The Need for Bold Leadership

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught at the University of San Francisco, Berkeley and Golden Gate University, is a regular columnist for the Marin Independent Journal and was Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors, 2017-2019.

Sound leadership is critical—-more so than ever in a crisis.

In the current situation with the newly-discovered pan-virus COVID-19 an invisible, invasive and deadly scourge that observes no boundary lines and is travelling with terrifying speed across the nation, the federal government appears to have been for months asleep at the switch.

California is not waiting for the federal government to act.

Governor Gavin Newsom has now ordered the entire state under quarantine for the first time in its history with all residents required to stay at home minimizing all unnecessary travel, thus sending a clear message as to the gravity of the situation. Essential services, said Newsom, will be maintained.

The Mayors of San Francisco and Los Angeles had already issued the same order.

As custodian of the world’s 5th largest economy the ramifications of this extraordinary directive will be far-reaching for years to come. Without such action it is estimated that half of all Californians—20 million people who represent one of every eight Americans—could be infected by the highly contagious virus.

The single scariest fact is that people who do not know they have it are capable of transmitting the virus.

There will be plenty time for the blame game over our lack of preparedness once we are assured that much of civilization as we know it today will survive. The only thing that matters now is the nature and speed of our response and its effectiveness.

In the midst of the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic one thing the public can do without is bad advice.

That does not seem to have dissuaded one California congressman from offering just that.

Last Sunday Tulare County Republican Devin Nunes took to the airwaves to announce, “It’s a great time to go out and go to a local restaurant or to your local pub.” And for good measure he added, “Likely you can get in easily.”

Never mind that such reckless talk which goes against the best advice of the entire scientific community is to put it mildly, unhelpful! At worst it is extremely dangerous and even life-threatening.

At about the same moment Nunes was dispensing wisdom, the nation’s health leaders including the highly respected Anthony Fauci who stands aside the president at almost every news briefing and is Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health was repeating one simple message: “Stay at home.”

It has become axiomatic that one of the keys to limiting the transmission and spread of the deadly bug is to eliminate large gatherings. The CDC warning suggests no more than “10 people should congregate at least 6 feet apart”—an admonition which fortunately a majority of Americans appear to be taking seriously.

Except apparently Floridians seen cavorting on the beaches who believe they are either immune or are in total denial.

Social distancing is the quaint phrase we have been asked to adopt. Ironically and in our best interests it is encouraging something quite the opposite—anti-social behavior!

Although we do not label it as such, the invention of the internet has already taught millions of us—and especially younger generations— to relate religiously without direct interaction.

While we can argue about the benefits and drawbacks of such de-socialization, as we enter a prolonged period of home-schooling, remote distance learning, video conferencing, working from home and massive on-line purchasing, the internet may be yielding unforeseen dividends.

Still even the most advanced technologies cannot be a substitute for  bold leadership.

It is never tested more than in a crisis. Beyond the president that falls largely upon the nation’s governors.

In California, Gavin Newsom has had time to become barely comfortable in his new job as head of the nation’s most populous state when this dire event began impacting every element of our lives.

As of today with the numbers quickly escalating 779 cases have been reported statewide and 14 deaths. Nationwide there are 13,000 reported cases and 193 deaths. This is no doubt only the tip of the iceberg and the figures are climbing exponentially.

With millions of people in the six Bay Area Counties which has half of all the state’s cases now under orders to take “shelter in place” and those over 65 being told to invoke self-isolation, Newson has also announced that schools statewide should now be closing and not expect to be re-opening until possibly the Fall. This will affect about 10.5 million students.

The disruption to parents many of whom are now being told not to come to work until further notice, presents additional problems of unimaginable proportions.

The loss of income and sustainable employment for the immediate future along with the concomitant collapse of the markets has finally jolted Congress out of its slumber. Economic recovery will come in time; the effects of the health crisis which some are predicting could last 18 months or longer has no visible end-date.

The economics cannot be fixed until the human toll and the accompanying costs are brought under control.

As our streets become deserted and the entire state is under lock-down,  to say that we must go into a wartime mode as Trump has belatedly acknowledged is not an overstatement.

It is the nation’s governors, mayors and key decision-makers up and down the line who are stepping into an inexcusable policy-making vacuum that is generating chaos with conflicting views even among some experts on how aggressive we must be in addressing the widening crisis.

At the moment there are few if any silver linings to be found. One is the frequent communication which California’s governor is having with the White House and the president himself—a fraught relationship that more often than not has put the two leaders at odds with one another.

Both are being closely scrutinized now and will be even more so in the future when the pandemic has finally begun to abate. Much is expected of them which could define each of their places in history.

One is hoping to be reelected in November. A lack of trustworthy management during this crisis could result in his undoing. Or if recovery is possible sooner though increasingly unlikely heaps of self-congratulation from the president are predictable.

Looking squarely at the gravity of the situation, California’s governor is taking sweeping steps to avert the worst consequences of any failure to act decisively.

In doing so, he has put the National Guard on alert if required to step up to assist with food distribution, crowd disbursements, policing new drive-up-testing facilities, aiding emergency medical efforts and maintaining civil order if it comes to that.

It is something Trump could do with the stroke of a pen triggering the Defense Procurement Act.

He could also call upon the Army Corps of Engineers which has the resources to create thousands of makeshift hospitals and triage centers overnight to accommodate the inevitable influx of the sick and dying and the severe shortage of beds. China built a 1,000 patient hospital in one week.

Why this president has not taken these steps already is a mystery.

The mounting infection rates are already putting enormous strains on hospital personnel, nurses and doctors who are both the first and ultimately the final lines of defense.

Of the approximately 350,000 guardsmen and women in uniform and serving 18,450 are based in California.

While they are typically under the command of the governor, they can be federalized at any time subject to activation by the president. This might be necessary if total curfews are put into effect—a draconian measure some countries have already adopted and which seems to be slowing the rise of new infections in China where the crisis originated.

Neither Californians nor any other citizens are prepared for such drastic actions which last occurred in the early days of World War II when blackouts were ordered for coastal cities by then president Franklin D. Roosevelt in the event of enemy attack.

We are under assault today from a more sinister, pernicious invader and the call to arms has become universal.

FDR’s soaring admonition when giving his first inaugural address in 1933 at the height of the Depression has rung through the ages when he said, “So first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Though such lofty rhetoric is not a trademark of this president, the nation would prefer tough talk about what is being done to ease an existential crisis and expects it from the individual who commands the loudest bully pulpit in the land.

It is time for strong leadership. But when it is slow kicking in there may be only one reliable remedy that we can fall back on—ourselves.

Many of those most needy or too sick must get help and government exists precisely for that purpose. Whatever one’s political leaning, such assistance should not be negotiable.

The House and Senate are nearing bipartisan agreements on multi-faceted aid packages in the hundreds of billions including direct cash payments, paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, economic relief to small businesses and to shore up the healthcare systems before they are overwhelmed.

These initiatives come none too soon and some may already be too late.

However, every household in America that is able should consider itself deputized to exercise its own leadership.

Self-discipline, practicing maximum cleanliness, caring for our children, staying home except to meet the most urgent needs or to get exercise and plain common sense should not require governmental edicts.

We will have to win this war before a safe vaccine is available. That means more testing will reveal where the biggest clusters are occurring or are likely and how best to optimize our efforts.

We will surely look back upon this time as a grim teaching moment. But it will need a crash course to get through it with any hopes of a passing grade.

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