“How can I help?” Those are the words Dr. Michael Fine used to open a recent telephone interview – words that he thinks many of us should be saying.
Fine, previously the director of the Rhode Island Department of Health and now chief health strategist for the city of Central Falls, is one of the state’s foremost public-health experts. Most recently, he has been working to address the need for improved public health care in Central Falls and Pawtucket, two cities hit hard by COVID-19.
I offered a thought on the hubris that led to humans being caught off guard by something as tiny as a virus, to which Fine responded, “We’ve become narcissistic in our culture and think we’re at the top of the food chain, but how stiff-necked and haughty is that? To me, this [the pandemic] seems like kind of a message, and we either pay attention to it, or don’t, at our peril.
“I think the message is, ‘you are not in control, and if you don’t develop a little bit of humility, your problems are going to get worse.’ I mean, look at the United States – we’re in a place where we are as polarized as ever. Because we were fighting with each other, we didn’t do what we needed to slow [COVID-19’s] progression.
“If we had really kept our eye on the ball and had been one people, focused on taking care of each other, then we wouldn’t be looking at 80,000 deaths right now [as of early May] as a result of our inability to stand up to this thing together…. The question is whether we have the ability and wisdom to recognize what needs to change and how to change it. How can we have the kind of inequalities by race and culture that let some communities be slammed by this and other communities be barely touched?
“[There’s] that beautiful piece from Isaiah that we read on Yom Kippur: ‘You are not doing the fast that I desire. The fast I desire is the one where we release people from the ties that bind them. Where we feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, and heal the sick, and care for the poor.’ To me, this is the message of this, and I’m not convinced that we’re really hearing it, and that’s scary.”
Asked about the country’s current political divisions, Fine said, “This is exactly what the prophets were talking about. It’s time to change, to turn, and I don’t know what it will take, but I think that framing it as a message that we’d better pay attention to is part of that change.
“How do we get ready? How do we change? This is a plague, but there’s no guarantee it’s the only plague that’s going to hit us this year. Have we unified ourselves for the next one? There are people at the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] who are very worried that we will have an outbreak of COVID-19 and a bad flu year together.”
Speaking about the anti-vaccine movement and recent opposition to wearing protective face masks, Fine said, “There are things that are fundamental about our ability to live together; they aren’t really about individual freedoms. Sometimes you have to compromise a little on absolute individual freedom to protect the community as a whole, but will we get there? Or will we be so insistent … that we may compromise our fundamental freedom, from which all other freedoms flow?
“That fundamental freedom comes directly from our ability to function together as one people and take care of each other. I hate wearing a mask, but if I have to wear one for six months, it’s not going to kill me. To defend the greater good, that’s what we all just ought to do. I don’t know what it will take to get people on both sides feeling comfortable with each other. This is not just a conservative thing; people on the more progressive side of things don’t hear their own arrogance … it’s both sides.”
Continuing that thought, Fine said, “I think we’re better people than this and I keep hoping that we find the angels of our better nature, because most people are not like that; most people are way better than that. This is the time for all good people to come to the aid of their country – and not just their country, the aid of the human species, to stand up together and take care of each other, because that’s who we really are.”
Fine also spoke to the idea of reconciliation from a Judaic perspective. He said, “That’s what we work toward on every Yom Kippur. A little atonement goes a long way. We’re never as good at it as we want, but that’s one of the great strengths of our tradition, that it hammers at our arrogance, if we listen. The challenge is to take the moment to listen.”
MICHAEL SCHEMAILLE (email@example.com) writes for Jewish Rhode Island and the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.