By Alan W. Dowd
“The intelligence and power of the people are disseminated through all the parts of this vast country,” Alexis de Tocqueville marveled in perhaps the most insightful assessment of America and its institutions ever written, Democracy in America. “Instead of radiating from a common point, they cross each other in every direction.” Almost 200 years later, as the economic and public-health crisis spawned by COVID19 unfolds, this still holds true.
Those who view government as the center of society and source of all good things have been reminded during this crisis about the creativity, inventiveness and nimbleness of churches, charities and businesses. While the gears of government grinded into motion, the charitable and business sectors rapidly redirected their energies toward providing emergency relief to the hardest hit; delivering care to those in need; manufacturing medical supplies; producing medicines and vaccines; and serving the public. The examples are too numerous to count or list, but here are some snapshots.
America’s churches are meeting the physical needs of a frightened nation. As Christianity Today reports, a church in aptly-named New Hope, Minn., refashioned its food pantry into a drive-through; a Jefferson, Ga., church delivered food to healthcare workers; a Birmingham, Ala., church supplied groceries for seniors and other at-risk groups. The list grows longer by the day.
Golden Harvest food banks in Georgia and South Carolina are offering daily meals to-go, running no-contact mobile markets and delivering food to seniors. Global Impact details how DirectRelief has partnered with FedEx to deliver tons of surgical masks, gloves and face-shields; Matthew 25 Ministries is distributing medical supplies to nursing homes; World Vision has sent masks, hand-sanitizer and disinfectant wipes to family-serving charities.
The Salvation Army is distributing food, baby supplies, sanitizers and paper products. Samaritan’s Purse, the Episcopal Church and Mount Sinai Hospital collaborated to convert Manhattan’s Church of St. John the Divine into a triage center, even as 22,000 non-New Yorkers have volunteered to travel to America’s hardest-hit state to offer medical and emergency-response support. (Speaking of volunteers, when the Pentagon sent out a call for former military personnel with medical or emergency-response specialties, 15,000 veterans volunteered to serve yet again.)
With government shelter-in-place orders turning churches and synagogues into empty warehouses—and “separated we survive” supplanting “united we stand”—faith leaders have done their best to feed the soul. Trying to be obedient to Christ’s call while being good citizens—the latest expression of the age-old tension between the City of God and City of Man—many houses of worship have shifted to livestream liturgies. Some churches offer drive-through confession, others drive-through communion.
While these have served as adequate facsimiles of worship for many people of faith, a moral dilemma remains for others: Orthodox Jews generally are not permitted to use computers on the Sabbath. Devout Catholics feel called to attend mass daily. And so, in this strange period of government-imposed isolation, some Christians and Jews have experienced a taste—blessedly faint and temporary—of what our ancestors in faith endured for years or generations. Like Moses and the Israelites, we are not permitted to gather together for worship. Like Paul, we are confined to our homes and separated from the Body of Christ. But we can take heart from Paul’s example. Even under house arrest, he encouraged believers to “rejoice in the Lord always” and “be anxious about nothing.”
Of course, the charitable sector is not limited to religious organizations.
Like Edmund Burke’s “little platoons,” American Legion posts are preparing meals, delivering groceries and prescriptions, and manning food pantries. United Ways across America are spearheading massive local and statewide relief initiatives. Meals on Wheels volunteers are continuing to deliver food, albeit in modified form.
Foundations and other charities have joined forces to sustain their cities and states. Seattle-based foundations launched the COVID19 Response Fund to help low-income residents, healthcare workers, service-industry workers and the homeless. Foundations and charities stood up the Central Indiana COVID19 Community Economic Relief Fund to support human-services organizations in Indianapolis and neighboring counties. Several foundations formed the NYC COVID19 Response & Impact Fund to provide grants and interest-free loans to nonprofits. The California Wellness Foundation is assisting healthcare workers, seniors and clinics.
The list goes on and on, repeated in city after city, state after state.
The same energy and creativity are on display in the business sector
Biopharmaceutical firms such as Eli Lilly have launched drive-through testing centers. Roche is churning out 400,000 test-kits per week. After an Air National Guard C-17—callsign “Reach 911”—airlifted 800,000 test-kits from Europe to Memphis, FedEx took the baton and distributed the tests across the nation.
CVS is offering free prescription delivery. Domino’s Pizza is touting “contactless delivery.” Panera has turned its restaurants into groceries. Burger King is providing meals to nurses. Mom-and-pop restaurants across the country are borrowing a page from the 1950s and offering curbside service.
Lowe’s has made a $170-million commitment to the COVID19 fight, increased hourly wages and provided $10 million in medical gear to frontline hospital workers. Aldi, too, has increased wages.
Perfume-makers in California are producing hand-sanitizer and disinfectants. Anheuser-Busch is leveraging its vast production, supply and logistics network to produce and distribute hand-sanitizer. Liquor-maker Pernod Ricard USA has converted production lines in Arkansas, West Virginia, Kentucky and Texas to hand-sanitizer.
Honeywell is producing millions of extra N95 masks. Likewise, 3M has doubled production of N95 respirators—producing almost 100 million per month—and increased production of hand-sanitizers and disinfectants. MyPillow has shifted much of its operations to producing masks for healthcare workers. Apple is donating 20 million masks and producing face-shields. GM, Ford, Tesla, GE and rocket-builder Virgin Orbit are producing ventilators.
The NFL donated $35 million to COVID19 relief. The NBA and WNBA tossed in $50 million. Each MLB franchise pitched in $1 million to ballpark employees to help them through the months without games. MLB apparel-partner Fanatics is producing hospital masks and hospital gowns.
New York City hotels have converted rooms into hospital space, increasing capacity by 39,000 beds.
Scientists across America are racing to develop a vaccine and identify therapeutic options. Johnson & Johnson plans to begin human testing for a COVID19 vaccine by September. Moderna could have a COVID19 drug for health workers in the fall.
Through it all, heroes have emerged in perhaps unexpected places: grocers and nurses, paramedics and long-haul truckers, UPS drivers and doctors, pharmacists and FedEx pilots, Amazon deliverymen and virologists.
Great and Good
Mercifully, it looks like the ghastly predictions made in some quarters—that COVID19 would claim 2.2 million Americans—were incorrect. In fact, the virus will likely claim somewhere closer to 60,000 Americans—about the same U.S. toll as the 2017-18 influenza season, and far below the U.S. toll from the 1957-58 Asian flu pandemic (116,000) or the 1968 H3N2 flupandemic (100,000). That’s of little comfort to those who have lost, or will lose, a loved one to COVID19, but the numbers do put this pandemic in perspective.
Some are trumpeting the role of government in “flattening the curve” and fighting the disease. Others are beginning to notice that by “flattening the curve,” we flattened America’s economy and deeply impinged on individual liberty and religious liberty. The irony is that both sides of this debate will fall back to the same defense: “Just imagine if we had done nothing.”
That debate will intensify in the coming weeks and months—and may never be settled. But one thing is beyond debate: Main Street’s creative and selfless response to the cascading COVID19 Crisis illustrates that America remains a great and good nation full of individuals, houses of worship, charities and businesses that rise to the occasion. America will need to sustain that same creativity and selflessness to navigate the post-COVID19 world.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose and authors the Project Fortress blog. A version of this article was published by the Institute for Religion and Democracy.