If I were to propose that the Greatest Generation wasn’t really all that great, that those leading the fight during WWII didn’t know what they were doing or, worse, manipulating media messages in order to pursue some nefarious end, that the people back home didn’t care too much about our soldiers sent all around the world to fight an enemy who was hell-bent on domination … I’d catch hell from all sides.
The reason I’d find myself the target of so many people’s scorn is because such a proposition — that the men and women of the WWII generation don’t really deserve our high praise and gratitude — is simply not true. The fact is, their actions provide an enduring example that ours and future generations must not forget.
What makes the Greatest Generation so great, the reason we love hearing stories from that era, is because we claim their history as part of our own identity. That was one of America’s finest hours. It makes us proud to be Americans.
We love the fact that entire communities back then came together to support the war effort. They accepted food rationing, because what they sacrificed went to “our boys” on the front. They gladly handed over scrap metal, rubber tires, even women’s nylon stockings, because it allowed them to do their part. People grew victory gardens, they bought war bonds, they joined local civilian defense organizations. In short, they got involved because the nation, the world, needed everyone onboard.
I’ve been thinking about all of this ever since Donald Trump declared himself a “wartime president” in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is how he wants to be identified, but for the most part, American society isn’t responding to the wartime narrative as our predecessors did under FDR or Truman.
While I believe people during WWII got behind the war effort because they were inspired by the lofty words of their president and other elected officials, I also think there was something about the culture back then that simply lent itself to the can-do, we’re-all-in-this-together spirit that helped them endure sacrifice and propelled our nation to victory. So why aren’t we fighting our COVID-19 war with the same sense of communal resolve?
My thinking around all of this began to take shape when I was in the midst of an all-day text exchange with the CEO of one of my health system’s nursing homes. On that Saturday evening she sent another update about a relatively new and worrisome COVID-19 outbreak they were experiencing at the facility. The staff was starting to panic because positive test results were coming from the lab at a quicker pace than they’d ever seen since the start of the pandemic. In fact, they could count on one hand the number of positive cases they had during the entire previous five-month period of lockdown.
As I was digesting the seriousness of this problem at our nursing home, I could hear the car races that take place every Saturday night during the summer at the fairgrounds just a couple blocks from my house. To look through the fence on race night, you would get no indication that we are in the midst of a pandemic that is killing scores of people every day. Virtually no masks, no discernible social distancing.
It struck me that night just how stark the juxtaposition between these two microcosms of society really is. We have a nursing home that has followed all the rules and taken every reasonable precaution to keep their frail elderly safe from this disease. Yet the virus somehow found its way into the building and the staff is now scrambling, with little help from the outside, running to the battle instead of away from it, to keep their people safe.
We also have race night at the fairgrounds. Lots of beer and brats. Lots of laughs. Lots of carefree fun. Now I know the crowd at the races down the street from my house didn’t directly cause the outbreak at my system’s nursing home, but the general attitude we’re seeing in this country of “that’s someone else’s problem” did. To not wear a mask or commit to any other simple disease-spread mitigation practices tells the world that my own comfort and misguided sense of liberty is more important than you and your health. To congregate in places where COVID-19 can’t help but spread among the maskless, tightly packed crowds, is telling everyone that you either don’t think you’ll get it, or that you don’t care if you help spread it.
As a society, as individuals, we’ve not managed this crisis very well. The proof is in the worldwide comparative data. Yet each day, despite the fact that our inclinations tend to favor the self over the other, we have a new chance to get it right. Let’s put on a mask, let’s stay home for a little longer, let’s dig deep for a bit more sacrifice because this war cannot possibly end soon without everyone coming together and doing their part.
It’s sadly ironic that much of the illness and many of the deaths in our nursing homes are among the very people we hold up as members of that Greatest Generation. They knew how to rally around a cause and to accomplish a seemingly impossible task. As a society — one which owes them a huge debt of gratitude for preserving our nation during a time of immense vulnerability — we are letting them down.
When we should be forming an impenetrable wall of safety around them, supplying our healthcare and nursing home workers with the resources they need to have a fighting chance, to finally get this disease under control so businesses can reopen, we are acting as if it’ll all just go away on its own. It won’t. If we don’t work to make COVID-19 go away outside the nursing homes, it’ll always be finding a way inside. The difference between failure and success has everything to do with whether we wake up tomorrow, gifted with another do-over, and decide between serving ourselves or others.
Our elders need us now more than ever. They are isolated, lonely and diminishing as this pandemic continues to spread right outside their walls. COVID-19 outbreaks in nursing homes is not an eldercare problem. This one belongs to all of us. Poets, songwriters and philosophers have said for millennia that love is costly. This is our opportunity, right now, to show the very people we hold dear that we’re willing to endure a little sacrifice by putting their needs ahead of our own. It’s an act of love. It’s simply the right thing to do.
Scott McConnaha is the president and CEO of Manitowoc, WI-based Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity Sponsored Ministries. The system has two nursing homes and three hospitals located in Nebraska, Ohio and Wisconsin. McConnaha holds master’s degrees in English (University of Missouri-St. Louis) and theology (St. Louis University) and an MBA (University of Scranton). He is a fellow in the American College of Healthcare Executives and a veteran of the U.S. Army.