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Commentary Coronavirus Government

Rep. Svarzbein: Leaders must be honest about COVID-19’s threat to El Paso

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By Peter Svarzbein

Note: City Rep. Peter Svarzbein originally made this statement at the opening of Monday’s City Council work session.

As COVID-19 spread like wildfire across American cities, I have researched what others have done in an attempt to slow the spread. The intent has never been to stop COVID-19. After all, there is no cure or vaccine available to the general population, yet.

What we have needed to rely on is the messaging of our leaders by means of reassurance and the delivering of effective community standards and regulations meant to keep our vulnerable populations safe while not overloading our medical community, and allowing time for a proper vaccine to be developed. 

In that tone, we have needed transparency, and a sense of urgency. We need to tell the truth. 

Peter Svarzbein

How leaders in a community respond is very critical in a pandemic or any emergency.  One aspect of that is how we communicate to the public.

Communication is key. Telling the truth is crucial. Statements of denial or misleading anecdotes are proving to be detrimental. 

The house is on fire, and to shout to the masses that we have enough water doesn’t change the threat the fire still poses. 

I want to read a quote from a book I read this summer called “The Great Influenza: The Story of the deadliest Pandemic in History,” by John M. Barry. The quote is about how communities responded and communicated to their citizens.

“Despite that effort, whoever held power, whether a city government or some private gathering of the locals, they generally failed to keep the community together. They failed because they lost trust. They lost trust because they lied. (San Francisco was a rare exception; its leaders told the truth, and the city responded heroically.) “

We are lying to ourselves and to the world. 

Our mayor issues conflicting statements in press conferences, saying “everything’s just fine,” which is directly contradicted minutes later by our public health authority. He undercuts everything he says when he says “we have all the aid and everything we need” on national television on “Good Morning America.” I wonder how the 25% of small business owners who the mayor uses as a talking point feel about that statement. Or the 125,000 El Pasoans being fed by our food bank every week.  

To be this much in denial and to say that “is everything is OK” is disputed by most public health experts here in El Paso and by the images we see everyday from the BBC, to the Dallas Morning News, to CNN, to the front page of our  El Paso Times; images of death and despair.

Every. Single. Day.

I urge you, don’t let us burn down the house with denial.

Our actions this week will impact the rest of this winter. Stay home. Stay safe with only your household this Thanksgiving.

Tell the truth.  

Peter Svarzbein represents District 1 on El Paso City Council and serves as mayor pro tempore.

Cover photo: Cars lined up for COVID-19 testing on the UTEP campus earlier this month. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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