Guest Op-Ed: Optimism in the Face of Uncertainty

By William Brownsberger

I am fundamentally optimistic about our future because I see that most of us do understand that we are in difficult and uncertain times.  That realism is what will get us through.

I see realism in my correspondence from constituents and that realism was quantified in a recent survey I ran online to which 2,662 constituents responded.  In that sample, 95% support Massachusetts’ social distancing policies or feel we should go further and 96% expect we will take a long time to get back to normal or will have to adapt to a permanent new normal.

I am entirely convinced by the expert opinion that our policies have saved many lives. Without social distancing many more would have gotten the disease simultaneously, overwhelming our health care system.  And given the sustained plateau of high infection rates in Massachusetts, now is not the time to let up.

As clear as it is in my mind that we have the right strategy at the moment, I am completely uncertain beyond the next few weeks.  We will just have to keep looking at the facts as best we can discern them, listening to the experts to the extent they agree, and working together to make decisions.

Most of the efforts of the Commonwealth’s leaders in the public and private sectors have been devoted to solving immediate problems – growing testing operations, growing supplies of personal protective equipment, growing capacity in the hospitals to handle the surge, and providing immediate relief for the newly unemployed.  But as it now seems that we will get through the surge without a systemic breakdown, people are starting to ask questions about the future.

At this point, we have many more questions than answers.  No one knows the future course of the epidemic.  We do know that a majority of people have not yet been infected, so there is the potential for a sustained continuation of the epidemic.  Even if we get it fully under control, as it surges in different parts of the country and around the world, it will have the potential to return here.

We do not know whether people who have experienced the illness will sustain immunity.   Coronavirus disease could turn out to be like the flu but more dangerous – continuing to mutate, continuing to return seasonally with greater or lesser virulence, reinfecting people repeatedly, and defeating our scientists’ best efforts to develop a completely effective treatment or vaccination.

We have recently enjoyed a period of enormous prosperity where almost everyone was working and much of the employment was in crowded service sector venues – coffee shops, restaurants, hotels, air travel, resorts, conventions, exercise clubs. 

Even if social distancing policies are lifted, many people will continue to reduce their exposure to coronavirus.  Even when previously healthy businesses reopen, the reduced volume may make them unprofitable.  In time, new business models will emerge, but no one can see those models clearly yet.  How the continued business difficulties will ripple through the economy is another fundamental uncertainty.

On top of the scientific and economic uncertainties, we have political uncertainty.  While the federal government has stepped up significantly so far, providing enormous and necessary relief to the millions of newly unemployed people, we cannot predict how long that consensus for action will last or how far it will extend.  And those political uncertainties are replicated across the world.

In Massachusetts, we have a Governor and an administration around him that are trying to understand reality and pro-actively respond to the facts as they emerge.  I see the same realism among my colleagues in the legislature and also in the judicial branch.  I hear the same realism in most of my correspondence with constituents.  And I see a bias towards action – at all levels, most people are responding to reality and doing what they can do to solve the problems before them.

Our active realism is what gives me a lot of faith in our future.William Brownsberger is a State Senator for the State of Massachusetts.

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