'We Are Not Powerless Against This Virus': Fighting COVID-19 With Collective Care

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In this episode of The Soul of the Nation, the Rev. Jim Wallis speaks with Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician, public health leader, and a passionate advocate for patient-centered health care reform.  

Dr. Wen shares urgent advice for sustaining and protecting our body, as well as our mind and soul, amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"We are facing the greatest public health crisis of our time," Wen said. "... whether this crisis turns into a catastrophe that will claim millions of lives in our country within a year, that will depend on the actions that each of us take right now. Can we put aside whatever differences we may have? Can we stick to the facts? Can we tell the truth? Can we come together as a community and can we hold that solidarity and that faith among all of us?"

Full transcript below:

Rev. Jim Wallis:

Hello, this is Jim Wallis and you’re listening to a special edition of The Soul of the Nation, a podcast about how faith should shape our politics, and not the other way around. Dr. Leana Wen is an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University. She previously served as Baltimore’s Health Commission. Leana Wen, your voice has been out there. I’ve been watching and listening. And you are one of the voices I most like to hear right now, your expertise and your spirit, so Leana thank you for joining us today on The Soul of the Nation podcast.

Dr. Leana Wen:

Thank you for inviting me, It’s an incredibly challenging time for all of us.

Wallis:

Let me just start by asking you, how's your spirit right now? How's your spirit?

Wen:

You know, I think I probably am feeling what everybody else is going through too. There is a lot of apprehension. There is fear for our country, for my community, for my neighbors, and there's also fear for myself and my family. I am 38 weeks pregnant, and have been thinking a lot about what it means to bring a child into this world right at this very minute as we're going through a pandemic that none of us have experienced in our lifetimes.

Wallis:

So you're less than two weeks away from your due date and you're in the middle of this coronavirus response. That’s extraordinary.

Wen:

We all have different personal situations that make it very challenging. I mean, I have neighbors here who have chronic medical conditions and are elderly, and who wonder about what this means for them. I have many colleagues who are healthcare workers who, unbelievably, their hospitals are running out, or have already run out, of protective equipment for them. And they are making wills and making arrangements for childcare in case they die in the line of duty. I mean, this is the situation that we're faced with right now in our country.

Wallis:

So Leana, where is the line that people are trying to draw between a full active response, legitimate concern and fear? Or as the governor Cuomo asked yesterday, between the facts and the fear? How do you counsel people in terms of how to draw that line, or how do we respond to the facts without the fear?

Wen:

I think you said a critical word there, which is fact. I believe that the best antidote to fear is the truth, that the American people, and that all people, need to hear the truth of what's happening. Part of the truth is that there is a lot that we know and a lot that we don't know. I mean, we should not forget that this is a new virus that we're dealing with, a virus that we only started knowing about just three months ago. So there is a lot that we don't yet know about it and we should be honest about what are the things that we don't know and are speculating. We make models. We can make our best predictions based on what's happened in past pandemics or for other countries that have gone through it. But there's a lot that we don't precisely know. But at the same time, you cannot just wait until certainty to take action, because then it will be far too late. And actually, if it's anything that I would say at this time, I actually don't think that the majority of people are taking this seriously enough. And I think there is … you know when I go out and I see yes, schools are closed, but people are still congregating. They're still meeting up for play dates. They're meeting up for birthday parties. Our measures, collectively as a society, are not going to work unless each of us does our part. And I think this is the time for all of us to be as selfless as possible, because your health and my health are intertwined and cannot be separated from one another.

Wallis:

It's a powerful word that you just gave us about the truth: facts. We're needing facts, but at a deeper level. Jesus said that truth is what sets us free, or the truth is what heals us or keeps us safe. You understand the importance of the faith community. We deal with seen realities like facts, but also unseen realities as well. Like, I'm asking myself right now, how do we stress hope and not fear in the midst of the facts. Hope and not fear, given the facts, that we have to take seriously?

Wen:

Jim, I love what you just said, that we should emphasize hope. And in this particular pandemic, it's critical that we stress hope, not as a strategy alone, because there are actions that need to be taken, but we need to emphasize that we are not powerless against this virus. Yes, there are a lot of things about this disease of which diseases do take their natural course, but there is a lot that each of us can do for ourselves, for our families, and for one another. And right now, right at this very moment, the most important thing that people can do is to practice social distancing. We are hearing in the news and seeing all these reports of hospitals becoming rapidly overwhelmed with patients who need hospital care, who are in dire straits and need intensive care, and we will soon get to the point that Italy and other countries have faced of not having enough beds. Well, there's something we can do about that now. We can take matters into our hands and reduce the rate of transmission of the new coronavirus in our communities. If we can prevent ourselves and our loved ones from getting sick, we can also prevent the rest of the community from spreading the disease, and that will prevent the overwhelming of our hospitals all at the same time. Now, that's a very tangible action that we can do where protecting ourselves actually protects the most vulnerable in our communities, and also protects our overall healthcare system. So, let's remember that there are concrete steps that you and I can take that may seem very simple, almost too simple. But there’s a social media campaign that some healthcare workers have started, and there is a line that almost breaks my heart, and that line is, “I stayed at work for you. Please stay at home for me.” Please, everyone, stay at home, because staying at home is what will protect you and your families, and is the tangible thing that we can do to make a difference, to show that we're in this together, that it's with everyone's collaboration and showing that spirit of solidarity that we're going to get through this crisis.

Wallis:

That's a very powerful word from health care workers who are indeed on the front lines of this battle, this war. And so, we're convening literally a conference call with a hundred faith leaders in about a half an hour. So what is your word to faith leaders, the faith community? What would help most from the faith community right now for our medical professionals? What word from us to our constituencies would most help the medical frontline workers like yourself and your colleagues?

Wen:

The people that you're speaking to are the most credible messengers for so many millions of people in this country. As the credible messengers, I hope that they will use their voice and their leadership to tell everyone about the importance of staying at home, of not going out. Look, I know that these are very difficult sacrifices that people are making, and I know that there are consequences too of being physically separated. I mean, in these times of extreme challenge, we as human beings are social creatures. We want to come together. We see the church as a place that we should come together in, and we want to be physically together with people too, but we can't physically. Although, social distancing does not mean emotional distancing, it does not mean social isolation. So I hope that the members of your community can also help us to spread the word about the importance of staying at home, the importance of practicing these physical distancing measures, but helping to keep us staying connected, whether it's through virtual services, whether it's through individual outreach, whether it's through some creative methods of using technology or increasing our spirit of volunteerism. I mean, there are many things that we need right now that I don't know that I could have anticipated even a week or two ago. For example, the fact that we are running out of blood in this country, that because of the warnings about coronavirus, people are afraid of healthcare settings and we are rapidly running out of the supply of blood. Urging people to be involved in the community, for example, donating blood or helping elderly neighbors obtain their groceries, or checking in on them, those are things that everyday individuals can do that will make a huge difference, while, at the same time, having the collective voice of your members to tell millions of people across the country the importance of staying at home, that this is not a snow day where people should be getting together in person and having kids play together, and getting together with their colleagues outside of work. All these people are making huge sacrifices and not going to school and not earning a paycheck, and we need to make that collective sacrifice together.

Wallis:

So our core message should be: We must embrace social distancing without that leading to social isolation, human isolation, or spiritual isolation.

Wen:

I really love that. And I think if you could add the part about donating blood, that would also be important too.

Wallis: Now our federal government, as we all have seen, has been very slow in responding to this crisis, and yet significant action is happening at the regional and local levels. What kind of effective actions, that you see, are being taken? How can we replicate those efforts in our own communities? And what are those signs of hope we are seeing at the regional and local levels?

Wen:

You're right that the federal government should have taken many steps. Although, I will say that it's hard to look back. It's always easier for us to act in hindsight than it is in the middle of a crisis. And I do believe it's important for us to move forward. We can't navigate from where we believe we should be, we should navigate from where we are, even if the circumstances that led to where we are were less than ideal. It's what it is. That said, we are seeing heroic efforts by federal officials and federal public health leaders, as well as local and state leaders, whom in many cases have had to take matters into their own hands. For example, in Seattle, King County, where the initial outbreaks and some of the most severe cases have been, we've seen local officials really step up and, in the absence of federal actions, say, here's what we're going to do to establish hospitals in a field. Here's what we're going to do to buy a motel and convert that to a quarantine unit. I mean, that's action that local governments are taking right now. The Governor of California has just ordered a stay-at-home, shelter-in-place order that is quite restrictive and certainly draws a lot of controversy. However, the time for that kind of bold action is now. We know that days, even hours matter in emergencies. And we are already so far behind where we should be at this point. History is going to judge us by how bold our actions are now. And I hope that members of the faith community can also help to press their local and state leaders on following the examples of these bold leaders and do the right thing, even if they are very challenging now.

Wallis:

Many of us as faith leaders, national and local, are trying to figure out how the faith factor can be essential to our public health right now. How does faith become virtual? Or even, I was thinking this morning, how does faith become viral in this crisis of a virus? How can we address the unseen things that are going to be as critical to where we come out of this, as the seen things that you're eloquently speaking to. So how do we as faith leaders, hopefully as credible messengers, how do we address people's innermost thoughts and their relationships? And you'll know what I mean by how the Matthew 25 factor, caring for the most vulnerable, is difficult now. So how do we lift up God, we would say as people of faith, but also then look around us and figure out who we can help and serve at this critical moment in ways that contribute to, and not threaten, the larger health?

Wen:

I love the way that you just framed that. I think that times of crises can be a rallying point for us. They could also pull us apart and deepen our divisions. But I have a lot of faith in the American people. I have a lot of faith in our communities that at this time, in particular with a disease like this, I mean diseases know no boundaries, but for a disease like this where my health is dependent on your health and vice versa, that protecting myself and my family will also help to protect the elderly and the most vulnerable among us. I see that as an inflection point, in a way, in our history and in our deeply divided times, to help to bring us closer together with the understanding that we are interdependent in every way already, but now more than ever because our health and our wellbeing and our futures are so intertwined with each other. And I hope that all of us can use this opportunity to come together in a way that, frankly, we have desperately needed.

Wallis: So well said. Something that you understand, I think better than most, is how do you see the personal, as you said this is so personal, the medical and the political playing out in this current public healthcare crisis – the personal, the medical, and the political?

Wen: Well, the personal and the medical are certainly deeply intertwined, because our personal health is personal to us and should be dependent on the advice that we receive from public health officials and the medical community. The political is hard to say. I mean, I really hope that of all times, this is the time to put aside partisanship because this disease doesn't care if you are Republican or Democrat, or have certain ideologies or don't. This is something that is really equal opportunity to the old, to the young, to the healthy, to the people who are not as healthy to begin with. And I just hope that we again, can come together and put aside whatever divides we may have. Because at the moment, we are facing the greatest public health crisis of our time. But whether this crisis turns into a catastrophe that will claim millions of lives in our country within a year, that will depend on the actions that each of us take right now. And those actions include, can we put aside whatever differences we may have? Can we stick to the facts? Can we tell the truth? Can we come together as a community and can we hold that solidarity and that faith among all of us?

Wallis:

That's such a powerful summary of where we are at right now. Leana, is there anything else you'd like to say to us that really unites the personal, and the social, and the medical, and the political, and how can this time bring us together in a new way? We won't be the same after this. No matter what happens, we won't be the same. So how do we act in this crisis in ways that don't further divide, as you said so well, but in fact bring us together in terms of going forward?

Wen:

This is about collective selflessness. This is about all of us putting aside whatever disagreements we may have had, because the specter of disease and illness is a leveler. It brings us all to the same place at the end of the day. It shows us how human we are. And it shows that we really are in this together. And so, I hope that everyone will heed the advice of social distancing, of keeping physically, not emotionally, or spiritually, but physically away from others for the time being, while collectively aiming to keep ourselves and our communities healthy and well.

Wallis:

Collective care, that's a powerful word. Collective care gets very personal. We're in this together, as you just said, so pastorally really, as a medical professional to all of us. I want to thank you, Leana, for this time and for your work, and for your witness and your leadership at this time for us.

Wen:

Thank you very much and thank you for your leadership and for all that you do for our country.

Wallis:

And Leana, you are in my thoughts and prayers for your delivery date, you really are.

Wen: Thank you so much I really appreciate that. And I will keep you in mind too. Take care.

Wallis: To hear more from Dr. Wen follow her on Twitter @DrLeanaWen. For news, resources and reflections about our current public health crisis visit sojo.net/coronavirus. If you appreciated this podcast, please share this episode with your family, and friends, and enemies, as Jesus called us to love them too, and what better way to love someone than to share a favorite podcast. We’re available on iTunes, Google Play or whatever you listen to for your podcasts. After you listen, don’t forget to subscribe, rate, and review and follow me on Twitter @jimwallis. Blessings to all of you during this time.