When Leadership Proves Lacking

Our country’s inadequate response to the pandemic should raise questions about the roles and responsibilities of our leaders at all levels.

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graphic by Brian Stauffer

President Trump’s response to the pandemic set a horrible example for state and local leaders.

Kristen Kinzler, Co-Editor-in-Chief

If I had to pick one word to describe our country right now, I would choose frustrated. We’re frustrated that COVID-19 cases are rising, frustrated that our lives are getting shut back down again, and frustrated that we’re missing out on all the traditions that make the holiday season worthwhile.

Personally, I’m also frustrated. I’m frustrated at my lack of motivation for remote learning, frustrated that people still won’t just wear their mask above their nose (I promise, it’s not that hard), and, more than anything, frustrated that the adults in my life and people in authority positions haven’t figured out how to handle this yet.

I know, I know, that’s silly. Everyone is trying their best, and if this year is anything, it’s unprecedented.

But I suppose there’s a small, childish part of me that still thinks that people in power should know what to do. My parents should know what’s best for me, my teachers should always know the right answers, and the United States government should be able to handle a pandemic.

The older I get, the more I realize that’s not how the real world works, and it’s scary– some of those situations more so than the others.

However, perfection aside, there are some fundamentals that we are obviously lacking right now on all levels. Our federal government hasn’t provided sufficient economic relief beyond a one-time stimulus check in March, despite the fact that Americans have not stopped suffering and businesses have not stopped shutting down. Yet, most Republicans are more upset with the shutdowns themselves than the inadequate economic response.

Our state government simply provides “recommendations” and has no intention of enforcing any safety protocols, including mask wearing. Most of the time, store managers and employees cannot even ask a customer to put on a mask without fearing for their own safety.

Other state leaders have set horrible examples by ignoring their own rules. The mayor of Austin, Texas recently recorded a video urging people to stay at home while he was on vacation in Mexico. California Governor Gavin Newsom stressed the importance of social distancing right before he attended a birthday party with a dozen people.

Every state is on its own. Every person is fending for themselves. There is no sense of unity or compassion. And some of our leaders can’t even follow their own guidance, which only breeds mistrust and resentment towards the government and its regulations.

It’s a fatal flaw in our country’s botched pandemic response and our culture as a whole. Somewhere along the line, that good ol’ rugged American individualism led us astray.

I would argue that this kind of attitude has always been a problem in our country, but President Donald Trump made it worse. Trump denied that the coronavirus was a threat, claimed masks were useless, and refused to set a good example for the nation. He treated the dead with apparent disregard, seeming more concerned about how their suffering would affect him. He’s spend the past few months golfing and hosting huge parties at the White House.

It’s even more unethical when you consider that this man has a cult-like following. He could easily convince his supporters to wear masks and social distance. He has the power to be responsible, and he is the exact opposite.

But like I said, Trump was only an accelerant. Our country has always had a way of disconnecting from tragedy and misfortune. Nothing can truly destroy us, right? We don’t have to wear a mask like the rest of the silly world, and we don’t have to worry about not attending huge parties. We’re invincible.

Our leaders let us believe that because, when we’re invincible, we’re more patriotic. We’re enthusiastic and supportive and ready to pledge our allegiance to them.

Unfortunately, concerns about the responses of our leaders in recent months apply not only at the state and federal level.

When the school year first began and NASH was operating on a hybrid schedule, I actually felt pretty safe. Everyone was wearing masks, everyone at lunch was seated far away, and there were staggered dismissals at the end of the day. Everything was a little strict, sure, but that’s how you keep people safe in a pandemic. 

Over time, however, our focused commitment to safety protocols began to slip away. Suddenly, there were no more staggered dismissals. Kids at lunch began to sit closer together. Some teachers began wearing face shields, despite the fact that the CDC does not recommend them as a safe facial covering. Fewer and fewer students stayed on their own side of the hallways.

The administration didn’t really do enough about it. I saw principals walk past teachers wearing only face shields and not say a word. No one, it appeared, stopped kids who had their masks beneath their noses or took them off to talk. The lunch monitors all but gave up on enforcing social distancing during lunch.

In many ways, it felt like the school just wanted to pretend that we were already doing enough. I guess that’s how you keep kids and parents happy, after all. I almost believed it at first. I wanted to go to school so badly that I convinced myself that everything was fine. But that’s not how a community should function. We shouldn’t just accept that things are bound to get a little messy and lower our standards more and more.

It’s an example of how important leadership is. When it’s lacking, everything falls apart, and it takes an emotional toll. Attitudes and actions matter.

Right now, it’s more vital than ever that we find leadership and support in our families and our local communities, especially when it is failing us on a larger scale.

It’s possible. In fact, I see it every day. A customer makes an effort to step away from another customer in the aisle of a grocery store. A teacher provides flexibility with some deadlines because they realize how tough things are right now. A stranger stops someone wearing scrubs after work to thank them for being a healthcare hero.

Every day, there are people in our communities and across our nation who are consciously acting as positive role models. We should demand that more of our leaders do the same.

Until then, the only thing left to do is to take matters into our own hands and create some kind of functioning system, even at the smallest level. For many of us, that starts with our schools. 

When NASH’s doors eventually reopen, we need strong leadership. It all stems from the top of the district administration. We need people in authority positions to strengthen the rule about face shields, to tell kids to pull their masks up, to enforce staggered dismissals at the end of the day, and to keep everything running smoothly. The more the school year has progressed, the more relaxed our leadership became with simple protocols that were actually keeping us safe. We need to be better.

Beyond that, though, responsibility falls on the rest of us. Maybe it’s some ineradicable part of human nature or a twisted version of the American way, but often, we immediately think of ourselves and our privileges first. If we have any hope of conquering this pandemic, we all need to lower our egos and think about what is right for the largest number of people. We need to act like the community we claim to be, and we need to at least pretend to be the best versions of ourselves.

In a way, that’s leadership on a small scale. And when all else fails, we can at least start from the bottom and build our way up.