it. (Could he not have voiced his opposition earlier?) In the meantime, an increasing number of Americans have lost jobs, been hospitalized, died, suffered depression and anxiety, overdosed from drug use, and committed suicide. Does winning the next election really matter that much? Again, I am reminded of the comparison to African political elites who are often portrayed as being callous about their people’s real needs. Why so unaware, so unconcerned? According to Open Secrets, more than half of members of the US Congress were millionaires in April 2020. How can they know what it means to lose a job and then, one’s health insurance? (Because in the USA, the right to health is not protected through national health care.) How can they know about having to stand in a food bank line? How can they know the pressures that nonprofit social service agencies are facing as they strive to meet an astronomical demand for financial help and food this winter? Although Congress has never been representative of the US population, divisive (and costly) campaigns, partisanship, and election financing have exacerbated the distance between the people and the politicians. This has undermined a compassionate, timely, and humane response.
And, on a more personal note, Lesson 4: I have learned that I really do need a haircut, hiking in the woods is a great escape, I love teaching (even if my students drive me crazy at times), my yoga class on zoom is actually fun, people will vote for needed change, and my family members are gems.
Cheers to a better 2021!