At some point, we will all look back on this time and think about how we got through it. At that time, people will also assess what was done right and what wasn’t. (The lying and finger-pointing will begin again.) Whether we are at the end of the beginning or the beginning of the middle of the crisis is anybody’s guess, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the virus and not politics will define the timetable. And that timetable looks to be longer than what anyone had hoped for.
If you look at what has happened to date in different jurisdictions, and you are giving out grades, the government of the Virgin Islands has done a lot of things right. Given the “uncharted waters” that we are in, it will be impossible to find any decision maker who hasn’t made mistakes. But the territory’s leaders appear to have come close to threading the needle and finding the right balance in making their decisions. B+/A-, in a class with a lot of C’s and D’s.
When we do get to the “looking back” and “what did we learn” phase, there are going to be a lot of lessons learned from mistakes that were made. That is the nature of a situation with all kinds of unknowns, unpredictable and huge – impossible to evaluate – trade-offs. While every leader in the world will have made mistakes, those who acted quickly and decisively and followed the facts as they were known will be seen to have done the best.
A couple of months into the crisis, nobody knows how this will end. But we do know something for certain: it has exposed all of the fault lines and inequities in our culture, whether it is our enormous inequality, the decades-long decay of government at every level, the steep price of corruption or the ways in which profound mistrust cripples the chances for meaningful action.
In some – not all – ways, the territory has escaped the worst of these trends. But there is enough substance anywhere in our country to ask a basic question, one that should probably be asked in every jurisdiction in the world. The question: After this has passed, do we really want to go back to the way that things were? What follows is a suggestion. It is based on an assumption that the correct answer to that question – and one that majorities of people would give – is a resounding “No!” We don’t want to go back to the way things were.
If we look at history, there is a universal condition that creates the possibility for important, sometimes fundamental change in societies. That change can be either positive or destructive and evil. The responses to the Great Depression included both the New Deal/Social Security and the rise of Hitler. In times like these, basic systems, institutions and beliefs have been shaken, destabilized or discredited, and real change is possible at the global, national and local levels.
In this – what we hope is – unusual time, we have the opportunity to ask – and answer – some other, clearly related, fundamental questions, for example:
– How do we build healthy communities in the Virgin Islands? Beyond health insurance and “health care,” how do we change in ways that will make the large majority of Virgin Islanders – of all ages and groups – healthy people?
– How do we change diet to dramatically reduce chronic illnesses? How do we become a model of physical fitness across all groups? How do we drastically reduce levels of violence? How do we effectively meet the mental health needs of all of the territory’s citizens? The interesting thing about these questions is that we know the answers to all of them. There is no magical thinking or pie-in-the sky here. In some ways all we have to do is look to a healthier past.
– How does the territory best prepare for the multiple challenges of climate change, and how does it make those preparations part of a robust economic model for the future? How does the Virgin Islands move toward a future as a circular economy, a primary measure of success being the disappearance of landfills, along with being seen as a model for a small economy?
– How does the Virgin Islands transform itself into a model for the use of renewable energy?
What should the Virgin Islands be seen as being “the best” at? Whatever it is, there should be a conscious decision to build something that will make the territory a highly visible model, a magnet for investment and talent, and an engine for the jobs of the future.
– The old saying (pre-Trump) is “When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s hard to remember that you came to drain the swamp.” Without getting sidetracked into a discussion of the need for swamps and wetlands, the saying is accurate; but there is an underlying premise that isn’t accurate. The absolute best time to plan basic changes is when you are up to your ass in alligators.
Here is a suggestion: The governor or some other leadership group should appoint a strong team, the Leadership Group for the Territory’s Future, to produce plans – hard, reality grounded plans, not wish lists – that answers these questions and lay out a vision for a better future, a vision of a Virgin Islands that has taken concrete action and made sustainable changes.
A few further suggestions: This group should not be called a “task force.” It should be given analytic, hard planning and implementation responsibilities. It should not be seen as another honorary title on a resume and should not be made up of the usual suspects. Instead it should consist of working groups of recognized authorities, decision-makers and also include the pool of next generation young talent that represents the territory’s future.
In the midst of the crisis, opportunity knocks.