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A Call for Leadership: Building Hope, Expectations and Delivery during a Pandemic

April 19, 2020


“Out in the farm country, anyone connected to liquidation lived in fear of being lynched. A Kansas lawyer who handled a foreclosure was found dead in a field. An Iowa judge was dragged from the bench, stripped and beaten. Soon, spiked telephone poles and logs blocked the entrance to Iowa cities. Armed farmers gathered at foreclosure auctions to threaten the lives of bidders, ready to buy their neighbors’ possessions for a dollar or two, then give them back to their original owners. But with foreclosure so widespread, it was getting harder to feel so generous.” (The Defining Moment, Jonathan Alter )

Dateline: early 1933

Very, very few people would remember this catastrophe, the early years of the Great Depression. Indeed, they would now be around 100 years of age.

Although the world has seen numerous recessions, stock market crashes, high inflation and high unemployment simultaneously, and the recent Great Recession, the Great Pandemic of 2020 will go down in history as a calamitous event. We’re still very early in the process, being spring, with huge uncertainty as to when the novel corona virus (Covid-19) will be contained (and ended with an eventual vaccine) and economic life can be resumed.

National governments, along with their central banks, are throwing all their economic firepower at the problem. But it’s far too soon to say with any reasonable certainty how successful they will be in such areas as stemming small business failures and consumer bankruptcies; maintaining stock and bond markets stability; preventing regional bank failures; keeping large corporations financially viable; and ensuring municipal and state governments’ fiscal integrity. (Above photo: Brooklyn unemployment office)

Enter the human side of the pandemic, with those working in the mental health already sounding the alarm. We’ve only been social distancing for just over a month. The rapid escalation in unemployment is only recent, a portend to future serious problems. Psychiatrists are warning of what’s being called a mental health pandemic. PTSD is emerging as a huge problem: from nurses and doctors to police officers to paramedics to those who lost family members and weren’t able to be with them when they died to those confined to their residences but with no social supports.

The economic and healthcare costs of the pandemic can be roughly quantified. The human and socials costs cannot.

Not long after Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the presidency on March 4, 1933, he realized that two big problems were the debilitating effects of unemployment and looming social unrest, notably among males. In what is still recognized as the greatest public relief project devised, planned and executed in U.S. history, FDR launched the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

FDR faced a national unemployment rate of around 25% (double to triple that in certain industrial sectors and age groups), a GDP that had fallen 15% since 1929, a plunge of 60% in crop prices, and a devastating drought in the Midwest. Having hundreds of thousands of unemployed males, who were growing impatient and angry because they couldn’t feed their families and pay the rent, was a recipe for disaster.


On April 7, 1933, only 34 days into his administration, the first members of the Corps were enlisted. The CCC lasted for nine years until1942 when the U.S. Congress voted to end it in order to deploy resources to the Armed Forces. The CCC employed 300,000 men annually, for a total of three million during its lifetime. Consider that the population of the United States in the mid 1930s was a mere 125 million in contrast to 2020 of 337 million. Extrapolating from the CCC, today that would amount to about 770,000 people (women and men) annually working towards the betterment of America. (Above photo: CCC workers)

People don’t want handouts; they want to contribute to their communities and country. The country’s deteriorating infrastructure would welcome a 21st Century CCC.

Of note, the product of the CCC’s conservation and construction efforts are still seen today throughout America in its parks and dams. Three billion trees were planted; 800 state parks created; 20 million acres protected from erosion; and 125,000 miles of trails cleared (including the first ski trails in Stowe, Vermont).

And of significance during the program’s life, FDR mandated that the money earned by the men (yes, it was the 1930s) had to go to their wives and children back home. Spending money on gambling and drinking wasn’t on FDR’s agenda.

With Roosevelt in the White House, Americans were feeling a little better than the week before but still confused….The country, as W. A. Scheaffer of the Sheaffer Pen Co. cabled his friend Ray Moley, had come to a “standstill.” [Sheaffer] was not sure how he could hold out a week or ten days. His business needed legislation now. The crisis upended the personal lives of everyone, even the Roosevelts. Eleanor fretted that the family had no cash to settle the large tab at the Mayflower Hotel. Franklin told her not to worry about it. (The Defining Moment)

Unfortunately, leaders such as Franklin Roosevelt are in short supply in today’s political world, if even one exists. The current inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is not a visionary thinker, let alone a capable high level manager of executing a nation-wide public relief project.

This is a pity. And as for my own country, Canada, it too suffers from a lack of prime ministerial visionary leadership. 

What the coming months, year and beyond hold for our collective socio-economic and mental health well-being is anyone’s guess. But it’s pretty clear that an incremental approach, one based on week-by-week speculations by experts and politicians is not overly desirable. The biology aspect of the pandemic, and accompanying medical-healthcare responses, obviously requires treatment methodologies, a vaccine in a year or so (plus its deployment time), and much better data on which to base decisions (eg, social distancing, the resumption of school and business).

It’s the economic-business side of the pandemic that this leadership post has focused, but on a larger and longer-term perspective. Bold, visionary, decisive leadership is needed NOW to address the massive increase in unemployed people and cascading small business failures. And even as restrictions are slowly eased up in the coming months so that businesses may resume operations (for those that haven’t folded) many people will remain unemployed, their dignity and self-esteem usurped by visionless politicians.

Or do governments wait for what American philanthropist Nick Hanauer has warned, “the pitchforks are coming.”

Take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly, and try another. But by all means, try something.— Franklin D. Roosevelt

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