By Jill Sunday Bartoli
One of the lessons we have learned from the pandemic is that we are all essential workers. Whether we stay at home or wear masks in public to keep each other safe, or whether we go to work at the grocery store to stock, check out, or sanitize the cart handles, we are all vitally essential. We are all equally valuable. We are united citizens in a democracy.
In spite of a civil war, the Great Depression, World Wars, the 2008 recession and the 9/11 terrorist attack, our democracy has survived and remained strong. Often past crises have united us as never before in caring for and about each other. Our elected leaders developed policies for the common good, and citizens united behind the goal of one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
After the Great Depression we saw the Civilian Conservation Corps, the New Deal, and Social Security begin to turn the tide of joblessness, poverty and despair. After World War II we built interstate highways, used the GI Bill to provide free higher education in unprecedented numbers and used a fair and equitable taxation system (70 percent at the top end under “I Like Ike”) to support a rising, thriving middle class.
Our leaders inspired us to be our better selves, valuing each other’s work and caring about the plight of others, being courageous and self-sacrificing, and keeping our sights on the greater good. And it will be those principles and values that built our country that will redeem the hardship, sacrifice and tragic grief that too many people continue to endure during the pandemic.
What does our essential work as citizens in a democracy require? Our civic response this time needs to match the national unity of past crises when we came together, mourned together and rebuilt together. We need to challenge our elected leaders to value the lives and the work of all of us.
The pandemic has shown us the great value of the sanitation workers, the mail carriers, the health workers and the teachers.
We hear heroic stories of nurse’s aids who hold up cell phones for dying patients so they can talk with their loved ones, even as the lack of protective gear opens them to becoming victims of the virus. We hear stories of teachers who have worked so hard to re-invent learning for their students and meet the challenge of on-line learning, too often without adequate student access to the internet.
And we are inspired by them. So, as essential workers, we stay at home, we wear masks in public to protect others, we mail in our census form, we sign up for our mail-in ballots, and we share words of care, concern and love with neighbors and friends.
These gentle acts of kindness are our victory gardens—the gardens of democracy.
It has been said that we are so divided politically that we may not survive as a self-governing democracy It has been said that a society that puts in high office people who lie to them and cheat the public is far into decay. And it has been said that our inability to prevent the widening of the gap between billionaires and workers –a gap that has corroded our society, breeding distrust, anger and despair –will be our demise.
We have a right to be angry and bitter about a political system that creates a taxation scheme making billionaires out of the .01 percent to the neglect of the essential workers who grow, harvest and deliver our food, pick up our trash, care for and teach our children, and work tirelessly in our hospitals to save the lives of those we love.
But we are already learning from this unprecedented pandemic that injustice and inequality are lethal, and it is unity and solidarity with all of our citizens that will help us to re-build and recover the heart and soul of our democracy.
The continued sacrifice of so many cannot be in vain. Our essential work as citizens is to summon our sense of national unity, trust one another, and trust our elected leaders (or choose ones we do trust) so that, together, we can build a society that works for everyone— one that is better, wiser, stronger and kinder.
Here’s our homemade yard sign (add a big heart shaped US flag beside Love Actively):
And if you are old enough to remember the coffee houses of the sixties, get on your front porch and sing along:
“Come on people now, smile on your brother, Everybody get together, try to love one another right now!”
Jill Sunday Bartoli writes from Carlisle, Pa. Her work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page