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Two years ago Tuesday, Gov. Janet Mills declared a state of civil emergency in Maine in response to the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in the state, and the expected need to respond quickly and decisively to the brewing crisis.
Since that time a lot has happened, obviously. An initial scare, and the resulting uncertainty. Wholesale societal shutdowns and stay-at-home orders. “Two weeks to flatten the curve.” The designation of some businesses as “essential” while others were forced to stay closed. Fully remote learning for kids. Wiping down styrofoam take-out containers with disinfectant wipes before we ate. Canceled college and pro-sports seasons.
The painfully slow reopening of businesses. The institution of mask mandates. Daily health metrics printed in the paper every day. The second wave. Government rescue packages and massive, repeated checks cut to Americans. Canceling proms, kids’ sports and graduations. The most unusual presidential election we will ever participate in. COVID-Thanksgiving. COVID-Christmas.
Hybrid learning. The third wave. The initial rollout of vaccines. Waiting for your age group to open up and traveling an hour to get a “jab.” Trillions spent in the blink of an eye. The eventual decline of cases and false hope that came with it. “Back to normal,” and masks off. The subsequent and explosive rise of cases, hospitalizations and deaths due to the Delta variant. Vaccine mandates for healthcare workers. Masks back on. COVID-Thanksgiving (again). COVID-Christmas (again). Masks back off. Omicron, and an unbelievable rise in cases. Hospitals overwhelmed. Masks back on. The rapid drop of cases. Masks back off again.
Attempting to account for all that has happened is a fool’s errand, but spending some time considering it all is enough to leave me slack-jawed. It really is amazing just how much we have all lived through, and we could be excused if the whole experience has felt more like two decades, instead of two years. My oldest son, a high school freshman, has not had a normal year of school since sixth grade. My younger kids — first grade and kindergarten — don’t know what the words “normal year of school” even mean.
In reflecting on this, the question I’ve been trying to consider for the past several weeks is a simple one: Have we learned anything?
By that I mean, if another pandemic were to happen sometime in the near future, what would this experience have taught us about how we should handle it?
Will we be as quick to shut down the entirety of society? Will politicians assume broad emergency powers and exercise them for more than a year? Will we be as resistant to mask-wearing, or as skeptical of vaccines? Will we be more so? Will we be more apt to listen to healthcare professionals? Will those same professionals be as quick to undermine their own credibility by, I believe, intentionally manipulating the public through selective data releases and misleading statements meant to entice people to do what they want? Will politicians of all political stripes be as recklessly irresponsible and cavalier about the choices they make? Will the government be as drunk on indiscriminate spending as its main solution to the crisis?
These questions don’t have definitive answers, though I’m pretty pessimistic. The fact of the matter is, we all made mistakes throughout the last two years. Mistakes of perspective. Stubbornness and refusal to consider opposing points of view. Political intransigence in the face of common sense. These are the sins of all of us, not just the people who we disagree with.
We will never arrive at a societal consensus about how to handle this type of situation, but I do think there are a few things that most of us would probably agree on. We should give leaders the power to act quickly and decisively, but we should check and balance that power with limits. We should listen to the advice of healthcare professionals and take that advice very seriously, but we should not listen to it to the exclusion of those advising us about the downstream impacts of the decisions we make. Those professionals should take their role seriously, and be more open and honest, even if it means the public’s reaction will be inconvenient to their goals. Politicians should actively respond to the crisis but should be much more concerned about protecting the essential liberties of their constituents. We should try to balance the relief we provide with concern over the economic calamity we may be creating simultaneously.
That’s a lot of shoulds, isn’t it? There are more I haven’t mentioned. But will we have learned any of these lessons for the next time? I wonder.