Politics may be the death of us

Two imperatives, both of them worthwhile and all-important, are about to clash in America. They don’t co-exist easily, and it will take wise and deliberate leadership to maneuver the nation and its 50 states through their head-on challenges.

The two are first, to stay at home, and second, to restore the economy.

COVID-19 is extremely contagious. Its coronavirus can be spread from person to person through the air or from surfaces. The virus can linger on surfaces for up to three days, depending on where it lands.

Health scientists and specialists are unanimous in advising people to maintain social distancing of at least six feet. They urge Americans to stay at home when at all possible. Wearing a mask is advised in public settings. 

Most state governments have directed non-essential businesses and schools to remain closed during the pandemic, and many require that people refrain from gathering in groups of more than 10.

Where those directions are difficult to follow, the results are all too clear. Crowded environments like prisons, food processing plants and nursing homes are seeing startlingly high numbers of COVID-19 cases, with some deaths taking place. Once the virus appears in a crowded place, its spread is difficult to stop.

But when people stay home and businesses close, the economy slows dramatically. Prior to the pandemic, America was essentially at full employment. In Iowa, nearly every adult had a job. 

That’s no longer true.

Closed businesses and organizations can’t maintain their payrolls when they have no revenue, and massive layoffs are the result. Unemployment filings are up sharply.

The federal government is appropriating trillions of dollars to help employers and employees alike. But no one knows how long the pandemic will last, and although in some locations its spread is leveling off, it’s doing so at a terribly high level. The end is definitely not in sight.

People’s patience is starting to wear thin, agitated by loss of income, dislocations to their way of life and plain loneliness. 

The president and his administration’s approach to the crisis are not helping.

They have laid out guidelines for the states to follow, but then the president encourages states to violate the guidelines, particularly states led by Democratic governors. He tweets for the “liberation” of some states. Demonstrations add to the strain.

And in some states, the governors are buckling under the pressure.

Despite the roaring spread of the pandemic among their residents, they’re reopening some non-essential businesses and recreational locations. Health agencies, hospitals and law enforcement agencies — and the people who staff them — are pleading for stay-at-home rules to be maintained, but they are being overruled in some states.

Some government officials, lawmakers and commentators are starting to say openly what previously had been only whispered: the economy must be reopened despite the additional deaths that action will bring.

Some even quote the old saw: “The cure is worse than the disease.”

In this case, they allege, the cure is abiding by disease prevention guidelines. If more people have to die, so be it.

Stalin said it another way: “To make an omelet, you have to crack some eggs.”

The longer it takes COVID-19 to run its course, the greater will be the pressure to restore the economy, thereby stringing out the pandemic even longer. 

What the nation, and its states, need right now is strong leadership. People respect the truth, especially if they hear it from someone they respect. 

During England’s darkest days of World War II, when Germany’s blitzkrieg rained down death on London, Winston Churchill’s steadfast determination steeled the English people to stay the course. He spoke truth about war, but assured his nation they could get through it. And people listened.

We need the same kind of encouragement to stay the course now, from national and state leaders alike.

Waffling and pandering will only stretch out the pandemic and its deadly results.

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