"The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” —Abraham Lincoln
In March 2020, we woke up to the year 1929 again. The country’s economy suffered, the stock market went down, the number of Americans applying for unemployment kept rising, and states and businesses started closing. We entered a new era—the COVID-19 era. In a matter of two weeks, the CARES Act, a bipartisan resolution, was passed to assist Americans affected by COVID-19.
The U.S. ranks first in deaths to COVID-19 and has lost more lives to this virus than to any war except for the Civil War and World War II. The European Union has banned visitors from countries that are unable to control COVID-19—and United States is the first on the list.
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told NPR’s On Point host, Meghna Chakrabarti, “Our notion of what constitutes national security needs to expand. And it needs to expand to include things like pandemics, to deal with climate change, digital security. So, we've got to take all that into account. But the old agenda hasn't gone away. … So, I actually think the national security agenda that will greet the new president, whether it's Donald Trump or Joe Biden, is going to be enormous. It's going to have old fashioned security threats as well as new fashioned security threats, including the consequences of the pandemic.”
Chakrabarti asked Madeleine Albright, a former secretary of state, how she would advise the president on COVID-19. Secretary Albright replied that she would warn the president that we are confronted with a national security threat.
“Health issues have become national security issues, HIV/AIDS and Ebola,” Albright said. Both Haass and Albright confirmed that pandemics are national security threats. The question remaining is how well prepared the U.S. is to consider health issues as national security threats.
In 2014, billionaire Bill Gates warned the U.S. government about another potential pandemic such as AIDS and Ebola becoming a major national security threat. Here we are in 2020, and COVID-19 caught us by surprise. The United States is the country with the highest number of COVID-19 deaths, despite not being the most populous country.
The Trump administration has demonstrated a lack of COVID-19 response coordination and a high-level incoherence in the messages communicated to the public. It lacks a vision to lead us through the pandemic and beyond. Instead of uniting the country, the administration weakened the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and suspended funding to the World Health Organization.
Regardless of all the chaos, we will get out of this crisis, but there must be a cost. As President Lincoln said, we must think anew and act anew, because we are faced with new threats.
During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt led the country, responding to mass movements of workers, farmers, and the unemployed that demanded relief from the federal government. Our fate on emerging out of this crisis stronger will depend on a strong leadership like the one in the Great Depression. It will require our elected officials to put their political interests aside and respond to the crisis.
As for American voters during the Depression, the crisis times influenced their votes for president as they recognized that they were faced with different levels of threats. This is not a time for emotions: Our livelihoods, civilization, and national security are at stake. We must think anew and act anew. We need a commander in chief who believes in science, listens to advisors, and creates partnerships with other countries, rather than isolating the United States. We need a commander in chief whose national security agenda reflects the need to invest in health care. We need a commander in chief who takes pandemics seriously as national security threats. We need a commander in chief who recognizes that the U.S. has been leading the world at the international stage and this is not the time to back down our leadership.
“There's no one who has the power that we have, the influence that we have,” Haass said in the NPR interview. “So no one can fill our shoes. So everybody’s on their own and no one does better on his or her own than they do, again, in a collective effort where the United States leads. So they’re not happy about the situation. They’re increasingly reconciled to it. But they very much miss the United States that for decades had helped organize the world to meet a whole range of challenges.”
Now, people living with HIV and communities affected by HIV are confronted by multiple pandemics and threats to our livelihood. According to the World Health Organization, COVID-19 disrupts our lifesaving medication supply chains, including antiretroviral treatment, and could make it much harder for people in some countries to maintain an undetectable HIV status—and put people at risk of developing AIDS.
The requirement of social distancing makes it harder for us to meet face to face with our health care providers and puts us in isolation, which triggers our post-traumatic stress disorders. COVID-19 is a threat to ending HIV stigma and discrimination, as well as ending the AIDS epidemic. As communities affected by HIV and AIDS, we must think anew and act anew. Show up to vote. That’s the power of the people.
The current administration has proved that we are not prepared to respond to global pandemics. We still have the power—the power of casting a vote. We can turn the tide by ensuring that the next commander in chief’s national security agenda includes pandemic preparedness and health care.