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Jon Huntsman Jr.: Only we, the people, can defeat COVID-19

Staying in the ring for round two of coronavirus will require more patience, love and charity — and a better understanding of the enemy we face.

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Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. speaks at a Hatch Center symposium on global peace and stability at The Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The COVID-19 crisis has been many things during this season of political mayhem. But above all, it’s a microscopic yet deadly biological pathogen that has kept us in its grips for almost a year. We’ve seen serious pandemics and flus in our nation’s history, but never one that was also a political pathogen, further dividing us at home and threatening our credibility as the world’s greatest super power problem solver.

It began its spread almost a year ago in the central Chinese industrial city of Wuhan. The purposeful blackout by Chinese authorities at the time was a standard authoritarian tactic for a regime bent on total control and preservation of face. And that’s a serious issue that must be dealt with in diplomatic channels. Meanwhile, what was impossible to know a year ago that should humble us all today is that this virus advanced through the defenses of the most powerful nation in world history. Our missile defense, forward deployed deterrence posture and formidable intelligence capabilities couldn’t stop it.

Maybe it’s time to see it for what it is — an attack rooted in nature, not politics. No weapons of war, economic might or vacuous press conference will alter its progression. It has settled in for as many seasons as circumstances allow. It must be respected, and above all fought with unity and purpose.

I, along with three others in my immediate family, contracted COVID-19, which was made worse by defective testing and a false negative that later became very positive. Our casual disregard for the virus ended when a young family member made multiple emergency room visits for a COVID-19 lung mass and 10-day fever spike. In Utah, hundreds have died, businesses have been destroyed, politicians have been made to look like fools and the virus may just be completing round one, which we lost in a knockout.

Having served our country in multiple national security positions over 30 years, I know an external political threat when I see one. This isn’t a premeditated bio attack by the Chinese, Russians or anybody else. This is nature striking in ways nature does — often without warning, reason or remedy. We’ve been whipped into a frenzy in response to a problem that has zero regard for political solutions, be they red or blue. Yet many continue to wait for elections or a politically brokered truce that will make it all go away.

To put things in perspective, since the last pandemic a hundred years ago, we have become the world’s economic and military super power, conquered human disease, advanced science and technology at an exponential clip, yet our weapons of war against this virus remain as rudimentary as they were in the summer of 1918 when returning GIs spread the Spanish flu throughout America. The death toll by the elections of 1920 was almost 700,000. In the throes of race riots, broad-based demonstrations and cities burning, the country opted for a reset in party and style by electing Warren Harding, who died two years into office. They were weary then as we are today.

Following the most productive century in the history of humankind, you’d think we’d be more sophisticated this time around. But our defenses remain the same — masks, distancing and responsible citizenship. Only this time, politics — abetted by the partisan sickness of social media — has crept into our circulatory system. We are failing future generations who will look back on this horrific period and wonder why science wasn’t respected over politics, why COVID-19 task forces were created to appease political needs while pushing out the voices of experts who are nearing a breaking point along with the facilities they manage.

Beyond the appalling naïveté of our political leaders stands the reality of our nation’s already deep divisions around issues of trust — namely, trust in our institutions of democratic rule and science coming from our best research centers. This is unsustainable. As a freedom-loving American, I abhor government diktats that impinge upon my constitutional rights. As a Utahn, I’m cheering for professionals in the fields of science and medicine, the best and brightest of our time, and will carefully follow their recommendations. How we balance both will determine our success.

Staying in the ring for round two of coronavirus will require more patience, love and charity— and a better understanding of the enemy we face. The United States has long been the envy of the world during times of crisis. The one indispensable nation that others look to for practical solutions. But make no mistake, our global adversaries are cheering for our failure. The COVID-19 enemy threatens to harm our hard-earned reputation unless we the people stand up and take ownership of our future … starting right here at home with this microscopic pathogen.

Jon Huntsman Jr. is the former U.S. ambassador to Russia.