In the hierarchy of heroism we typically see soldiers, athletes, astronauts, political and social justice leaders at the top–the Alvin Yorks and Roosevelts, the Gagarins, Mother Theresas and Michael Jordans, each name its own pantheon. You have all kinds, and nothing should take away from any of them. Heroism isn’t a zero-sum game. But the headline-grabbers can sometimes overshadow the best of them, if saving lives is the ultimate heroic act.
Think of Jonas Salk and Dr. Albert Sabin. Hardly household names. But 60 years ago polio was still an annual summer killer, infecting children, paralyzing them (among them FDR) and killing thousands, until Salk and Sabin each discovered a vaccine in 1955. Polio has been all but wiped out in one of the greatest achievements of public health in history, anti-vaxxers notwithstanding. Think of Christian Bernard, who pioneered heart transplants in 1967 with a surgery that has since saved millions of lives. Or think of Norman Borlaug. He is by far the single greatest hero of the 20th century, though his name is somehow less familiar to most Americans than the ninth hitter in the Tampa Bay Rays’ lineup.
Borlaug is the Iowa native and pioneer of the Green Revolution, his innovations exponentially increasing agricultural yields and wiping out hunger for billions. Schindler to the world, no other man can claim to have saved a billion lives. He can, though he was never boastful. (He died in 2009). Bill and Melinda Gates aren’t too far behind with their work to eradicate malaria (their initiatives have reduced what used to be a million deaths a year by half).
Of course there are heroes like that all over the place. One of the better side effects of the coronavirus pandemic is the recognition that the nameless in everyday professions and trades, from physicians to nurses to teachers to bus drivers to cooks to delivery people to government workers at so many levels are all heroes finally recognized, after being taken for granted for so long. They don’t grab headlines, but they save lives, and minds. Our hyper-militarized society has tended blindly to worship anything in uniform, as if they alone risk their lives, a dangerous adulation in any society that pretends to be democratic and free (and the precursor, from Rome’s republic onward, to that society’s democratic downfall). The pandemic is teaching us the wages of valor. It is teaching us to what extent heroism can be wrongly confused with celebrity or ritualized veneration of the wrong stripes.
Which brings me to Dr. Stephen Bickel and Bob Snyder. Until this year, until this week really, I doubt there were more people in Flagler County who knew these two by name than knew of Borlaug. But if there was a local Nobel prize for humanitarianism, these two would be sharing it in 2020 in Flagler County. They have done on this county’s scale what bigger-named heroes have done on large scales. They have saved countless lives, and not just with the coronavirus. Bickel is the medical director at the Flagler Health Department and a pillar behind the Free Clinic. Snyder is the department’s director. Together, along with Jonathan Lord, the emergency management chief at the county, they’ve been the architects of Flagler’s response to the pandemic.
It hasn’t been easy for them. They’re 21st century scientists in a politically medieval county, some of whose politicians think pandering to Facebook idiocy and their own egos trumps science. But to the extent that they could, Snyder and Bickel pushed through testing and masking and surveillance strategies that somehow managed to keep Flagler’s infection rate the lowest in the state. The numbers are still terrible of course: compared to countries that have successfully contained the virus, Flagler is still a disaster zone. (Its rate of cases per 100,000 in the past seven days alone is worse than that of all but 11 countries in the world, and way worse than the U.S. average). But that’s because Florida is a disaster zone, because its governor is as reckless a know-nothing in science as the president he pimps for.
That’s the surrounding catastrophe Bickel and Snyder have been up against. That’s what they’ve managed to contain. You can only do so much when your Fort Sumter is surrounded by fanatics eager to get on with their Lost Cause.
Speaking of which: On Wednesday, a bunch of fact-challenged militants–oh yes, militants: rude, confrontational, indifferent of the danger their unmasked contempt posed to others, in other words looters of public health–appeared before the county commission, spewing every social media conspiracy effluence in the book and calling for Bickel’s and Snyder’s heads.
Bickel wasn’t there, though he was almost chuckling at the absurdity of the opponents the day before when we spoke of them. He’s a man of science, an apolitical data-driven humanist to the core (think Star Trek Spock, Dr. Benjamin Spock and Fred Rogers all in one). So it’s not that he couldn’t defend himself. He didn’t need to, and not just because Snyder was there. Even Snyder–who hides a fearsome resolve behind his public cheer–didn’t bother with the militants’ bile. He wears one of those masks they despise, so it doesn’t affect him. He and Snyder had the one unassailable thing on their side, more powerful even than god: evidence, and not the alternative sort footnoted by Facebook.
To their credit, the county commissioners, four of the five anyway, sent the deniers packing and reaffirmed their support for Snyder and the public health department. They didn’t just reaffirm it. They made sure to go on record with support and a little adulation. It’s the least they could do. Dave Sullivan, the chairman of the commission, owes his narrow re-election a few weeks ago at least in part to them: their management of the pandemic made him look good, though in fairness to Sullivan, he’s also been the most Bickelsnyderish member of a commission that even now can’t bring itself to keep its masks on consistently (Sullivan excepted).
Heroism can be exaggerated, especially when it’s confused with grandstanding and publicity-seekers. But these guys and the 50-some individuals behind them, along with Lord’s crew, are the real deal, always in the background, always doing the most good for the most people. So the circus on Wednesday was the first time that Snyder’s and Bickel’s names unwittingly grabbed headlines with so much fervor. The deniers wanted them fired. Instead, they reminded us what heroes they’ve been all along, and how even the Flagler County Commission can find its inner progressive once in a while.