Cleaveland: A swan song of confluence of calamities

Dr. Cliff Cleaveland / Staff file photo

Editor's note: This is Clif Cleaveland's last column.

In a 1947 address to the House of Commons, Winston Churchill stated: "Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried, in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried."

In this, its 244th year, our democracy has been uniquely stressed by major, simultaneous calamities.

The year began with the U.S. Senate taking up two articles of impeachment against President Trump. The House of Representatives had approved the articles on a largely party-line vote (230 to 197, with one vote "present") on Dec. 18, 2019. The Senate trial, over which Chief Justice John Roberts presided, began on Jan. 16 and ended on Feb. 5 with a party-line vote to acquit the president. This sequence of events was quickly displaced by a novel virus, SARS-CoV-2, which would soon disrupt the world's health and economy.

In December 2019, an outbreak of pneumonia of unknown origin occurred in Wuhan, China. The World Health Organization was notified. WHO initiated its emergency response plan and alerted scientific and public health agencies around the world.

The virus generated a pandemic, labeled COVID-19. The first U.S. case was identified Jan. 15 in an American traveler returning from Wuhan. By mid-December, an estimated 76.1 million people had been infected worldwide with 1.7 million deaths. The U.S. accounted for 17.6 million cases and 315,000 deaths. Many survivors suffered persistent, disabling symptoms.

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“Since 2004, the Chattanooga Times Free Press has given me the privilege of putting my thoughts into print. I am grateful to my editors and to my readers. I wish you Godspeed.” — Clif Cleaveland

Despite U.S. leadership in research, epidemiology and clinical medicine, White House briefings often dispensed erroneous information based upon questionable advice from people with little experience in viral diseases. A national mask mandate was never issued. Public health recommendations were largely left up to individual states. Some instituted public health restrictions. Many did not.

Vaccines are in the pipeline, which can end the pandemic over coming months, if effective plans for distribution can be implemented.

A surge in racial violence accompanied the pandemic. On Feb. 23, Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed, 25-year-old Black male jogger was chased and gunned down near Brunswick, Georgia, by three white men. The case attracted little attention for months until a video of the chase was released. On March 13, Breonna Taylor, a 26 year-old Black woman, was shot to death by policemen executing a no-knock search of her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky.

On May 25, in Minneapolis, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man was killed by a white policeman who knelt on his neck for nine minutes, ignoring the victim's pleas, "I can't breathe." Three policemen stood by and did not intervene. The widely viewed video triggered urban riots and launched a "Black Lives Matter" campaign. Other instances of violence against Black males followed. Protests and counter-protests rocked many cities. Mixed messages came from the president in response to the violence.

The presidential election on Nov. 3 led to a decisive victory in both popular vote (7 million vote margin) and Electoral College vote (306 to 232 margin) for the Democratic ticket of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. The president and a majority of Republican senators and representatives have refused to recognize the victory, alleging fraud in voting in so-called battleground states.

A raging pandemic that is devastating lives and the economy, increasing racial violence and the abdication of presidential leadership have placed new strains on our democracy. As citizens, you and I are shareholders in this on-going experiment in self-governance. We have the obligation to speak up forcefully and demand better of our elected representatives.

Contact Clif Cleaveland at