Rotary: People of Action or Reaction

By CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM - This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #23312. Public Domain,

On March 18 Rotary International announced the 2020 convention has been canceled. More information here.

I have followed the development of the COVID-19 pandemic for a couple of months now. First casually, as something that had the possibility of impacting my life and the lives of people in my communities. Then, the John Hopkins online interactive dashboard, which includes a map displaying case location, went online in late February. I love how maps help us understand data by giving visual representation to what may seem to be mere numbers. Each week, that COVID-19 dashboard map showed how the virus was spreading and that in some places cases were increasing exponentially. I followed it each day as red dots appeared on more countries and the circles representing number of cases expanded.

As a Rotarian, I am part of an organization that has invested huge resources of time and money into ending the existence of what was once a very scary virus – polio. Thanks to my organization’s efforts, that virus will soon be eradicated. Rotarians know a lot about polio. Before we began our eradication campaign, the virus was widespread with periodic epidemics that killed and disabled children. During the polio epidemic of the 1950’s, places like swimming pools, theaters, and summer camps were closed. So I expected that Rotary International would take bold action to stop the spread of COVID-19 and be a leader in eradicating this virus too.

That of course, would include cancelling the Rotary International Convention planned for 6 through 10 of June in Hawaii, USA. Last year that convention brought 25,000 Rotary members from 170 countries together in Hamburg, Germany. But for several weeks now, all that Rotary International says is that they are “…closely monitoring the pandemic of COVID-19… and continuously assessing the potential impact on Rotary operations, events, and members.” A member of Rotary International’s Board of Directors told me privately that “We are absolutely not ignoring the current pandemic. Decisions are being made every day.”

A Rotary International representative also told me that “… we are encouraging our members and friends take social distancing measures to help “flatten the curve,” reducing the number of cases in the short term. If the collective global effort helps bring the situation under control, then we hope to convene this June in Honolulu.” That is wishful thinking.

The just released report from the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team clearly states that “The major challenge of suppression is that this type of intensive intervention package – or  something equivalently effective at reducing transmission – will need to be maintained until a vaccine becomes available (potentially 18 months or more) – given that we predict that transmission will quickly rebound if interventions are relaxed.

Rotary International and its member clubs throughout the world work closely with local, provincial and national governments, UN agencies like WHO; businesses and other organizations. Rotary does an exemplary job of building positive relationships, so it is expected that these relationships will be taken into consideration as any decision on the convention is made. But those relationships cannot be more important than the health and well-being of Rotarians, their families, and their communities.

As a past Rotary District Governor, I know what a wonderful experience it is to join, shoulder to shoulder, with tens of thousands of fellow Rotarians celebrating our organization’s many accomplishments. But because that is a well documented way to spread this virus, let’s gather in person next year, and do something virtual this year. The window is closing — if it has not already closed — for Rotary International to show leadership by canceling the International Convention. How can an organization that is the leader in ending one pandemic, ignore the current one?