OPINION: The next pandemic? It’s time for state politicians and health authorities to prepare 

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There are few entertainment experiences that outshine live theater.  The Quincy Community Theatre again proved this with its superb production of RENT and outstanding performances by Trey Ehrhart, Lance Frederick and other cast members.

I saw RENT on Broadway years ago in the throes of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  The medical progress in confronting HIV/AIDS has been remarkable.  It no longer is a death sentence.  

As I attended the Quincy Community Theatre’s performance of RENT, I couldn’t help but remember 13-year-old Ryan White, a hemophiliac, who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984 after a blood transfusion.  Ryan gained national attention in his struggle to attend school.  He died in 1990, a month before what was to be his high school graduation.  

Local schools had to deal with the challenge of AIDS as well and did.

Panic and Fear

The fear and panic that engulfed our schools over AIDS was eclipsed by the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  As then, science provided very little immediate and consistent guidance.  Worse in the recent pandemic was that “the science” didn’t appear to have always been reliable and misinformation – sometimes intentional – ran amuck.  

There are differences of opinion, of course, but local officials seemed to have dealt with the challenge of COVID-19 consistent with their authority as well if not better than most.  Even so, the lack of thoughtful leadership and arbitrary dictates at the state level did little to help and did a great deal of harm.  This is especially the case in our schools.  Students who lived through this may never fully recover from the impact of COVID-19.

Despite the sadness with which one might experience RENT, there is the overriding lesson that “community” is everything.  The official response to COVID-19 ripped apart communities and friends.  Resulting litigation became a cottage industry and some public boards even experienced fist-to-cuffs.  Could this have been avoided?  One would have hoped so.   

The governor issued proclamation after proclamation.  Some 38 months after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, the governor’s COVID-19 proclamations are to end May 11, 2023. That, presumably, marks an official end of the COVID-19 pandemic in Illinois.  It’s time to prepare for the next pandemic or health emergency.

Show some leadership

We can, perhaps, provide our politicians and health authorities a bit of slack despite some political gamesmanship especially on the national level.  But no more!

We can be rather certain that there will other pandemics and health emergencies.  A recent report identified several diseases that keep epidemiologists up at night.

The question is when and whether state politicians, primarily the Governor, will show leadership in planning on how to deal with the next pandemic or health emergency thoughtfully and appropriately?  

The governor should appoint a diverse and independent panel to review the state’s actions – including the governor’s own – during the pandemic and our preparedness for the next pandemic.  That pandemic will come.

Some issues to consider

The issues are many.  Just a few:

How do we restore trust and confidence in our political and health authorities during pandemic and health emergencies?

Do we have a coordinated health and safety preparedness system at the local, regional, state and federal levels to confront pandemics and health emergencies?

Are our health care systems and their supply chains ready and equipped to deal with the next pandemic or health emergency?

How do we provide consistent messaging on dealing with a pandemic or health emergency?

Should the governor be entitled to serially issue proclamations without General Assembly or other authorization?

Was the General Assembly AWOL during the pandemic?

Should local or regional authorities have greater leeway in confronting pandemic or health situations rather than impose state-wide dictates?

Should school authorities have more discretion in keeping schools opened?  Or closed?

What authority and procedures apply where school authorities wish to impose health or safety measures (e.g., vaccinations, masking, etc.) to address a pandemic and health emergency or to allow individual waivers of those measures?

What rights do employees, students and others have to decline health or safety measures adopted by school authorities?

Should collective bargaining apply with respect to health or safety measures?

What is the impact of such laws as the Heath Care Right of Conscience Act?

Do we have the technological and other infrastructure in place to provide remote educational opportunities and public services?

How do we serve and protect the most vulnerable during pandemics or health emergencies?

What emergency funding is available to public institutions during pandemics?

Is any legislation or revisions to statutes or regulations needed?

And this is just a start ….

We will see

With the governor’s proclamations coming to an end, let’s see what he or the General Assembly will do.  Hopefully, the governor or the General Assembly will show the leadership we deserve. 

Let’s restore our communities.  

Jim Rapp has been practicing law for nearly 50 years and has been published and speaks extensively on estate planning, business, education law, civil rights and other legal matters. He is a founding partner of Muddy River News LLC.

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