Mitch Daniels: Scraps of good news amid coronavirus concerns

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After days of worrying over and grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, can a person be forgiven for a moment of groping for a bright side? Granted, facing almost certainly the worst societal threat of this century, even Ronald Reagan’s apocryphal young optimist would have to shovel awfully deep to find his pony. But can we permit ourselves to try, just briefly?

Might the family meal make a slight resurgence? A YouGov survey in October found that 44% of Americans eat together fewer than four times a week, and 10% do so only on special occasions. Maybe a little extra togetherness could ensue. “Social distancing” doesn’t mean families eating in separate rooms.

Across the economy, private and not-for-profit enterprises are going to discover which works of theirs, and which expenditures, are really essential. Much of the travel canceled this year will prove in retrospect to have caused no damage by not happening. In higher education, the sector I inhabit, it’s the season for academic conferences. One sarcastic friend labeled them “the leisure of the theory class.” Many are clearly vital, but reading over some of the agendas, it’s clear he has a point.

I have never seen a business that has eliminated all nonproductive spending, but higher education needs house cleaning more than most. The role of bloated administration in pushing up tuitions and student indebtedness has been documented for years, but too many schools have yet to act on the problem.

The next few months will expose many functions that make little or no contribution to the core mission of thousands of the nation’s businesses. In higher education, that mission is teaching and research. Maybe some of the frills will come out and not be replaced in the aftermath of the pandemic. Meanwhile, businesses of all kinds, ours included, will come out of this knowing a lot more about telecommuting and telemedicine than we do now.

The forced shift to remote delivery of education should provide some long-term benefit. Very little of the course work on the scale now required will be of the quality that is feasible online; think PowerPoints and audio-only lectures, not streaming video and an almost-classroom experience. Most schools have procrastinated in creating such offerings and will only just now be developing them. COVID-19 should accelerate a future of more flexible, affordable offerings to students, and more rapid progress to degrees, when normalcy returns.

Pharmacy students administer flu shots to Purdue President Mitch Daniels and then-Interim Provost Jay Akridge in 2017. During his time as governor and then at Purdue, Daniels has been photographed getting a flu shot to encourage others to do the same. (Photo courtesy of Purdue University)

I’ll wager that the next flu season, or whenever we return to epidemiological normalcy, will be measurably moderated. Each year, I roll up my sleeve for the annual “Everybody get your flu shot” publicity photo, knowing that only about half my Purdue co-workers will take me up on it.

Next year, I’m sure we will see a much higher compliance rate, not to mention a far greater level of hand-washing, elbow-bumping and cough-covering.

Among the most prescient books of recent decades one must include John M. Barry’s 2005 book “The Great Influenza,” a history of the misnamed Spanish flu a century ago. Warning that “the clock is ticking, we just don’t know what time it is,” the author recommended a variety of preparatory measures that could have been taken over the past two decades in recognition that an event like this was likely. We will take those measures now.

And the book reminds us poignantly of a reason to feel slightly better about today’s nightmare, which has reserved its greatest lethality for us elderly types. In a phenomenon not understood to this day, the 1918 epidemic visited some of its worst effects on young people. Worldwide, tens of millions of young lives, with incalculable future promise, were snuffed out. One needn’t traffic in the bloodless arithmetic of QALYs (quality-adjusted life years) to be a bit grateful that the danger this time seems to be the reverse of that tragedy.

For those of us troubled by today’s tribalism, it’s been common to imagine that a good old-fashioned crisis, something of external origin affecting us all, might bring the nation together. One wouldn’t know it from the hair-trigger partisanship of our Washington leaders, but elsewhere there are signs of unity and voluntarism and communitarian caring.

That about does it in the desperate search for good-news scraps. No, wait. I forgot a big one. Someone finally found a way to shorten the interminable, almost meaningless NBA regular season. (Of course, I’m not sure why suspension was necessary; most teams play social-distance defense until the playoffs start, anyhow.)

Enough scrounging for upsides. As comedian George Carlin reminded us, “Outside every silver lining, there’s a dark cloud.” Time to refocus on the grim realities, and the tasks at hand. Maybe we can talk about it at the dinner table.•


Daniels, a Washington Post contributing columnist, is president of Purdue University and a former Indiana governor.

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