Back in forever ago (mid-March), an old college buddy called me for a chat.
He phoned just as his region, the San Francisco Bay Area, was beginning to hunker down for the foreseeable future. The same thing was happening here.
“This doesn’t feel right to me,” I said, as the streets of Harrisburg emptied almost overnight.
We went on to discuss how bizarre it was that a place could be so busy and thriving one day and, like someone flipped a switch, vacant and desperate the next. He was more convinced than I was that a lockdown was the way to go.
“What would you do differently?” he asked, sounding like the college professor that he is.
“I’m not sure,” I responded. “But layering on a profound economic and social crisis to a health crisis doesn’t seem like the best solution to me.”
And, months later, as I sit here in my empty office, having walked from my empty house, through an empty city, I continue to think two things.
First, unlike the Twitter jockeys who populate my feed, I don’t mind admitting ignorance. This is an unprecedented and incredibly complex situation with many moving parts and no easy answers. No one truly knows how to yield an optimal outcome.
Not Gov. Wolf or Secretary Levine. Not President Trump. Not you, not me, not anyone. We’re all making it up as we go along, whether we’re creating national policy, state policy or household policy. I think it’s healthy to admit that and to have tolerance for mistakes and corrections.
And, secondly, I continue to think that a scorched-earth policy derived from panic almost always leads to disastrous unexpected consequences.
I actually told my friend that I wished that we, as a country, had prepared better, that we had the ability to quickly mobilize a system of wide-scale testing and the rapid deployment of needed resources. But I guess, upon reflection, we all wish that. To me, this lack of preparation shows an extraordinary failure at the highest levels of our federal government.
Concurrently, I told him, that, from the beginning, we should have acted to vigilantly protect our most vulnerable people. And, in fact, the pandemic’s grim statistics show that we also failed to do that. COVID-19 has burned through nursing homes and other care centers at a shocking rate. As I write this, 65 percent of all deaths from the disease in PA have been in congregant care centers.
So, where to now?
Throughout May, Pennsylvania began slowly opening back up. In most areas of the state, the governor switched his “red” to “yellow,” allowing some activities to resume in places with low or falling rates of COVID-19.
As summer progresses, we’ll continue to see fewer reds and more yellows and greens.
My hope is that we learned something—actually, a lot of things—from our first big battle with the coronavirus, because it likely won’t be our last.
Absent a vaccine, we’re going to have to learn to live with this monster.
So, here’s hoping that, during a second or third round, we do things far better than the first time around, making decisions based more on knowledge and less on panic and improvisation.
We need a solid plan based on more testing, better therapies, contact tracing where possible, and a concerted community effort to protect our most vulnerable. Well, I’ll leave the rest to the experts because I’m certainly not one.
However, I will say this—we cannot shut down society cold again. That should be the baseline on which we operate. There needs to be some balance between our health, our economic and our social needs, which all are important.
I’ve thought many times about what Harrisburg will look like on the back end of this. Will we be able to spring back? As I sit here, after more than two months of shutdown, I’m cautiously optimistic. But I also know that time is not our friend. How long before all we’ve built begins to crumble? Some businesses are already on their last legs, patience is wearing thin, and people are taking sides. The unity of the early days is dissipating as the weather warms and the suffering continues.
In the end, I hope that we’ve learned many things from what may be a warm-up for future outbreaks. We’ve had our trial-and-error period. Next time around, we must take our collective experience and newfound wisdom and do it all much, much better.
Lawrance Binda is co-publisher/editor-in-chief of TheBurg.