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A vaccine won’t treat the underlying problems exposed by pandemic

The president’s COVID-19 diagnosis should reinforce the need to address America’s underlying conditions.

 

The news that the COVID-19 pandemic had spread all the way to the commander in chief broke after I had gone to sleep. I woke the next morning into an already disrupted, uncertain world that seemed all the more scary and unpredictable.

I prayed for the recovery of President Donald Trump, the first lady and others in the government and beyond who might be affected by the spread of the coronavirus. I prayed for the country to be able to hold an election that, however contentious and polarizing, might unfold freely, fairly and peacefully. And I tried to get comfortable with the realization, yet again, that I have no idea what the days and weeks to come might bring.

That the pandemic, which has infected more than 7 million Americans and killed more than 200,000, had reached the highest ranks of the country’s government was another disconcerting milestone.

Our nation now accounts for one out of every five deaths globally from the virus. The inability of the mighty U.S. to rein in the pandemic is baffling to much of the world.

If there’s anything that gives me hope, it’s that this moment is not forever. Someday soon I hope, there will be a vaccine; the virus will be contained; and the state and nation will return to something that resembles pre-pandemic life. It won’t be normal, but we’ll increasingly work to make it feel like it is.

The virus has exposed so many deep-rooted problems that it’s impossible to catalog them all in this space. But as we see these challenges more clearly, we shouldn’t turn away.

The immediate need is to contain the virus, which threatens to bring a deadly winter. But I would also ask that Kansans commit to treating the underlying conditions that make people more vulnerable to such threats.

Many of the pandemic’s worst consequences, as well as the inability to contain it, have roots in problems that already plagued us. Too many prefer fighting partisan battles than building on a unified cause. Rapid-fire misinformation over social media speaks to one’s worst impulses. Government responses vary widely in degree and effectiveness.

Deeply entrenched inequities in wealth and in health mean the virus impoverishes and kills some, while others who escape unscathed are too often unable to empathize with those who do suffer. Many workers live paycheck to paycheck and small businesses struggle, while the coffers of some large corporations overflow. Years of planning for pandemics didn’t result in a country truly prepared and willing to deal with the real thing.

I’m sure you could think of many more examples yourself. The pandemic didn’t create these problems, but it did shine a light on them. It raised the heat on crises that may have been easier to ignore at times of lower heat.

Not everything has gone poorly. Many Americans have done their part by rapidly changing their behavior to socially distance or wear masks. It’s clear that so many do care about others.

Yet it’s not a foregone conclusion that we’ll care about these adaptive challenges when normalcy returns. It remains to be seen if COVID-19 will spur pivotal changes in this state and country. I hope we will not pass up the opportunity to diagnose this situation and explore the toughest interpretations we can about what’s happened and what needs to be done.

What the pandemic has exposed are not technical challenges, and we should not treat them as such. A vaccine will not cure the underlying conditions. Those will only be addressed through persistent adaptive work necessary to build a state and country that’s stronger, more resilient and better prepared to face the next momentous challenge.

 

A version of this article appears in the Fall 2020 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.

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