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Tent erected at UNC Hospital in preparation for COVID-19 patients. Brian Keyes, The Daily Tar Heel, March 19, 2020.
Charles Kurzman, “Thank You, Civil Society,” March 23, 2020.

As COVID-19 spread around the world, countless organizations have had to make wrenching decisions. How should they prepare for the inevitable arrival of the virus? How should they balance health concerns and their organizational mission? How could they reconfigure themselves to maintain some aspects of their operations?

Members of these organizations spent long days and nights thinking through options, developing plans, keeping stakeholders informed, then starting over the next day based on updated information. In this moment of vulnerability and anxiety, it is heartwarming to see civil society roar into action.

In a decentralized system such as the United States’ that leans heavily on nongovernmental and local institutions, the mobilization of civil society – however chaotic-seeming and inconsistent – is the result of thousands of groups taking their responsibilities seriously.

In my neighborhood, for example, highly responsible people created a buddy system for households who may need help getting groceries and prescriptions. Our public schools, along with volunteers and religious groups, established a delivery network for families who rely on school lunches.

At the university where I work, a crisis group convened to figure out how to protect tens of thousands of students, staff, and community members, while continuing our teaching, research, and service to the extent that we can perform these roles safely. The university consulted with our campus experts on infectious disease – it helps to have some of the world’s foremost experts on staff – and worked with our technology offices to prepare for online operations on a far greater scale than we have ever attempted.

When the virus appeared in our state, the university extended spring break to give instructors an extra week to take their courses online. When the virus appeared in our county, the university reduced in-person operations to essentials. By the time the virus appeared on campus, the university hospitals had procedures in place to provide state-of-the-art treatment while minimizing the risk of further infection.

Some organizations responded to the crisis more quickly; some have moved more gradually. I have no way to evaluate the wisdom of each step along the way, but I know how much effort and care went into wrestling with these decisions every day, and I want to say how much I appreciate it.

In more centralized countries, a single national leader makes decisions and local institutions implement them. That has never been the case in the United States, even in national emergencies. For all its massive power, the federal government has always relied on non-governmental partners, as well as state and local governments. The United States does not have a national blood bank, for example – the main institutions for donating and distributing blood are independent nonprofits. Health insurance is handled primarily by private organizations, many of them for-profit businesses; so are ambulances and emergency rooms and much of the health-care and medical-supply system.

Even a responsible White House would have had difficulty coordinating all of these organizations.

The American system is designed to be self-coordinating, with all the messiness that that entails. Sometimes the messiness is totally worth it – autonomy and variety and experimentation can be empowering and effective. Sometimes the messiness seems like a bad deal – perhaps food security, for example, should be a national guarantee, instead of relying on charity to provide basic needs. When this moment of crisis passes, we may want to re-think the balance between do-it-yourself social welfare and nationally guaranteed subsistence.

In the meantime — thank you, civil society. You are amazing.