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We have our marching orders

Finally, we have a new president.

Many of us are feeling a lot of excitement, buttressed by wave after wave of relief. We are a nation of survivors.

On Inauguration Day, I felt hopeful watching Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take their oaths of office. They appeared to understand what we were asking of them and accepted without reservation.

The night before, they stood at the Lincoln Memorial to pay tribute to the 400,000 who have died of COVID-19. In that moment, as 400 lights illuminated the edges of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, my prayer was for those who grieve.

And now, we get to try again.

There’s already a growing list of demands being made of President Joe Biden and his administration. This is as it should be. Fortunately, the White House has returned to the tradition of regular press briefings. Press Secretary Jen Psaki has been both respectful and responsive to the reporters sitting in front of her.

Again, what a relief. This is the democracy Americans need to see right now. May this sense of higher calling endure when these exchanges between the press and the White House become testier, as they inevitably will at times.

Of course, not all of us are in a celebratory mood, politically speaking, which is also inevitable after a presidential election. Disappointment over your candidate’s loss is normal. Continuing to insist the election was invalid is not. If you approve of the violent attack on the Capitol earlier this month, it’s time for you to cage your demons. We’ve got no time for this nonsense, especially when our country is in crisis.

Which brings me to the return of Dr. Anthony Fauci — and boy, is he back. On the first full day of the Biden administration, Fauci walked into the White House briefing room, took questions and gave answers when he knew them.

“One of the new things about this administration is that if you don’t know the answer, don’t guess,” he said. “Just say you don’t know the answer,”

His response, when pressed to describe how his role has changed:

“It was very clear that there were things said, be it regarding things like hydroxychloroquine and other things like that, that really was uncomfortable because they were not based in scientific fact.

“The idea that you can get up and talk about what you know, what the evidence is, what the science is — it is somewhat of a liberating feeling.”

Fauci also gave us our marching orders. At the risk of sounding like a high school civics teacher, I’m here to remind you that each of us has a job to do during this pandemic. As Fauci made clear, this country is not going to heal without our help.

“The best-case scenario … is we’d get 85 percent of the people vaccinated by the end of the summer. If we do, then by the time we get to the fall, I think we can approach a degree of normality.”

Normality. How might you describe that world? I’m thinking of the return of family dinners. Santa in person, instead of via Zoom. Hugs, so many hugs.

This is a conversation to have with family, friends and colleagues now, before COVID-19 deaths top 500,000, which Biden has predicted will happen by next month.

“The brutal truth is it’s going to take months before we can get the majority of Americans vaccinated,” the president said on Thursday.

This is, in part, because of the disastrous vaccine rollout, but there is no ignoring the contribution of those who have flouted COVID-19 guidelines, and even mocked them. We know how to stay safe, and too many of us know people who have insisted they are the exceptions, until they’re not. Or, worse, until someone they exposed to the virus has died.

Eventually, we will have to come to terms with our country’s loss. Right now, so much of our collective grief is tamped down, because that’s what we do when we’re in crisis. The full impact of what and who we’ve lost comes later. We’ll have to decide how we feel about those who did, and those who didn’t, care enough to keep others safe. What will it mean for us and for them?

Right now, though, we must continue to heed the guidelines for social distancing and wear face masks — and, please, let’s make those masks stay over our noses.

As soon as we are eligible, we must get vaccinated and do our part to convince others to get the vaccine, too. There was a time, perhaps, when we might have hesitated to start that conversation.

But that was 400,000 deaths ago.

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Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist.

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