Sitting here in limbo Waiting for the dice to roll, Sitting here in limbo Got some time to search my soul from “Sitting in Limbo,” by Jimmy Cliff 

Reggae singer Jimmy Cliff’s classic song comes to mind frequently these days. As I watch replays of the Boston Red Sox marching toward a World Series win a couple years ago (not much sports on TV), what truly amazes me now isn’t the great clutch hitting but rather seeing 35,000 people packed together at Fenway Park and cheering. I’m further amazed as I watch the ads preceding and following the highlights— crowds of people in restaurants and groupies at musical performances and new cars in heavy traffic crowding highways.

Was it really just a few weeks ago that we were all doing those sorts of things, barely giving our casual gatherings a second thought? Will we ever so casually resume our previous way of life? If not, how will things be different? 

To the first question, of course, the answer is sadly affirmative—life has changed radically in barely an instant. But a crisis of the magnitude we are witnessing injects fear into the equation and thereby alters our ability to anticipate the future in any kind of clear-eyed way. 

Of course, no one knows what the future holds even in good times. But in the toughest of times, and a pandemic definitely qualifies as toughest, it becomes necessary to face unpleasant truths. Here are a few of the unpleasant truths I expect we’re going to have to face up to: 

  1. The American government’s failure to anticipate and prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic has been so complete and total (compared to other countries like South Korea, China, Taiwan, and Germany) that historians and other investigators will eventually conclude it dwarfs other failures of preparedness, like the attack on Pearl Harbor and the terrorist attack of 9/11. The current failures are on all levels, from a failure to develop testing that could have led to quarantining of initial cases, to a failure to have stocks of medical supplies like surgical masks for health workers and the general public, to a failure to act quickly enough to shut down COVID-19 hot spots. 
  2. The failure to prepare will not only lead to many thousands of needless American deaths, but also quite likely to a serious recession and possible depression.  All you have to do is take a look at how projections for “social distancing” are being extended. Trump talked a week ago about “getting back to work” by Easter, but of course that prediction was quickly thrown out the window when his own polling showed Americans were against it. Now you see projections about Major League Baseball “possibly” getting restarted July 4 (and playing in empty stadiums), and a Boston museum considering a September 1 re-opening. The problem is that so long as we have social distancing requirements in place, we can’t re-open major segments of the economy, including travel, restaurants, entertainment, beauty salons, and even health care. And the longer major segments of the economy remain hobbled or shut down, the longer the government needs to provide financial support to millions of people…or risk a return to 1930s-style survival. 
  3. Last, but not least, we’ve experienced a total breakdown of leadership at the national level. We’ve been fortunate that governors like Andrew Cuomo of NY and Charlie Baker of MA have taken up some of the slack (see this wonderful story about how Baker arranged for the New England Patriots’ plane to pick up N95 masks in China), but the absence of leadership from the top has been astounding. Leadership is about inspiring trust and confidence during a time of crisis, about providing a vision for how we might emerge from the crisis, and all we’ve heard from the top has been lies, contradictions, and diversions. Here are just a few examples from the president: 

“The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA.” (Feb. 24)

“We’re going very substantially down, not up…And again, when you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” (Feb. 26)

“We had a great meeting today with a lot of the great companies and they’re going to have vaccines, I think relatively soon. And they’re going to have something that makes you better and that’s going to actually take place, we think, even sooner.” (March 2)

“It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.” (March 10)

“President Trump is a ratings hit. Since reviving the daily White House briefing Mr. Trump and his coronavirus updates have attracted an average audience of 8.5 million on cable news, roughly the viewership of the season finale of ‘The Bachelor.’ Numbers are continuing to rise…” (March 29, Tweet from Trump)

So when the prez said earlier this week that America faces “a painful two weeks,” and could have 200,000 deaths from this pandemic, it was difficult to know whether to take him seriously. 

 The U.S. has in the past been fortunate to have had the right leaders in place at key crises. George Washington to lead us through the Revolutionary War. Abraham Lincoln to lead us through the carnage of the Civil War. Franklin Roosevelt to lead us out of the Great Depression (“The only thing we have have to fear is fear itself.”) and to victory in World War II. 

Unfortunately, we seem to have run out of leadership luck. The local food movement will likely get a shot in the arm, and with that, perhaps an improvement in the diets of many. Otherwise, how will our future lives be different when this ends? Right now, our hopes for salvation seem to ride on development of a vaccine sometime in the next year or two.  That’s a strange kind of salvation, when it’s not clear a reliable vaccine is even possible (they don’t work too well for the flu). Or maybe, as Mark McAfee suggests, we’ll all pay more attention to our immune systems going forward. That’s a long time to be “sitting in limbo.” I fear that when the dust clears, things will be much different, and beyond the rise of local food, not in a very good way.