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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

Will virus drive politics to the backseat?

Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/nito100

It’s hard to concentrate on politics when the world’s coming to an end.

It’s kind of wonderful — in an awful way.

Instead of scouring the national news about President Donald Trump’s latest or the Democratic primary, we now look closer to home: How many new cases? Do we have enough Tylenol? When are our schools going to close? How long will they close?

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s unforeseen judo move after South Carolina is helping put the primary to bed, but more than that seems to be going on; it’s as though we don’t have room for another big story right now, so let’s just give it to Joe and be done with it.

Fine with me.

Politics is always there, of course, but the coronavirus is more interesting and urgent. No news story in the past four years can claim the same. In that, we have been given a ghastly reprieve. The question is: What will we do with it?

Thinking locally is our obvious priority — looking after our families, our neighbors and our communities — old-fashioned stuff we can view as an opportunity if we so choose. Watching out for one another, after all, is what truly makes America great, even when we do it sans handshakes and at a distance of 10 feet.

Elected leaders in Washington and Albany will do most everything they’re supposed to do, however imperfectly, to meet the unfolding medical and economic crisis, but the onus is on us and in the small, everyday decisions we make. Do we dismiss familiar symptoms as a seasonal cold and head to the movies, or do we skip theaters for a while just to be sure? Do we check in on that 70-plus-year-old neighbor, or roll over and push the thought from our minds?

Hysteria is another thing we need to look out for. But that doesn’t mean we should stop being logical. When there’s an untreatable virus in the wild killing more than 10 percent of senior citizens who catch it, it’s foolish to laugh it off. A coronavirus barely causing sniffles in a teenager may prove deadly to his or her grandparents. That’s real.

What we can’t do is turn on one another, and that’s where we should keep a razor-sharp eye on our politicians. In everything they do coronavirus-related we should ask, “Is this geared toward solving the problem or is it an attempt to lay blame on someone else and politicize it?”

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo did both this week, for example. His decision to manufacture hand sanitizer in New York prisons was creative and practical. Inferring that the federal government’s response up until now would be President Trump’s “Katrina” was politics at its worst. The same should be said of many of Trump’s recent statements. Political calculation in a time of genuine crisis should be beneath us.

The truth is that the end of the world is not coming. But we do have an enormous health and confidence challenge before us to be met. We must do it with dignity.

It’s time to work together.

William F.B. O'Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.