Ordinary Citizens: Lessons from the Pandemic of 2020
Many of you may remember Stephen E. Ambrose’s book, Citizen Soldiers, which came out in 1997. At one level, it traced the history of World War II from the beaches of Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge to the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany. At a different level, it offered a significant thesis that the United States won the war against Nazism not because of its superior industrial capacity or its top military leadership but because of its “citizen soldiers,” reared in the culture of a democratic state, who in the heat of battle performed in a superior fashion to the generation of German soldiers reared in the Nazi culture of the Third Reich in the 1930s. It was the Citizen Soldier, Ambrose proclaimed, who saved the world for democracy.
Today, we are engaged in a different war. Not a war against a political ideology but a war against an invisible enemy, a novel biological enemy, which has the capacity to destroy life on earth, as we know it. In this war there are scientists, public health officials, politicians and others who are shaping, however unclear and uneven, a strategy to fight this battle. But, the real battle is being fought in the trenches, at home and in the ERs. In other words, this is a battle of ordinary citizens called upon to work together in extraordinary times.
There have been many times when I wondered if this generation, my generation, could do what the Greatest Generation did? Could we fight on the beaches of Normandy or in the skies over Midway? I had my doubts. Now I am seeing something different. I am seeing health care workers go to work knowing that they only have one protective mask for an entire shift. I am seeing the people of New York stand on their balconies and cheer for those health workers. I am watching children happily accept “drive by” birthday parties with no presents and no cake, just their friends holding up signs and cheering them on for becoming 10 or 11 or 12 years old.
The Great Pandemic of 2020 is a terrible battle. We do not know how many are going to get sick and how many are going to die. However, we do know that hundreds of thousands of people are volunteering to help take care of their elderly neighbors by shopping for them or calling them on the phone. We know that teenagers are willing to make phone calls to isolated neighbors. We know that 7 year olds are willing to create artwork and then mail it to total strangers to cheer them up. These acts of support and courage are breaking out all over the country spontaneously and ubiquitously.
The Great Pandemic of 2020 will eventually end but its legacy will last forever. It has been a moment of truth for all Americans and the whole world. Ultimately, I believe science and social policy based on science will defeat COVID 19. That victory will require the support of ordinary citizens, of people who value life over material advantage, of people who believe in the welfare of the nation and the world as their first obligation as regular people. We are not being asked to join the military and fight on an island in the Pacific with little hope of return. We are being asked to “love our neighbors as ourselves,” to self-quarantine, to practice social distancing and to provide support for those who are isolated, vulnerable and at risk.
We are living in extraordinary times and the lesson I am learning is that our survival as a race, the human race, ultimately depends, not on government or industry, but on ordinary people doing the right thing for themselves, their families, their neighbors and everyone else on this planet. I do not know if a new global, human consciousness will emerge out of this experience. I hope so, but I am less than sanguine. Meanwhile, like Stephen E. Ambrose, I believe that victory, indeed survival, depends first and foremost on the “citizen soldiers” among us from the trained health care workers, to the EMS squads, to the police, to your next door neighbor, doing the right thing 24/7 without wavering. Ultimately, our victory over COVID-19 is up to you!
These are extraordinary times and extraordinary times require ordinary people to do the right thing. I hope that enough people will get that message in enough time to save the world. Hopefully, they will abandon their small minded, greedy, conspiratorial theories and let the most important strategic elements of victory prevail: love, wisdom and courage as practiced by the most ordinary among us.
I do not know what will happen in the weeks ahead but a little bit of hope in our collective ability to simply be ordinary, cannot hurt.
Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.