What Covid teaches us about community
Kettl is a guest blogger for the IBM Center for the Business of Government and author of The Divided States of America (Princeton University Press, 2020).
It’s been like the devastating assault of Hurricane Katrina on America’s Gulf coast in 2005—multiplied more than a thousand times over. No part of the country has escaped as the virus has hop-scotched around, now hitting many communities that thought they had been spared.
The virus is rocking the nation’s communities with historic disruptions, and those disruptions are challenging governance in America as never before. The virus itself is surely crisis enough, but it’s colliding with other big issues: mass protests surrounding police behavior, an economic recession with an enormous cost and uncertain trajectory, and an especially intense election with historic implications. It’s a grand slam of mega-stressors on the very fabric of American society.
Amid this swirling social storms, there’s a hidden truth: beginning with COVID-19, all our big national crises have deep local roots. They share intertwined roots. Responding to any of them will require attention to all of them. All politics might be local, former House Speaker Tip O’Neill reminded us. But it’s much more than that. All local problems are intertwined and all solutions are interconnected. There’s no attacking COVID-19 without a local solution—and any solution to it touches simultaneously on so many other local puzzles as well.
Consider COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests. BLM is most fundamentally about enduring, institutionalized racism. What we’re discovering about COVID-19 is that it disproportionately affects people of color. It’s impossible to address either of these issues without carefully considering the other.
A quick look back underlines this all-crises-are-local point. The September 11 terrorist attacks began with local reports of a plane crashing into one of the World Trade Center towers and a massive response by the New York Fire Department. The first signs that Hurricane Katrina was trying to drown New Orleans came in reports by National Guardsmen who noticed water where it shouldn’t have been. Its most devastating impact was in the Lower Ninth Ward, a predominantly black neighborhood, and one of its most poignant moments was the decision by local police to block mostly black residents from trying to escape the flood across the Gretna bridge.
When we connect the dots, the lesson is clear: big national crises have local roots; all problems with local roots require effective local response; effective local responses demand an interconnected strategy; and an interconnected strategy depends on resilient communities. It’s hardly the case that national and state governments don’t matter. But they matter most in driving results at the community level.
That points to the importance of building resiliency—recognizing that so many of these problems have common roots, that solving them requires common cause, that today’s problems can seed the ground for future crises, and that solutions in one area can feed solutions in many others.
In an editorial on the city’s police department, a New York Times editorial argued, “Faced with enormous suffering during a pandemic, a possible economic collapse and maybe the largest civil rights movement in history, a healthy police department could have acted as a balm.” Instead, the editorial concluded, “the Police Department has become another source of trauma.” Even sophisticated observers so often tend to view big issues inside narrow tunnels. But we keep painfully relearning that things matter because they matter locally and that attacking any big problem means weaving together solutions to many of them.
That, of course, risks making all these problems seem impossible to solve. The underlying problems of racism that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement and the public health crisis at the core of COVID-19 each are monumental challenges. If we’re struggling to deal with either of them, wouldn’t connecting them make the difficult impossible?
As retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen points out, however, “complexity itself has become a risk factor” in the problems we face. Complexity has become an inescapable part of every problem we face and every solution we seek to frame. That certainly makes the job far harder. But it’s failing to wrestle with these issues—together—that is most likely to doom us to failure.
So the first and most important step toward tackling both BLM and COVID-19 is to recognize their common roots and shared solutions. That will get us farther down the road we need to travel. And, just as important, it will position us better for the next problems we’ll inevitably encounter.
That lays the foundations for community resilience, since:
- All issues are local, because they begin with local problems
- All local problems and the responses to them are connected
- Solving these problems requires bridge building among them
- Building those bridges depends on building trust
- Building trust depends on creating trustworthy interactions between citizens and their governments
- Local trust often requires national support and strategy
COVID-19 is a pandemic, which by definition is a disease covering the world. But, at its core, tackling COVID is about building resilient communities. What we learn about it can lay the ground for pan-solutions to the other big issues we face.
This blog post is the first of a series exploring the role that community resilience can play both in bouncing back from COVID-19 and in reshaping governance for the future. Future blog posts will explore:
- Where the federal government must lead—and where local governments have the edge.
- What the searing experience of Hurricane Katrina teaches us about attacking the virus.
- How the heads of some countries have proven especially effective in learning the lessons of empathy in leadership.
- How we can rethink the structure of local economies as we prepare for the post-COVID world.
- How we can reshape the enduring lessons of collaboration to develop strategies that cut across the wide swath of local public policy challenges, from public health to policing, to reframe governance.