Downtown Rockland, Maine.

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The coronavirus pandemic has caused upheaval in many facets of life. It has caused massive job losses. Businesses changed their operations; many closed. Millions of Americans could lose their employer-provided health insurance. Students, in both K-12 schools and college, spent the last months of the school year learning remotely from their homes. Across the globe, more than 300,000 people have died.

Sadness and fear have dominated public discourse.

Amidst this well-founded negativity, there is still reason for hope and optimism.

Many people talk of a “return to normal,” when the danger of coronavirus and the policies put in place to slow its spread have dissipated. This is a reasonable inclination. But, although it sounds trite, many aspects of life are unlikely to return to the way they were before March, when concern about coronavirus began to escalate in the U.S. There will be a “new normal.”

That new normal isn’t something to be imposed on us. It is something we can have a hand in creating.

Speaking during a webinar on Monday sponsored by DLA Piper, a global law firm, former Secretary of Defense Gen. Jim Mattis and former Ambassador Nick Burns spoke about the opportunities to rebuild America. They highlighted much that had gone wrong with the U.S. response to coronavirus — namely a failure of federal leadership. But the two, who now work with the Cohen Group, a consulting firm formed by former Defense Secretary and Maine senator William Cohen, agreed that the pandemic had given the United States a rare opportunity to remake itself.

“We can build a better America out of this crisis,” said Burns, who was an undersecretary of state during the George W. Bush administration. “That may be one of the hopeful silver linings that we can think about. But, we’re all going to have to pull on the same oar as Republicans, Democrats, Independents and not let partisanship divide us.”

Quoting former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s perspective after Hurricane Katrina, Burns said the goal should be to “build back better.”

Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, spoke of the challenges and opportunities of this “noble” work. “We will continue to build this country,” he said. “It will be more just, more fair and a better leader coming out of this.”

This applies to government, industry, health care and other sectors.

For corporations, this may mean supply chains that are closer to home and thus less vulnerable to global disruptions and the whims of government leaders who may be hostile to the U.S. and its interests. It may mean moving manufacturing back to America. Amidst a shortage of masks for health care workers in the U.S., for example, it was revealed that most domestic mask makers had shuttered and that the U.S. was reliant on masks made in and shipped from other countries.

Meanwhile, Puritan Medical Products in Guilford is a key supplier of the swabs needed to collect nasal samples for coronavirus tests. Demand for their products soared and the company is expanding.

This reimaging also applies to government and public policies. For example, more than 36 million Americans have lost their jobs in recent months; many of them, including more than 220,000 Mainers could lose their employer-provided health insurance, swelling the ranks of the uninsured. This should prompt American lawmakers and citizens to take a serious look at the types of universal health care that is offered by other developed nations around the world.

On a smaller scale, Gov. Janet Mills has suggested that towns could consider closing some streets to allow for more outdoor dining, shopping and other activities. Think Church Street Marketplace in Burlington, Vermont or the 16th Street Mall in Denver.

Rockland is the first Maine community to decide to close its Main Street to vehicular traffic to help downtown businesses. The city will close the street for the month of June to allow for a pedestrian marketplace. Portland is considering similar measures in the Old Port.

“Reopening the state is not just about reopening businesses in a way that they were before,” Rockland Councilor Nate Davis said at a May 11 council meeting. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, not just for Main Street in Rockland but around the world, to try to reinvision aspects of how society is constructed.”

Other positive changes didn’t necessarily require government approval, but rather involved changes in practices and service delivery.

For example, substance use counseling is now happening online, making this potentially life-saving intervention available to those who couldn’t get to in-person meetings. Likewise, allowing more take-home medications for those seeking to overcome substance use disorder and the increased availability of telemedicine, including for behavioral health, should continue after the coronavirus has abated.

The pandemic has also shown the importance of paid leave, unemployment benefits and other supports. Some changes should not be rolled back once the danger of coronavirus has gone.

There have been lots of failures during America’s pandemic response. The challenge is to learn from those failures and to rebuild a country that is more resilient, more self-sufficient, more equitable and smarter.

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