FQW Paul Costello

Paul Costello takes a quiet moment while canoeing.

Just over three months ago we started “Five Questions With ...” to put a human face to this pandemic. Today marks the final installment in this stage of the project, but it will continue with a new set of questions more focused on Vermont’s recovery. Here, Paul Costello, of Montpelier, offers personal and broader insights into how the pandemic has shaped him — and Vermont.

How are you handling self-isolation?Like many Vermonters, I’ve had ups and downs. I’ve been working a lot of hours at a high pace, and painting my house or hiking. As an introvert who loves to read, I never feel like I have to kill time, and I like being alone, especially when I can connect to nature in a canoe or on a mountaintop. There is a richness to the settling in of staying home more. But at the same time, the anxiety over the pace of the pandemic, who will be impacted, when will it end, how much isolation and protection we need, and the worry about how it is hurting others, especially the most vulnerable of us, all wear on me, and probably on everyone. I tend to handle it by going outside as much as possible, calling friends, and reading.

What has been the biggest challenge for you?In my personal life, it has been not being able to spend time with my son and daughter and their wonderful kids. Video calls just don’t make up for hugs with grandchildren.

There are times I feel frustrated, angered or anxious by the crisis faced by people in poverty, the tragedy of racial injustice, the economic destructiveness that has hit small businesses and their owners and employees, the struggle of our dairy farms, national political chaos, and the pain and stress that many people are experiencing. I feel a constant need to gird myself in hope, set an optimistic course of action and get to work.

My work at the Vermont Council on Rural Development (as its executive director) is all about bringing people together. At VCRD, we were geared up at the beginning of March to work with Barre residents to explore opportunities, set priorities and prepare to advance community and economic development. That halted over the course of a couple of days, and the series of processes we had planned for this year with Mendon, Bradford, Barton, Milton and other towns fell like dominoes.

Meanwhile, our efforts to build major public discussions throughout the state to showcase some of the brilliant businesses that are quietly but systematically beginning to provide solutions to the challenge of climate change evaporated, and our ideas for a major conference this year faded and disappeared.

As an organization, we pivoted immediately to serve local response efforts in communities around the state, to bring together resource providers, and to help lead some of the community work of Gov. Scott’s recovery efforts.

When all meetings shifted to cyberspace, there was the added challenge of working in the new medium. I’m a person who likes to shake hands, look my friends and colleagues in the eye, pat people on the back. All convening, all effective meetings, really, are about relationships; they are about getting together with others who share some aspect of the same mission and to try to do something good.

It’s harder to do this when everyone is in their separate Hollywood Squares box rather than sitting in a room together. I think people feel more separate, have a harder time concentrating as well on the speaker (especially with Chat and documents floating around), and they tend to speak more for their own particular point of view or interest and are slower to feel the common chord of mutual interest and the deliberative learning that happens when groups are processing well together. It’s no one’s fault, but it is a challenge to building collective purpose and mutual understanding essential to progress.

What has been the most pleasant surprise?With all that we complain about social media and Zoom meetings, like I did above, it’s amazing how much work can get done in a day. In the old days, three months ago, I’d think nothing of driving an hour for an hour-long meeting, then driving another hour back. With Zoom, you can have three one-hour-long meetings in the same time. And the miles traveled in my car are down at least 80%.

How much of what you’re doing do you think will you carry forward after the pandemic?The lessons we’ve learned about connecting online will continue. I expect to drive a lot less to meetings, and we are weaving a new array of online communications into our lives that will probably stay with us. I think the lessons we learn may change our culture and help us approach many of our ideals and aspirations in new ways.

And what do you feel the lessons will be that come out of all of this?There are a lot of them.

The first would be to pay attention to science. Science gives us foresight and warns of dangers so that we can get ahead of them. Epidemiologists know the world’s historical pattern of disease and can predict the evolution of viral strands — not in their specificity, but in the fact that mutations are inevitable.

They have been saying for more than a generation that we need to be systemically prepared for pandemics — which in a world with almost instantaneous global travel, means that humanity as a whole must work in consort to isolate and manage outbreaks and use best scientific practices and resources to develop treatments and ultimately preventative vaccines to control strains. We live in an interconnected world and need to work in partnership to be prepared and resilient — locally, regionally and globally.

We all remember when everyone was wrestling with, “What are the lessons from Hurricane Irene?” One thing we learned around resilience is that it is not about being prepared for the last challenge, which we all know, but for the next one, which is partly unpredictable. We do know that we can do much better to be ready for the next wave of COVID-19, or other future pandemics, and we have learned so much in the last three months that helps prepare us.

We also know from scientists that climate change is real, is having dramatic effects today, here in Vermont and throughout the world, and that, left unaddressed, will produce cascading catastrophic impacts on communities, states, and ultimately on world civilization. That knowledge must act as an imperative to us: We will need to find an ecological balance point, founded in economic renewal, to dramatically reduce our local and global carbon emissions, and to draw excess carbon from the atmosphere and return it to the soil.

I think that if we’ve paid attention, we’ve learned more about the stresses that people around us live under — families balancing safety concerns and the needs of their children while being forced to work from home; people cut off from their very vulnerable parents isolated in senior living centers; low-income people who already were living under tremendous pressure and are now being disproportionally affected, often holding jobs that put them on the front line in providing essential services to the rest of us.

We’ve learned that high-speed, affordable broadband is not a luxury for some but an essential utility for all; that we need to continue to reinvent and localize our food system, especially for our most vulnerable neighbors; that we can end homelessness in Vermont.

I hope we are seeing and understanding that while our frontline workers have been at risk, and many who lived with the barest of resources have been hit the hardest, the wealthiest among us have continued to grow their resources, leading to what may be the greatest disparity of wealth within a democratic society in world history. This disparity is a disease to democracy and civic unity, which needs correction over time.

The pandemic makes clear that the health of each of us is important to the health of all of us. We need to ensure that every child, every family, every one of us, has access to equitable health care that is affordable.

I hope that we are learning to deepen our empathy and our compassion for each other and especially those who have been historically oppressed or marginalized by prejudice and systematic unfairness.

This learning tests our systems, our ideals, and each of us. This is a time for rededication to a renewed vision of justice, freedom, and unity, for the future of Vermont. This is neither right nor left; it’s our duty.

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