Montana Standard: We have reason to be optimistic

From the Montana Standard, March 30, 2020.

There is reason to be optimistic during this overwhelming crisis.

This sensibility springs from an idea my father, Pat Williams, gave me, a principle of political leadership. He likes to say “We must remember there is a genius on every block.” What he means is we need to have confidence and trust in the people and systems that make America extraordinary, and then we’ll be okay.

Oddly enough, I watched this bit of uniquely American wisdom borne out in my personal experience in the Congo. A decade ago, I helped create an organization — Eastern Congo Initiative — in a part of the world that has experienced remarkable challenges from war to disease. Today, we employ nearly 200 professionals who help local leaders build the economy, create jobs, and make available clean water and health services to confront health challenges large and small. The work is paying off: we’ve opened markets for farmers to sell their cocoa to the chocolate company Theo and their coffee to Starbucks. We have partnered with community groups to drive down maternal and child mortality rates and seen thousands of patients at health clinics. Well-being is on the rise.

I travel to Congo frequently and I was there during the recent Ebola outbreak, a challenge that is in many ways is precedent to what we face with coronavirus. Here’s a reason for optimism: The Congo just celebrated a major milestone with the passing of an entire month without a new case of Ebola. The Congolese can beat Ebola and we can do the same with coronavirus, especially if we pay close attention to the biggest lesson from that faraway epidemic.

Citizens across Africa have beaten Ebola by beating an attitude of distrust in institutions, science and expertise.

When trust in institutions and science breaks down, the real problems begin. I was there, and I saw it happen. Early in the epidemic, many people were so suspicious of healthcare workers and their advice that they physically attacked them, real and ugly violence against modern day heroes simply trying to help.

What saved millions from that epidemic was turning that attitude around. Citizens were taught to trust and support health care workers and scientists, the people on the front lines. This sea change in attitude paid off in spectacular fashion, in specific ways that ought to give us hope today. Ebola was like coronavirus because as the epidemic began, there was a lot of faith directed toward magic-bullet solutions, that a vaccine or anti-virals would miraculously make the whole peril pass.

But front-line healthcare workers in Congo learned by doing what they do best, by taking care of patients, that small steps could help, simple matters like effective quarantine or attending to hydration, restoring fluids and electrolytes of patients. In the process, the healthcare workers taught all of us that small incremental steps from geniuses on every block reduced the death rate and saved many lives, one step at a time.

It’s the same spirit that had a father in son in Billings recently figure out how to make medical masks with a 3-D printer. We depend on front-line workers here at home to beat back our current problem, and not just healthcare workers, but pockets of genius that will overcome our current crisis bit by bit: people in local and state government taking care of us with reliable information and communication, neighbors looking out for neighbors as we stay at home, and those throughout the supply chain working tirelessly to deliver medical supplies and food.

It’s up to the rest of us to support them, trust them and give them the tools they need. And to listen to them. We’re all in this together now.

On the backside of this pandemic — because this, too, will pass — Montana will have a whole set of economic and social challenges that no one thought we’d face just two months ago. We’ll need a new generation of leadership to pull us through. We’ll need someone who will fight for Montana’s families, farmers and ranchers, and small businesses. We’ll need someone with broad experience in solving complex problems. I have worked alongside everyone from small farmers and Fortune 500 companies to solve tough problems born from crisis. I work with fierce urgency. I believe deeply in Montana’s promising future. It is why I am running for governor — and why I am asking for your support.

Whitney Williams is a sixth-generation Montanan, a businesswoman and candidate for Governor.

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