The Days Ahead
The deadly coronavirus that emerged from China late last year has now spread across the globe. The Chinese Communist Party deceived the world-even their own people-and unleashed the worst pandemic in a century on us all. Now it falls to us to defeat it.
Here at home, a strange and unsettling hush has fallen over much of the country, as businesses close and millions of Americans brace for what's to come. In New York, Seattle, New Orleans, and elsewhere, preparation for the virus has ended. The virus has arrived in force. The urgent battle to suppress it has begun.
In emergency rooms and ICUs, courageous doctors and nurses are already locked in a battle to save the lives of their patients. Protective gear is in short supply, but their regard for safety and even family comes second to their duty. The days ahead will be a close-run thing in those cities, as they struggle to keep their hospitals open and functioning. But make no mistake: the China virus will spare none of us, from the high rises of the big cities to the hills of the Ozarks.
Soon, the Senate will finally pass desperately needed emergency legislation for our nation-including a massive infusion of funds to our health-care system. But this legislation isn't about stimulus-it's about survival.
With this legislation behind us, Americans are beginning to ask, what's next? Yes, the virus is testing us already, and it has already touched most of us-by closing our churches, shuttering our businesses, and threatening the jobs and retirement savings of millions of Americans-and, of course, threatening our lives.
It's only natural that so many are wondering anxiously when and how this unprecedented crisis will end. And when it ends, will their jobs still be there? How will they put food on the table? How will they pay the bills?
Americans want to know the plan so they can do their part. More fundamentally, they want to know that there is a plan. Upended routines, combined with worry about the future, naturally breed frustration. We are citizens, after all, not merely passive carriers of a deadly pathogen.
This frustration has given rise to a new and growing argument that Americans can't wait any longer. That we ought to open back up and take our chances with this virus. After all, we can't stay inside forever. We can't, as the saying goes, let the cure be worse than the disease.
The urgency to stave off economic collapse is, of course, understandable. And it's tempting to think that we face a simple choice between shutting down to fight the virus and opening up to save the economy. But the choice is not so simple.
Some thoughtful observers note that the seasonal flu and automobile accidents kill more Americans annually than has this virus. That's true, as far as it goes. But we're just at the beginning of this pandemic. And, I have to add, the Javits Center in New York City has never been converted into a field hospital for the flu and car wrecks.
Granting that, some say, perhaps we can reopen in a few days since our elderly are most at risk from this virus. Quarantine them, keep them safe, the argument goes, while the rest of us get back to work.
But there are 72 million Americans over the age of 60 in this country. Many of them raise children, live alone, or work outside the home. They can't wall themselves off from the world, nor should we wall them in.
Moreover, tens of millions of younger Americans have pre-existing conditions that put them at elevated risk from this virus. Are we to quarantine all of them, too?
Because even younger and healthier Americans are not safe from this pandemic. The China virus attacks the lungs of young and old alike. Of the cases we know about, the virus appears to send about one in seven younger people to the hospital.
It's true that survival rates for younger patients are better-but even their recovery depends on a functioning health-care system. If we give up on our efforts to control this virus now, our medical system will be overwhelmed. Hospitals will collapse. Care will be rationed. Doctors will face the terrible choice of whom to save and whom to let perish. And not just for patients with this virus-for every other American who needs intensive care, whether from a heart attack, or a stroke, or a car wreck, or anything else.
Besides, if left unchecked, this deadly virus will continue to wreck our economy as surely as it already has. It wasn't President Trump who shut down businesses, after all. And it really wasn't even governors and mayors, though they issued the orders.
Government-enforced closures were largely a rearguard action by communities that had already ground to a halt due to the virus-or that would soon have come to a wrenching stop in the teeth of the pandemic. Who among us would take our kids to a restaurant tomorrow if we "opened back up"? Our economy isn't seized up because of government dictates, but rather because our people are understandably fearful of a dangerous virus.
So an immediate reopening, without the resources in place to fight the virus, isn't an option. Our hospitals would be overwhelmed, our brave doctors and nurses would succumb to the illness, our businesses would keep their doors closed or would quickly close their doors again as workers and customers stayed away.
The supposed "choice" between saving the economy and fighting the virus turns out not to be much of a choice, at all. We can't yet stop the strong measures that are in place, because we have no better option in the short run. But neither can we continue them forever: the American people can only hold out for so long.
So, we must come up with a better plan, and fast.
That plan starts with this big pause, as we protect ourselves and each other. We simply don't have the resources today to fight any other way. But it won't end with this approach.
We must use the precious days and weeks ahead to lay the groundwork for a new strategy to fight the virus, a strategy that will allow all of us to gradually get back to work.
For that to happen, we'll need to scale up our ability to rapidly test for the virus-as they have in South Korea-so we have a sense of where the virus is and where we must keep it contained.
Already America's public laboratories and companies are rising to the challenge, processing tens of thousands of tests. But our ability to test must grow even faster, and it is.
We'll need masks, too-billions of them. And we'll need local personnel trained and prepared to do widespread contact tracing for those who test positive. We'll have to develop procedures for strict quarantines of those who test positive or those who've been exposed to the virus-with zero tolerance for breaking quarantine and endangering our fellow citizens.
Once these elements are in place and the first wave of the virus has passed, then we'll be prepared to reopen our cities and communities, while remaining vigilant about new outbreaks.
These preparations will ensure we're ready to sustain our way of life until our scientists can create what we so desperately need: therapeutics drugs and, ultimately, a vaccine.
A vaccine may take a year or more before it's available-but these other, intermediate precautions must go into effect much, much faster.
America must indeed reopen. When we do, these decisions must be based on local conditions, not an arbitrary, nationwide timeline.
Our governors and mayors understand their local conditions. They can make gradual, rolling, calibrated decisions in a way that is responsible-when the tools to effectively fight this virus are ready and available.
What I've outlined may seem like a daunting, even an impossible challenge. But our nation has overcome far greater challenges before.
Already America is rising to take on the China virus.
The giant of American industry is awakening, retooling our factories to join this fight-just as we did during World War II. Never bet against America's workers and American ingenuity.
And all across this country, Americans are springing into action. We know the vital role our doctors and nurses will play in the coming months, alongside our first responders, our factory workers, our farmers, our grocers, and on down the list.
Ask yourself now, how can you help?
Can you keep your distance from those most at risk, realizing that the virus preys on our most earnest desires for society and companionship? Can you offer your charity to a friend in need? Can you pick up groceries for your elderly neighbor? Can you keep your workers on payroll and benefits just a little longer until our legislation kicks in? Can you postpone your tenant's rent for a month? Can you pray for the deliverance of our nation and the world?
These are just a few of the things we must do as a country to make reopening possible and life bearable in the months ahead. We're all in this together. So, we'll need to have each other's best interests at heart.
Many years of comfort and ease have perhaps conditioned us to ask only what we're free to do, not what we're called to do. But the old disciplines of peril and privation threaten to return. We'll need old notions of duty to maintain order in the face of them.
The darkest days of this crisis are in all likelihood ahead of us. Let us face up to them bravely, let us acknowledge the troubles ahead, and let us devote our whole energy to winning this battle quickly so that the normal life of our nation can resume.
Click here for a video of this floor speech.