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Mindy BelzVoices Mindy Belz

A bridge to the post-COVID future

Marshall Plan lessons offer hope for the future

Our cover meetings among editors every two weeks are spirited things, always full of hard choices and compromises, and with a deadline clock ticking. They happen under wraps so I won’t give details, except to say that in February we made a hard-fought decision to depict the growing coronavirus outbreak, nearly three weeks before it was declared a pandemic.

As we each came around to it, one editor said, “Let’s pray that we won’t need a coronavirus cover a month from now.”

And here we are, three months and five coronavirus covers later. At some low point of every day I’m reminded of the long road ahead. U.S. hot spots continue to emerge, and the most impoverished places of the world are only beginning to see outbreak. Refugee camps with tens of millions of vulnerable people are bracing for it, with cases likely present and undetected. It’s not far-fetched to think the boy depicted on this issue’s cover may himself be infected, or be orphaned by the virus in coming weeks. 

The American spirit, full of get-ahead, can-do verve, is “so over this,” as one friend said to me. How to open up, move forward, embrace the future are its bywords. At its best, it propels us toward finding ways to end the pandemic, and to care for and cajole one another in the meantime. 

Marshall saw the value of organizing people out of despair into helping others. 

At its worst, it leaves little room for lament, for taking stock. There’s been a marked absence of national sorrow, divided as we are. Unless we know someone among the tens of thousands of Americans dead or hospitalized these three months, we haven’t paused to survey what’s befallen us, together, right now.

This is partly the disease, a silent stalker who leaves clusters of immediate family members to grieve by themselves while a loved one suffers or dies in isolation. With it comes a new aspect to our national psyche, a new fatalism. We have no one to hold our hands. We have unbelieving friends who have no hope in the hereafter and no compass points for a global calamity. We have Christian friends who believe the virus is a hoax, or a political gambit to wreck the economy. Both end in a fatalistic wishing away our losses, downplaying the tragedy that’s before the world.

Seventy-three years ago at Harvard, a June commencement speech showed how to build a bridge from postwar fatalism to the future. Secretary of State George C. Marshall gave an unexpected address proposing what would become the Marshall Plan, rescuing Europe from the devastation following World War II.

The world situation, he told graduates, “is very serious.” The “very mass of facts” is overwhelming. And Americans “are distant from the troubled areas of the earth.” Yet he proposed a plan not against any country but “against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world.”

Marshall’s speech resonates with today’s COVID-19 challenges. Bill Gates cites it in his charge to 2020 graduates. It was a Gettysburg Address kind of speech, brief and inspiring. The reading of Psalm 78 that preceded the general-turned-statesman at the lectern probably lasted longer. But three times the audience interrupted him to applaud, and the response in Europe was swift.

Marshall led the massive aid effort that began soon after, sending billions of dollars in food and staples, fuel and machinery, to Europe. His effort spurred our own economy, plus private charity and church-based relief—launching groups like World Relief, World Vision, and others.

Marshall saw the value of organizing people out of despair into helping others. Plus, he saw how desperation left unaddressed could lead to more war. “It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace.”

We aren’t coming out of a war, though it’s not unthinkable we may yet see wars or unrest from the pandemic. It’s not unrealistic to be thinking big about how we turn this thing around.

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  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Fri, 05/08/2020 11:20 pm

    Mark my words for we will soon forget about the Wuhan virus, when things go back to normal - a vaccine is made or effective medicine is developed. 
    Do we still remember past pandemics? Not really. The same will be true of this pandemic.