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The metaphor of an invisible enemy killing more than 100,000 Americans, growing social protests — it all appears to indicate we are a nation at war. However, comparisons of the coronavirus death toll with those service men and women who paid the ultimate price, is the wrong narrative to mobilize and get us out from under multiple national crises. We are not at war with the coronavirus.
This symbolism is often repeated, however, usually to unify and strengthen our sense of collective duty. But it muddies the waters of how we got here, as if viral infections were plotting to strike us at our weakest moment. As if our military might alone can destroy an unconventional and microscopic enemy. Make no mistake: the coronavirus has brought the country to its knees, but we arrived here for many reasons.
The pandemic has exposed pre-existing economic conditions and a health care system that does not work for everyone. It has highlighted grotesque levels of inequality, as well as the daily struggles of millions of Americans, many of whom will continue to suffer as our democracy is under assault from foreign adversaries, which day after day are attempting to wedge us apart on social media and subvert our elections.
The Trump administration has exasperated the crisis and increased the odds of a second coronavirus wave, jeopardizing the health of those we love and limiting the possibilities for thoughtful political debate and discourse. The federal government, often a unifying actor in times of immense need, has instead sought to divide neighbors, generate animosity between red and blue states, and make the country weaker during a critical moment.
Having grown up in Maine with most of my family still there, I am fearful for those that have underlying conditions that make them more at risk. As the oldest state in the nation, I am worried that I may lose my biggest anchors: my parents. Since moving to Washington, D.C., in 2015, I have had countless opportunities to rub elbows with some of the smartest, most thoughtful people in our country. Many have worked or continue to work in federal government, and the “gray suited bureaucrat” void of emotional intelligence could not be further off the mark.
Instead, I have encountered both young and old, liberal and conservative — people that care about our country deeply. The Trump administration has upended so much that will require decades and millions of energetic young voices to change the unfortunate status quo of disinterested and disaster-prone, reality-TV politics.
As early as January, President Donald Trump and the National Security Council received credible intelligence on the threats of the coronavirus. A study recently concluded that if we acted earlier, thousands of deaths might have been avoided. With the threat of a second wave and re-emergence of the virus into the fall and winter, we must begin to question the growing narrative that we are at war, whether with a virus or ourselves.
The federal government is being hollowed out by corrupt and willfully ignorant forces that stand behind the president’s every word. No matter how void of fact or childish the behavior of Trump, there is a well-organized machine that assumes that Americans are too disinterested in politics or too dumb to understand they have been duped as people of all backgrounds suffer needlessly.
But there is another option instead of anger or war-time symbolism to get the country back on track and motivated to make necessary changes. To grieve and respect those lives lost, and the likely thousands more as we debate whether economic loss is worse than the loss of life itself. We still have hope and empathy. We have young children to remind us that we too once had a sense of compassion, to respect and care for others, instead of bullying and belittling those who are weakest. It is for these younger generations that we must be firm in our commitment to democracy.
We have the power of our vote in November. No, we are not at war. It is something far more difficult and structural, not requiring battles, but a long thoughtful and creative process that brings scientists and experts back to the table. We need new ideas, a greater understanding that we are all in this together. In January 2021, we need a new, competent government to address this public health crisis at home and abroad.
Anders Beal, a graduate of the University of Maine, works in Washington, D.C.