As we sit here in Haifa, Israel, on an extended vacation thanks to the coronavirus, one cannot help but spend a lot of time listening to the politicians, scientists, and the press in general. Probably the best comment I heard was from an Israeli politician who, after hearing a briefing about how to best deal with the virus, commented that he had been confused for years listening to economists provide differing points of view. He always thought that economists had the greatest differences of opinion. He said that he is now starting to think that way about scientists who are debating the best approach to the coronavirus.
The news from the United States and Israel is similar in one respect: the politicians are all trying to figure out how to ingratiate themselves to the public showing leadership, courage and results in a time of virtual warfare. They are all doing a fairly poor job of inspiring people the way Churchill or Roosevelt did, and a great job of instilling fear and disrespect among the populous.
Make no mistake about it, the coronavirus is a dangerous disease which must be addressed through policies that result in less human contact, curative measures, palliative medicine for those who need it, and rapid development of both cure and treatment. All of those approaches are both undermined and sometimes not even evident above the din of political recriminations.
Watching the news from the United States, the stream of accusations and simply nasty talk is almost overwhelming. I am sure there are many well-meaning people who are getting respirators and other health care devices to people in need. No doubt, those on the line such as doctors, nurses and decent citizens of all professions are working hard to bring relief and sanity to our fellow American citizens.
It should be no surprise that the typical intramural political hatreds should not be put to rest during the coronavirus crisis. In World War II, the United States came together and helped to defeat the Nazi monster in an incredibly short period of time. The toll of suffering and death was high, but Western Civilization survived. Today, one wonders if the world is capable of focusing on an important mission, and if the political folks can put aside their egotistical views to get assistance and aid where it is needed most.
At last reading, the United States has agreed to dump trillions of dollars into the pocketbooks of individuals and corporations. Whether the approach adopted by Congress and the president is the most effective means to address economic dislocation remains to be seen. Most of the details of the economic stimulus package are not yet fully known. Will wealthy Americans get a few thousand dollars, just like those who are struggling financially? Will this be a super-bailout for corporate America or a temporary loan? My own business, and individuals who work there, are simply borrowing money on their lines of credit. At this point, no government help or intervention and we have not asked for any.
What is sad to an American onlooker from overseas is the seeming disparity between statements of good intention on the part of politicians and the amount of energy that is being spent on criticism. A robust democracy is necessary, and perhaps even more useful, in hard times. There should be no vacation or holiday from different points of view and legitimate philosophical divide. What is disturbing, however, is when the press and the politicians spend more time beating up on one another than on tackling the challenge of obtaining and distributing assistance to Americans in need. There is a balance that both scientists and politicians should be able to agree to. America deserves more than it is currently getting from its leadership, Republican and Democrat, at every level.
In Israel, meanwhile, there really is no government except the caretaker government of Benjamin Netanyahu. All kinds of machinations in the parliament are occurring, notwithstanding the virus. Netanyahu appears willing to hang onto his leadership in Likud, regardless of the consequences. If Bibi, a successful leader for 12 years, would step aside, there is no question that there would be a quick resolution of the crisis with a government formed by Benny Gantz’s Blue and White together with Likud. The “anybody but Bibi” faction is strong and unrelenting. Benny Gantz, for his part, seems so desperate to form a coalition that he even considered creating a partnership with the “Joint List,” many of whose members do not believe in the necessity for democracy in the nation of Israel. Even with the diversity inherent in United States politics, we have nothing like the “Joint List” in our country.
Israeli politicians, like politicians in all countries, would like to claim credit for battling bravely the coronavirus problem, while in fact they are standing in the way of principled approaches to tamping down the disease and treating the sick. This is not to say that in any country, the political establishment should be taken over by novices or scientists. Rather, there needs to be leadership in all nations of the world that relies on good science, a minimal of hysterics, and the good old-fashioned cooperation which in the past has won wars for Western Civilization.