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NATIONAL BEDROCK: Weighing civil service over capitalism during isolation

“Oh, that’s right, he doesn’t know he works for the government,” a Facebook friend commented nearly two weeks into this COVID-19 containment. My friend previously lambasted the Center for Disease Control, citing “typical government ineptitude.” He expressed gratitude that a “real strong CEO” is in charge of managing our nation’s response. “Once this shifts to the private sector, solutions will start happening.”

These are times I’m grateful for social distancing.

That evening I went for a run, sent an actual greeting card through the U.S. Postal Service, and enjoyed Bailey’s Irish Cream cheesecake from The Harp—a local restaurant providing takeout orders.

The next morning I drove to work and meditated on the much-maligned public sector. Public sector and civil service have been fodder for late-night comedy since Her Majesty’s Civil Service Commission was set up in 1855, long before there was late-night comedy. Even so, as recently as 1940, American author John Gunther called the British civil service “the incorruptible spinal column of England.” 

In the generations of post-World War II America, we’ve let our capitalist bellies grow fat and our civil-service spinal column deteriorate. Unless one’s a Marine or Navy SEAL, public sector workers get little love.

Nearly 40 years ago Reagan said, “Government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem.” Reagan worshipers school me that Reagan wasn’t “really” anti-government; he “really” wanted to rein in excess spending and over-reliance on public solutions to personal problems. Maybe so, but post-Reagan generations used his quotable mantra to eviscerate the public sector. Clearly, financial speculators and casino CEOs motivated to maximize personal profit in an unfettered market will find solutions to long-term collective problems, ranging from major climate change to tiny strands of RNA.

I pulled into the parking lot at work, and waited for my coworkers to ask COVID-19 screening questions and let me in the public-sector healthcare facility. In a typical month, I spend my time helping people get healthier and stay calm. Lately, calm has been hard to cultivate. I’ve spent my days helping people contain coronavirus anxiety via telephone or telemedicine.

“This is W-W-M-B, your full-service public-sector healthcare facility. Next caller!”

“Doc, no offense, but you scientists don’t know anything! This plague is God’s will. How long is it gonna take these stupid scientists to find a cure, anyway?”

“Next caller, please.”

“Doc, I was in Europe after Chernobyl. All that radiation in the air. I’m scared to go outside.”

“You can’t catch COVID from the evening breeze. Unless a shelter-in-place occurs, go for a walk, get some sun, and don’t slobber on anyone. Next caller!”

“I’m sick of watching all the negative Nancy hate and American losers on TV. That malaria drug works fine. Why doesn’t that idiot Dr. Fauci stop throwing shade on the president?”

“Because you can’t out-Tweet a virus; that’s not the way science works. Looks like it’s time for a short break, and for Dr. B. to wash his hands and take a slow, calming breath.”

A little public service announcement might help, too.

Dr. Anthony Fauci is a scientist with 50 years expertise in infectious diseases—all in the public sector. If it wasn’t for COVID-19, most of us wouldn’t even care who he is. Dr. Fauci currently heads the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The building he works in doesn’t have “bigly” gold letters proclaiming “FAUCI TOWER.” Nor will any future scientist ever do their seminal research at the Fauci Casino and Center for Disease Control.

The CDC, National Institute of Health, Food and Drug Administration, Federal Aviation Administration, NASA, National Weather Service, public research universities and colleges are institutions that serve the public good. No one at the above agencies is looking to maximize quarterly profit. No president owns any above agencies. The public institutions and civil servants that work there are part of the bedrock on which entrepreneurs and speculators build their fortunes, and small business owners build their lives. They are part of the nation’s spine, not its bloated belly.

“We’re out of time for today. Please, support local businesses if you are able. Remember ‘social distancing’ does not mean ‘emotional isolation.’ Until next time, reach out to those you care about. Chest out. Spine straight. We got this, Wilmington!”

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