Commentary: Everyday heroes can be found during coronavirus crisis

By Dr. Tony Allen

Americans have a long, proud history of running toward danger when their help is needed.

Formerly enslaved African Americans of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment faced near-certain death charging Battery Wagner in 1863 because they knew the sacrifice was necessary for a people’s freedom.

Japanese Americans unjustly interned during World War II volunteered to join the 442nd (Nisei) Infantry Regiment because they believed their country’s cause was larger than the injustices their families had suffered.

On 9/11, thousands of New York City police and firefighters ran toward the burning Twin Towers rather than away from the catastrophe as prudence and common sense seemed to dictate.

When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, chefs all over the island assembled makeshift kitchens. They organized impromptu supply chains to feed millions of people left without electricity, running water, or even the rudiments of shelter.

Dr. Tony Allen

At every natural disaster, in every war, and through every crisis, as a people we have always stepped up to the challenge. As I watch the news reports of heroic doctors, nurses, and other medical staff working 90-hour shifts as not just caregivers, but also surrogate families, to the victims of COVID-19, I am always in awe of their selfless sacrifice.

And then there is everyday courage.

For most of us, our best response to the invisible and deadly virus sweeping across our nation is to think first of what we can do to protect others.

It is not often noble or heroic like first responders on the front lines every day, in the most challenging circumstances, or medical professionals we see serving every day. 

It’s small, like staying home, observing the guidelines outlined by appointed and elected officials, and doing our part to prevent the spread.

On March 12, my senior team and I concluded that the most effective action we could take to safeguard the Delaware State University community was to advise our students not to return from spring break, to take their education online, and to reduce the human footprint on campus as much as possible.

We understood that this would cause problems for students who had left clothing, textbooks, and computers in the residence halls during their vacation. Still, the public health policy implications were clear: returning thousands of students to campus was a potential—and avoidable—threat in terms of community spread.

We knew that asking those same students to transit almost instantaneously online to complete their courses was a major challenge, not just in terms of changing instructional modalities, but also with respect to emergency living situations and the technical difficulties of the moment.

We also grasped what we were about to ask our employees—both those who would have to work from home and those who would still be required to report to campus.

Both assignments entail major challenges.

For employees, primarily in Facilities and Student Affairs, who have to report to campus daily, our responsibility is to make their workplace as safe as possible. This meant engaging commercial cleaning firms to thoroughly disinfect areas suspected to be potentially contaminated, as well as being completely transparent about the status of any virus positives among our staff and small residential student population.

I understand this on a very personal level. I live on campus, and though it seems completely deserted most of the time, even I get anxious trying to make sure the team of employees needing to report to campus and 200 students still residing on campus are protected.

My everyday heroes who keep our infrastructure in running order, and care for our few remaining students, have kept faith despite their fears.

And working from home is no less a challenge in many ways, too.

The University faculty and staff sit in their kitchens or home offices for hours each day, resolutely orchestrating their classes and operations with teams and students who are also isolated in their homes around the region. It takes longer to accomplish even simple tasks, and there is a steady erosion of the boundary between work and home that everyone finds unsettling.

I see more fatigue in those faces than I have ever seen in person.

And yet they persevere – we all persevere.

They keep doing what needs to be done, just like the restaurant workers and food delivery people, the grocery store clerks, the auto mechanics, the police officers, and countless others who go out every day to do their jobs – glad that they still have a paycheck, but anxious about their safety and that of their families.

The crisis asks each of us for everyday courage, unusual restraint, and endless patience.

This pandemic requires us to have faith in each other, in our society’s ability to care for the sick, and when the time comes, to restart our economy without leaving anyone behind.

In the end, some of us will have lost the most important people in our lives. Others will have lost their jobs or nest egg investments. Still others will struggle to recover their mental stability. But as the Bible says, “this too shall pass,” and hopefully we will have learned to see the heroes in each other, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love.  And that will be what will carry us through.

Dr. Tony Allen is the President of Delaware State University, the nation’s most diverse, contemporary HBCU. Last week the University launched the COVID-19 Student Emergency Relief Fund.  If you want to learn more, visit https://www.desu.edu/studentrelief.