The Best of Us, at the Worst of Times

The following piece was penned by Reid Wilson '01, National Correspondent for The Hill.

In February 2015, the White House team managing the American response to an Ebola outbreak in West Africa gathered an unusually eclectic group of people to meet President Barack Obama. They included two young doctors, one a Christian missionary, the other a liberal idealist from New York; two older missionaries who had worked in a health clinic in Liberia; and two young nurses, one Asian American and one African American.

They may have had little in common on the surface, but each bore the scars of the Ebola virus they had survived. Two White House officials in the room that day told me they were struck by the diversity on display. Here, they said, was the best of America—old and young, conservative and liberal, white, black, Asian, all of whom had put themselves in harm’s way to help others.

That story, more than just about any other, has stuck with me in the years after I wrote Epidemic: Ebola and the Global Scramble to Prevent the Next Killer Outbreak, chronicling the American and international response to an outbreak that hit three of the world’s most impoverished countries, claiming at least 11,300 lives and scarring tens of thousands more. It shows that, for all the faults and warts we have as a people, Americans are fundamentally good, and the worst moments bring out the best in us.

It’s been important for me to remember those people as a new deadly virus races across the globe. The coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan, China late last year presents a fundamentally different challenge to the world—in short, it’s a much smarter virus, one that keeps its host alive long enough to find new fuel and perpetuate its own existence in a way that Ebola does not. But it is bringing out the same strain of human decency and innovation that Americans tend to show in moments of crisis.

Students, teachers, volunteers, and tinkerers are using 3D printers to make masks for front-line responders. One young woman in Kentucky even invented a mask with a plastic screen so that hearing-impaired people could read lips. Lizzo, the rapper who claims to be 100 percent that b*tch, has made a habit of sending lunch to emergency rooms across the country. A police officer in Warwick, Rhode Island, volunteered to go grocery shopping for two older residents who were scared to go out – and then shoppers at the store picked up the tab. LeVar Burton and Dolly Parton are reading stories to kids online. William Lapschies, one of the first known Covid-19 cases confirmed in Oregon, got out of the hospital in time to celebrate his 104th birthday.

And a few days ago, sitting on my stoop in Washington, D.C., I noticed birthday balloons at a neighbor’s house. A parade of friends began driving by, honking and waving at the birthday girl. Those drive-by birthdays have become a national trend.

There is a lot of bad news in the world, and right now I find myself in the vortex of its swirling storm. The American government has so bungled the response that it will have decades-long ramifications. We are only beginning to comprehend what normal will look like in a post-Covid world, and it won’t be anything like what normal looked like in January and February.

But when so much goes wrong, there are so many who do what is right. When I start feeling overwhelmed by the news, it helps to take a break and actively search for the people who are making a positive difference in their communities. It is they who remind us that the path back may be long, but it is there.

This too shall pass. Hopefully in time for all of us to celebrate William Lapschies’s 105th birthday.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of The Northwest School Magazine.