In Genesis 2, God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” He made us for Himself, but he also made us for one another. We are intimately connected to one another, and separation, even though for our own physical health, and even though on a temporary basis, is painful for us all.
John Donne, the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London during the 17th century, said, “No man is an island, entire unto itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” He went on to say, “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”
We are not “islands,” we are part of the “main” of all humans and “involved” in the life of the world here and now. Disease and death diminish us all. But, they don’t have to defeat us. We can and will defeat this disease.
This fight against the coronavirus called COVID-19 is hard. We are forced to separate from one another, a necessary infringement on our humanity, and however necessary, an infringement on basic liberties. Our economy is sorely wounded. Worse, our neighbors are infected with this disease, some fighting for their lives, some tragically losing that fight.
We are better, stronger than this disease. Brave men and women on the frontline, doctors and nurses, first responders and health paraprofessionals, pharmacists and those working to provide us food and necessities, are showing the indomitable American will, the will to win. And, yet, all of us have a role to play, to responsibly social distance from one another, to practice proper hygiene and to know when its time to be tested and/or to quarantine ourselves.
We have weathered diseases before in our history. The 1918 Flu Pandemic. The Polio Epidemic of the 1950s. Yellow Fever ravaged early Mobile and all of Alabama off and on during the 19th century. But, in all of those we didn’t have the public health resources in near the abundance we do now.
The public health professionals tell us that we must slow down the spread of the disease so it doesn’t overwhelm our hospitals and health care providers. That’s why we have social distancing.
We know the disease is spread person to person or when one of us touches a surface where the virus is still alive. By stopping our natural human contact, in our jobs, our schools, our restaurants and bars, our non-essential retailers, our group meetings, our social meetings and even in our worship services, we stop the spread and give our health care professionals the time and resources to help us, to heal us and, for some, to save us.
This obviously hurts us economically and socially. And we don’t need to continue it one minute longer than is needed. We will know when we can start to relax the mandates against social mingling. It will be when the number of new cases starts to come down on a sustained basis; not when we have no new cases, but when the number of new cases, or the rate of new cases, comes down day after day. As we get more tests out there, and new tests are increasing at a fast pace now, we will have a lot more cases. That doesn’t mean it’s spreading at that rate. In part, it just means that we are seeing the natural result of all this new testing.
A couple of data points are important to keep in mind. Only between 10 and 15 percent of all people tested in the US at present are testing positive. The vast majority tested here don’t have the disease. And remember, we are in many places only testing those at risk. As testing gets far wider, that rate may come down. Of those who do test positive, 80 percent have no or only mild symptoms. But, 20 percent need some form of significant care. They are of all ages, by the way, so the fact that you are young doesn’t protect you. And, tragically around 1 percent to 1.5 percent die. That may not sound like much but it’s 10 to 15 times higher than the flu.
Meanwhile, all levels of government play an important role. Our governors and mayors, as well as public health officers, must issue the appropriate orders to protect us all. Closing restaurants and bars, beaches and parks, small retailers and large group meetings, are each hard decisions. The economic and social ramifications are far-reaching. They must start, and they must end, at the right times, based upon sound medical and professional advice, and plain common sense.
We at the federal government must work with state and local leaders to inform their difficult decisions and help them, where appropriate, carry out these tough decisions.
The fathers of two of my House colleagues have served at the highest level of our government. I asked them both if their dads had seen anything like it. Jimmy Panetta, whose dad, Leon Panetta has been White House chief of staff, secretary of Defense and CIA director, said his father had never seen anything like it. Liz Cheney, whose dad, Dick Cheney has been vice president, White House chief of staff and secretary of Defense, said the closest experience in her father’s career was 9/11. Jimmy and Liz, Leon and Dick, Democrats and Republicans. We’ve rarely, if ever, seen anything like this.
When last week’s unemployment insurance filings were reported at over 3 million, the highest ever by far in our history, and when the number of cases and deaths dramatically expanded, it was clear we had entered truly extraordinary times, calling for extraordinary government action.
So, with broad and deep bipartisan support, we passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Security Act (CARES Act), providing over $2 trillion in support for individual citizens, workers who have lost their jobs, small businesses so that they will not close or lay off their workers, larger businesses in the way of loans and not bailouts, healthcare, education, transit, and more. Unprecedented resources have been quickly directed for more tests, more personal protective equipment, research and development for treatments and even a cure, and ultimately a vaccine.
I don’t like everything in the bill. In fact, there were parts that I strongly disagreed with. The time to talk about those, and how they came to be stuffed into an otherwise crucial bill, will come later, and those responsible will be named. But, our people are hurting, our way of life threatened, and this is no time to let these issues slow down the effort to get the job done. Indeed, I had hoped that the vast majority of us in the House could have avoided having to take the risk to actually travel to Washington and be in a room with hundreds of others as we have ordered the rest of the country not to do, but one member threatened to further delay the bill and so I and another 200-plus members made the trip and got the bill passed.
Like most of you, I am working from home and maintaining social distance. My staff is also working and our offices open for you but we ask that you call and not try to come in. We have helped repatriate a number of citizens from our district who have found themselves stuck in a foreign country closing its borders. We are answering many phone calls on the laws we have passed to respond to this disease and with questions about the disease itself.
I must confess, I don’t like to be kept at arm’s length from the people I serve. It runs against everything in me, but I recognize the wisdom of it. We in positions of public authority have the heavy responsibility of gauging how long this must continue and I pray that it is a matter of weeks, not months. But, unfortunately, the virus dictates that; I just want us all, at every level of government, to exercise good common sense. In the meantime, I feel like the words of the old song by one of Alabama’s sons, Hank Williams: “I’m so lonesome I could cry.”
Last week, I was on a number of conference calls with groups in the district and a teletownhall with nearly 4,000 constituents. In one, a person asked me to give them hope. I was struck by that simple request, that we provide hope.
So, here goes.
We are a great and powerful nation. We were born in an uncertain and dangerous revolution, invaded even in our Capitol by the greatest power in the world just 40 years after our founding, suffered a civil war costing 600,000 of our lives, fought two desperate world wars, watched our economy nearly disappear in a Great Depression, tore ourselves apart in the social upheavals of the 60s, and endured an attack by terrorists on our largest city and the center of our national defense. And yet, after each one we Americans not only survived, we learned how to make our country greater, how to perfect our union.
The prophet Isaiah, writing during the Babylonian captivity, put it in beautiful language:
But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
And, as we approach Passover and Easter, let us remember the hope expressed in the miraculous delivery of the Jewish people from slavery and the resurrection of Christ who defeated death itself. Indeed, Solomon said in his Eighth Song, “Love is as strong as death.”
That’s the ultimate reason for hope: God’s love for us all overcomes death.
As we mourn those we have lost to this disease, as we continue to miss the physical presence of one another, as we struggle with the testing and spread of the disease, and as we fight to preserve our economy and our way of life, let us be confident in the ultimate result, using our own strength and leaning on God’s.
U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne is a Republican from Fairhope.