A Test of Our Character

By David Plymyer.

Nothing will reveal the character of Marylanders more than the COVID-19 pandemic now facing us. It is like using a bathroom mirror in the brightest and harshest of lights, reflecting every little flaw and imperfection in the social fabric that binds us together. The pandemic also places strain on that social fabric, threatening to tear it apart as selfishness and indifference compete with selflessness and compassion for others.

We all want to survive the pandemic. But it matters how we survive, too. Many of us were losing faith in American society before the pandemic. We can’t let our collective response to the pandemic shatter that faith completely by letting our most ignoble instincts take charge. I doubt that we could ever fully recover if that happens, given how deeply the country already is divided.

The notion that the United States can never lose the qualities that have made it a great nation and descend into mediocrity, or worse, is a conceit at odds with the history of civilization. One day the dying from the virus will stop, and the economy will come back, but the wounds that we inflict on society if we behave badly during the pandemic could precipitate such a descent. Or, as some might argue, accelerate a descent that already has begun.

We have been handed a test. Some will see that as divine providence. Epidemiologists, I suspect, will see it as inevitable. They’ve been warning us for years that a pandemic of this nature was coming. In any case, the test is here, and we can’t afford to fail it.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a test of our leaders. It is a crucible that will separate good leaders from bad ones. Good leaders will gain our confidence by being truthful about the dangers we face. That confidence is indispensable when they ask us to make sacrifices for the greater good, and when they seek to convey a sense of hope that brighter days are ahead. If leaders aren’t credible, they can’t lead.

Our leaders must unify us, appealing to the best of who we are. They must urge us to look past racial, class, religious, and generational divides, and to put aside grievances, at least for the moment. They must convince us that we are all in this together and that each of us must do his or her part to minimize suffering and death.

We must face some cold, hard truths to weather this crisis. One is that President Donald Trump is ill-suited to the task of leading us through this national emergency. An impulsive, narcissistic man with a well-deserved reputation for being a pathological liar, devoid of empathy, and obsessed with his own reputation and political future hardly would be the first choice for the job. Mr. Trump’s performance to date comes, therefore, as no surprise.

Fortunately, others have risen to fill the leadership void. Governors from both political parties like Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Andrew Cuomo of New York, and our own governor, Larry Hogan, have stepped up. A fortunate attribute of our federalist system is that governors can take up some of the slack created by inadequate federal action. They also can provide moral leadership that Mr. Trump cannot.

Two things are obvious when you watch good leaders at work in an emergency. The first is that they feel the full weight of their responsibility for the lives of others. The second is that they care about the people who are depending on them.

The test does not apply only to our leaders. It applies to the rest of us, and to how we treat others when the chips are down. The response by Marylanders so far has been, with a few exceptions, a source of inspiration. We must be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers like never before.

Each of us should remember that one day, hopefully before too long, we are going to look back at how we acted in this time of crisis. Did we hoard or did we share? Did we reach out to those who were lonely and scared? Did we, if able, increase our donations to charities providing food and other necessary goods and services to those most in need during the pandemic? What we see when we look back will shape our views of ourselves, our neighbors, and our society for a long time to come.

Some historians believe that Maryland earned its nickname the “Old Line State” by the steadfastness and courage of its line troops during the Revolutionary War. Those are qualities that you and I, ordinary Marylanders, should try to emulate in the difficult weeks ahead.

We are not going to get out of this pandemic without the loss of many lives. As the tragedy unfolds, we are going to find out a lot about ourselves. Let’s hope that what we learn makes the tragedy easier, not harder, to bear. That we can be proud, not ashamed, of how we faced such overwhelming adversity. And that we emerge with a resolve to use what we’ve learned to fix what’s broken not only with our state, but with our country.

Mr. Plymyer retired in 2014 as the County Attorney for Anne Arundel County. He resides in Catonsville. (email: dplymyer@comcast.net Twitter: @dplymyer) His commentary on local and state government has appeared in publications including the Baltimore Sun, Washington Post, Baltimore Brew, Maryland Matters and the Maryland Daily Record.

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