by Kenneth Hersh
Not only is the insidious COVID-19 something novel, the fight against it is quite novel as well. Unlike past combats between good and evil, this evil does not have a home in ideology or geography. This is not a geopolitical struggle between rivals. It is a human struggle against a common, faceless enemy.
How this battle is being fought is telling, with each fighter using the weapons in its arsenal. As the expression goes, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Simply put, every society on this planet is gearing to fight the virus, but our orientation and tools are different. Authoritarian regimes have one card to play — mandates from the top. If leaders get it right, great. If they do not, issues abound.
In a market-oriented democracy, we have an entire deck to play and we are seeing that on full display with each passing day. Our central government’s failures in getting ahead of the testing challenges have made it clear how relying on a single distribution channel for anything isn’t wise. Our democracy may not be pretty, but it works.
Our country is a public-private partnership. While we like to look to our public officials for guidance, real delivery of goods and services relies on the private economy, especially given that 130 million of 152 million non-farm workers in this country are employed by the private sector. Information dissemination is wide and from countless sources.
Our public officials have a vital role here. First and foremost, they should ensure our public safety and a safety net for those most in need. As legislators, they have the tool of making laws, not delivering services. Lawmakers have been quick to offer emergency funding mechanisms to ensure the health and safety of our citizens. Regulators can regulate, or in this case, ease regulations to ensure that unnecessary red tape is eliminated that could delay needed responses.
Importantly, however, the other arrow in the quiver of the Western democracies, especially the United States, is a vibrant private sector.
And the reaction of private players in our democracy has been swift and decisive. They did not wait for edicts to come down from Washington or their state capitols to adjust working conditions. Employers understand that their employees are a major stakeholder in their success. Credible sources of information circulated news and analysis widely. Companies reacted quickly to initiate plans to work remotely or otherwise trigger their disaster preparedness plans.
While the potential impacts should not be minimized, our economy is quite resilient, and it will return. Past shocks have set us back, but they did not derail the long-term growth trajectory of the economy.
Second, the private economy has proven its ability to allocate resources effectively, provide goods and services, and do it with compassion. Retailers like Walmart, Walgreens, CVS and Target have stepped up to allow their parking lots to be used as testing centers. Large employers such as Bank of America have expanded child care options when schools close. Company after company has relaxed sick-leave policies and are assisting hourly workers who are most directly exposed to an economic downturn. Utility and phone companies around the country are waiving cutoffs for delinquent payments. As this crisis unfolds, there will be countless more examples of the distributed human response being offered by the private sector.
I am not going to minimize the potential economic hardship, but I am not yet willing to write off the resiliency of Americans.
The private sector is also mobilizing to be the innovating and caring partner that the public sector needs at this time. The biotech and pharmaceutical industries have shifted into overdrive to test for and provide care for those afflicted by this awful virus. At the same time, separate teams are hard at work developing a vaccine to prevent its recurrence.
Public and private health care networks are mobilizing. The public sector officials are keenly aware that the private sector is a vital partner in a quick, effective response. Let’s be careful not to vilify sectors that will play an important role in leading us out of this crisis.
Finally, the philanthropic community is also mobilizing. I am already party to conversations among philanthropists to assist where we can and when we are needed. Locally, regional organizations are turning their attention outward to assist those most affected. The pages of this newspaper are filled with examples. Similar conversations are happening across this great nation, especially in the hardest hit regions. For example, The Seattle Foundation has initiated a COVID-19 Response Fund to provide emergency funds for immediate needs in its hometown. America’s faith institutions also stand at the ready.Our caring efforts directed at this crisis are just beginning to bloom.
Watch Out, COVID-19, you don’t know what you’ve come up against. You are no match for the human spirit.
While we may be tested in ways that we have not been tested before, this commitment to each other and our ability to demonstrate leadership at all levels is what makes this country special. Long ago, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that this is ingrained in our DNA as a nation. Even politics seems petty when placed in the larger context.
I am confident that the nation will come together and the innovative and caring spirit of America will prove effective in providing compassionate responses as well as a resilient outcome.
Kenneth Hersh is CEO and president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.