Apollo 13 is one of my favorite movies. In most action pics when things go south, it’s the manly Action Hero who steps in and fixes things. That’s fine, entertaining and all but in Apollo 13 there are no Dwayne Johnsons or Vin Diesels around. Instead, it is the mighty power of Science and Engineering that saves the day. How could I not like that?
There’s a scene in the movie, right before the culmination, when the Command Module is about to reenter the atmosphere. The situation is dire and uncertain. The astronauts might die. Everyone knows that and is gearing up for what is about to happen. You can watch the scene here.
The NASA administrator is at Mission Control getting a rundown of everything that might go wrong. He says, “This could be the worst disaster NASA has ever experienced.” But Gene Kranz, the mission Flight Director played by Ed Harris, overhears this and turns to him, leveling a defiant, “With all due respect sir, I believe this will be our finest hour.” Watch it, it’s good!
And of course he was right because this is a movie (albeit based on true events) and you can’t deliver a line like that without a dramatic payoff.
I feel like we’re in a similar situation now in this country with respect to the coronavirus pandemic. We don’t know what is going to happen. The Italians and Germans are having a rough time but the South Koreans and the Taiwanese seem to be doing much better. Our trend-lines look pretty bad right now, but we are much more sparsely populated than everywhere else so maybe that will work to our advantage. Bottom line is the experts tell us it looks bad but we just don’t know Either way, we will find out and soon.
What bothers me, and why I’m writing this, is that we seem to be descending into familiar political divisions on this. The Republicans are rightly concerned that this pandemic stuff imperils the re-election of the President. The President himself seems to understand that so he and his ideological mates are inclined to minimize the possibility of issues. The Democrats and their political operatives smell the blood in the water and are incentivized to frenzy. For what it’s worth, the stock market seems to agree with them.
But the facts will go where they will and it seems to me that We The People are in danger of missing a big unifying opportunity here.
We know a few important things by now about the COVID-19 virus (thank you scientists!)
- People with the virus can go many days (10+) without symptoms. During that time, they are contagious and maybe don’t realize it or ignore it.
- The virus can, depending on atmospheric conditions, live for multiple days on hard surfaces. Surfaces like door knobs, hand rails, counter tops and so on. Things that we all touch.
- There are populations who are at much higher risk of mortality than others. Older people and people with underlying respiratory conditions or with compromised immune systems. These people have no defense other than to not get sick. Time in an ICU can work but resources are highly limited there.
Our opportunity here – how we show everyone that this will be our Finest Hour – stems from these three facts. The goal is clear:
We need to keep these vulnerable people safe.
This should not be controversial. You may not be vulnerable yourself but I’ll bet you know and maybe love someone who is. Parents, grandparents, neighbors, friends, coworkers. Maybe that guy you see at the park. They are People and their lives are quite literally in our hands right now.
The things you need to do are simple. Hopefully you are aware of them by now: wash your hands often, don’t touch your face, cover your sneezes and coughs and reduce your interactions with other people. None of these things except possibly the last one require a great deal of sacrifice on your part. You need to practice but you can do that and you can get good at it.
But that isn’t quite enough because for it to work we all need to do these things. The math of viral propagation is relentless but we know that collective action (especially early on) makes the difference. That means we have to put whatever differences we have aside and get on board. Do it for yourself and do it for those among us who need you to do it. And if you can, invite others to do it too.
This thing might all blow over in a couple of weeks. Believe me, nobody would be happier than me if that happened, but let’s all take this seriously for the foreseeable future until the experts tell us we have things under control. If the worst predictions don’t come true then we can all laugh about it and admire our extremely clean hands.
The postscript of Apollo 13 Tom Hanks tells us that NASA classified the mission as a “successful failure” because while they didn’t achieve the mission goals, the crew survived. I’ve seen the mission commander, Jim Lovell speak and he never fails to give credit to the thousands of people that got together and worked the problems. Their collective action kept him and his crew mates alive.
I believe if we get together and do this it could truly be our Finest Hour and I don’t know, we might find out that we really can get along as a united country. Wouldn’t that be great?
Now go wash your hands! And when this is all over go find a worn out health care worker, thank them, and give em the biggest elbow bump.