As a long-time resident of our nation’s capital, I find smaller communities across our country often inspiring for the way they solve their own problems. Sometimes I wish they could school our Washington-based elites in how to find solutions to seemingly intractable problems.
Maine, as I have written before, stands out. Every morning as I peruse the newspapers, I often start with checking the Covid-19 numbers in places where I have children, grandchildren, and where I spend time. Since the Omicron variant has dominated headlines, Maine has had among the very lowest infection numbers in the country. While they struggled for a time in rural parts of the state in early fall, since Omicron Maine has been consistently cited by the data, courtesy of the New York Times, as #1 with the fewest infections per 100,000.
Much of the credit, many believe, goes to the head of the Maine CDC, Dr. Nirav Shah—a master of common sense communications and public outreach. With press conferences, sometimes several times a week, and briefings and frequent segments on Maine Calling, a Maine Public radio program, Dr. Shah recently made it his business to begin a dialogue directly with people who were unvaccinated either for reasons of ambivalence or protest. Instead of the “trust me” demands of the government and the coldly delivered pleas from some in the medical field, Shah started a meaningful person-to-person exchange with these vaccine holdouts that brimmed with empathy, as well as respect and understanding.
Indeed, some of the anti-vaxxers’ fears were not irrational. (Given the opioid crisis, one asked, why should we trust big pharma?) Shah’s approach has been widely covered in Maine, with gratitude from the public for his powers of persuasion. The story led me to wonder what would happen if more Americans stopped hurling behavior-shame on their neighbors and instead started a dialogue about what we fear and what we hope for. It’s much easier, I guess, to take a deep dive into well-entrenched positions.
How I wish that we could recruit Dr. Shah to work on humanizing a set of foreign policy problems that are currently confronting us. Shah would likely recognize that any dangerous stand-off brings with it a high degree of emotionalism on all sides. In fact, this is the foundational backdrop of many problems that cannot necessarily be handled through a mandate, or a meeting of intransigents, especially when it’s called a “negotiation.”
It is too bad that Dr. Shah is not available for diplomatic missions—I have a few in mind. But, then again, he is already serving his country magnificently in the great state of Maine.
With best wishes,