Dearest Earth,

We who are about to die sure will miss you. Many of us are senior citizens and some of us middle-aged: doctors and nurses treating the sick included. Most of us live in our favourite city, and many of us live in rural areas where geography marks our place in the world: whether beside the ocean, in the mountains, on the prairie, down a valley, across a lake, or amidst a forest. Think of us now, as we spend our last days listening to the brave migrating birds above the din of CNN; soon we will follow. Some of us were proud to serve as your leaders, your teachers, your warriors, your lawyers, your farmers, and your workers. Some of us wait incredibly vulnerable right now, having dementia, being homeless, already dealing with illness, or living on a reservation. We want you to know we will miss the warm feeling of dawn, and the glow of sunset. Please remember that we love you, and are loved by you.

We who are about to die ask you how you will walk one year from now. With head held high? Or looking down in shame? Right now many messages encourage people to feel afraid and keep themselves safe; during our long lives we have learned this is a sure recipe for the latter.

We who are about to die want to remind you of your trust, lest you forget. Many of us grew up in a time when cooperation and service meant something, in the depression and in the war. We valued things like prudence, humility, sacrifice, dedication, discipline, valour, and honour – and we were tough as nails. Surviving and winning meant we all agreed on a common goal and everyone cooperated together to achieve it, no matter how painful it was. These concepts have now become important again. During the war we admired our soldiers, pilots, sailors, nurses, factory workers, and leaders – like we admire our front-line health care workers today. We already carry the qualities needed to stop this new blitzkrieg; snap out of your shock and dig deep. We who are about to die thought we would have 10 more, or 20 more, or 30 more, or 40 more years of life ahead of us that we had earned; so news media, please stop showing shelves empty of toilet paper and people out for a jog or bike ride. Instead record and broadcast some interesting farm stories, military stories, herstories, firefighting stories, mountain stories, Indigenous stories, adventure stories, family stories, hazardous-work stories, and all kinds of stories – before they lie beyond reach. Show our faces, broadcast our voices, let people see who we are and who we were; let people see who they are fighting for.

The government and media are currently trying to shame us as individuals. Have broadcasts ever convinced millions of people to act precisely?  How will broadcasting decrees work, exactly, for a whole year before a vaccine becomes available

– especially when our young exist mainly on their phones?  We old folks have some wisdom to share, which is now an old- fashioned idea. Leadership. The concept is simple enough: far easier to hold a few leaders responsible and accountable than millions of individuals. Leaders’ actions take place in public, and should set an example to follow. Leaders’ voices get heard, and can give people instructions, discipline, and encouragement. The true leaders in our midst enable us to achieve a common goal.

My university announced “our goal is ensuring that the business of the university continues and the successful completion of the semester occurs, all while protecting the health and safety of our campus community.” What about us, who are about to die? Especially those of us who shouldn’t, or don’t have to, die? Maybe that message sets a poor example and gives unhelpful guidance to our tens of thousands of invincible-feeling millennials. Why isn’t everyone’s very specific goal at the moment to prevent unnecessary deaths by trying to prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed?

Where are the leaders? A business owner qualifies as a leader. Every corporation designates its leader. Each of our schools

gets run by a leader.  Every organization uses a leader, and designates a leader within every department.  Politicians serve as leaders.  We look to clergy as leaders.  And people naturally respect some prominent individuals in our community. Our leaders need to practice dedication and selflessness in public right now. They need to articulate our greater goal, and give clear instructions. The need to inspire and motivate people. Have you been watching NY Governor Andrew Cuomo on TV? Right now, most are doing none of those things. Why would they? People let them off the hook using rationalizations, refusing to expect much of them by imagining they must be constrained somehow. But we all can expect things of them. If we all insist. Helpful things. Great things. That’s fair game. Totally within the rules. Leaders need to say the obvious, “Remember we are all working together to save lives.” Leaders should display assertiveness, “Let’s make sure those hospitals don’t get overrun, people.” Leaders gain credibility through showing vulnerability, “I’m not only worried about my parents dying, I’m scared about my own safety too. But I’m still going to do what’s right.” Leaders can talk bossy, “Save lives by acting like you already have the virus, and are making sure not to spread it.” Leaders of schools need to remind our youth that seniors include their grandparents, that they will be seniors too someday, that seniors built almost all they see around them, and that they will dearly miss us.  Leaders must explain to their people that if the hospitals get overwhelmed the “seniors” dying will be their family members, their teachers, their bosses, their co-workers, and their friends – and that will hurt. We all need real leaders right now. And it’s relatively easy to exhort a few leaders, demanding they step up and get with the program … and then remind millions of individuals to simply shine their own light.

The torch; be yours to hold it high, but if ye break faith with us who die…

Chris Macnab
Associate Professor
Schulich School of Engineering
University of Calgary

Chris especially remembers playing marbles with kids at Glenbrook Elementary School in southwest Calgary, enjoying wrestling with Stonys at Exshaw Elementary School, childhood vacations in Wetaskiwin, coaching youth soccer in St. Paul, lecturing about feedback loops at the University of Alberta, learning engineering ethics from students’ wonderful essays at the University of Calgary, and feeding the homeless in downtown Calgary (photo). She especially worries about her mom, who she is currently hibernating with in Invermere.

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