Fighting America's twin wars on COVID-19 and contempt

Fighting America's twin wars on COVID-19 and contempt
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Armed with hundreds of millions of vials of vaccine for immunizing us against our common COVID-19 enemy, American society is turning from victim to victor and now leads the world in the total number of vaccines administered

But, as memories of “the plague year” begin to fade, America’s other epidemic of political sectarianism continues to fester. Today, two-thirds of older citizens see their fellow Americans as our nation's greatest threat.

Antibodies will eventually provide immunity from further physical harm from the virus, but will not touch the profound social ruptures wrought by decades of an escalating political war. The fact that the threat of COVID-19 initially failed to unite us as a people, but instead was easily weaponized for political gain, speaks to the depths of our decline. This collapse of our capacities for social cohesion and unity recently led The Economist’s Democracy Index to downgrade the U.S. from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy.” 


The national immunization effort now underway could be leveraged to treat both plagues. There has never before been a moment such as now when America is able to wield the kinds of resources and focused attention for a blended national health initiative. We are now putting boots on the ground for inoculating the nation, and the same efforts can help us begin a process of communal repair.

Imagine, if next to each vaccination table there was also a professional listener, someone from your community sitting with you during your 15-minute observation period post-jab, entirely dedicated to learning from you — in private — about your worries, hopes and ideas for solutions. For many, after long months of forced isolation, it would feel like — for the first time in a long time – someone cared. The combination of receiving protection from the virus and being listened to with respect by someone in authority could offer a powerful, restorative salve to our citizenry.

Research has shown that when people begin to feel listened to and understood by those in power, it can open them up to positive shifts in their attitudes and actions. Such methods of radical listening are used in narrative medicine and development work for partnering with community stakeholders in identifying locally feasible and sustainable solutions to their problems. Large-scale initiatives like these, when they are transparent and result in substantive follow-through, have been shown to go a long way in healing painfully divided communities. 

Implementing such an initiative on a national scale is entirely achievable. The idea that “nobody is safe until everyone is safe” is the viral reality that underpins all immunization planning, creating for the first time a shared national concept of health equity. The result is a collective, organized, medical mobilization happening at a scale not seen since the federal relief efforts that ended the great depression.

Immunization booking systems and sites are being prepared across the country. Teams of area leaders, site coordinators, clinicians and administrative support are being pulled together for serving urban mega sites, localized suburban community sites as well as mobile pop-up sites for rural towns. Traveling mobile units for reaching remote, medically underserved communities are a priority. The quality of care and systems of delivery will be vital for rebuilding trust as these will be a direct reflection on the integrity and authenticity of the outreach itself.

Rural outreach is particularly critical. Our recent election vividly demonstrated that the red-blue divide in the United States is drawn sharply along urban-rural lines. The horribly mishandled response to the pandemic to date has further exacerbated a feeling in rural America that coronavirus policy decisions are being made in and for cities and then imposed on rural spaces

Radical Listening, seamlessly integrated into a national immunization effort that prioritizes the quality of care and delivery of relief, would represent a strong first step of government for rebuilding trust and bridging this divide.

This great cross-country check-up could produce the data necessary for taking the current pulse of the people, wherever they live. The information obtained could then be parsed locally to identify the unique concerns and more popular remedies for those living in our diverse counties and towns. Imagine if in his first State of the Union address President BidenJoe BidenUS lawmakers arrive in Taiwan to meet with local officials Biden meets with Coast Guard on Thanksgiving Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season MORE were to announce the results of a year-long listening and learning tour resulting in the launch of a “National Strategy on Rebuilding Trust in America.” This initiative, informed by the anxieties and answers of all our citizenry and shaped by evidence-based practices on promoting cooperation and constructive conflict management, could serve to reset our course and point us toward a new era of functional democracy.

Importantly, there is still time for such an undertaking. Even though over 50 million doses of the vaccine have already been administered, two doses are required to achieve immunity and regular booster shots will be likely for guarding against its many variants. However, for time to be in our favor, we must act now. Decisions are being made in hours not weeks and such an opportunity, if missed, will be gone for good.

David A. Carten is a change strategist, entrepreneur and Global Business director with Stone Cold Systems, a developer of advanced immunization cold chain technologies.

Peter T. Coleman is a professor at Columbia University whose latest book is "The Way Out: How to overcome toxic polarization."