Imagine a beach resort where a tsunami is about to hit. Just before, the sea recedes a couple hundred yards. People are amazed and venture out among the seaweed and stranded fish. They do not understand that this signals a tsunami. A handful of informed individuals do understand and frantically shout to get gawkers back and to a high floor of a sturdy building. But it’s too late; they look up and are crushed by the onrushing wall of water.

A suitable parable for our coronavirus age? Epidemiologists accurately predicted the rapid growth of COVID-19 infections, but many (most?) Americans took no heed. More recently, epidemiologists warned against crowded places, but people took partial reopenings as all-clear signals and jammed public gatherings and bars. The Trump administration and overeager Republican governors thus manufactured the predicted surges.

The problem: How do you get people to believe something they have never encountered before and don’t want to believe? If the federal government had urged lockdowns in February, when there were just a handful of cases, precious few Americans would have self-isolated, avoided crowds or worn masks. Some still angrily reject any restrictions on their freedom, even prudent measures to protect everybody.

Could the right leadership have gotten Americans into lockdown mode early? Doubtful. It took grim statistics and many deaths in April to make it happen in a few states where governors, after climbing hospitalizations, started taking coronavirus seriously (e.g., New York’s Cuomo). Many New Yorkers fled, at least temporarily. My Brooklyn daughter is taking her son to Rockland and the Riley School. Now Florida, Texas and Arizona suffer the results of their governors’ denialism.

President Trump proudly showed Axios’s Jonathan Swan a chart of declining deaths, apparently not understanding that it demonstrated a growing percentage of survivors, a measure of improved treatment (a good thing). Deaths, however, still mount, recently back to over 1,000 a day. At that rate, we could top a quarter-million deaths by election day, a third of a million by year’s end. Actually, U.S. deaths in excess of last year’s indicate the toll has already passed 200,000.

Absence of leadership is nothing new. After Kennedy’s assasination, Walter Lippmann wrote that “there is no greater necessity for men who live in communities than that they be governed, self-governed if possible, well-governed if they are fortunate, but, in any event, governed.” We are losing the quality of being governed.

Dutch journalist Karel Van Wolferen wrote in his 1990 “The Enigma of Japanese Power” that no one is in charge in Japan. Energetic ministries regulate and subsidize their sectors in pursuit of their narrow goals, rarely consulting or coordinating with other ministries or with the prime minister. Starting in 1990, Japan, so good at producing cars and electronics, entered a long slump and never fully recovered. Who is in charge in Washington?

Stanford political theorist Francis Fukuyama worries in Foreign Affairs that America’s impressive “state capacity” is so blocked by partisan polarization and incompetent leadership that it can’t make and implement binding decisions. That, cry some, would give too much power to the federal government.

The tsunami parable continues in the push to reopen economies, schools, sporting events and bars. Virtually all epidemiologists guarantee a resurgence of COVID-19. True, lockdowns are making Americans fidgety; many risk exposure to get back to work and blow off steam. Can’t say that I blame them.

So, how do we get leadership and direction when many Americans are in no mood to follow? Repeating my argument of a month ago: Turn “Black lives matter” into “Black VOTES matter,” pulling protests onto constructive paths that Trump can’t misuse, as he did in Portland, Oregon, where anonymous federal police operated with impunity.

Militant union organizer Joe Hill, executed in Utah in 1915 on dubious murder charges, famously shouted: “Don’t mourn me — organize!” Anarchic protests accomplish little. Turned into organizations, they could accomplish much. The current triple whammy of Trump, COVID and drastic economic constriction is an opportunity for BLM, gender rights, living wages, environmentalism and anti-voter suppression to coalesce into major reform movements.

All political systems tend to stagnate and have to be periodically jolted out of it. Today, entrenched forces paralyze us by racism, skewed electoral and tax laws, overmighty lobbies and a polarized Congress. As in interwar Europe, despair over democractic paralysis festers, now amplified by the social media and Russian trolls. Trump, giving the devil his due, harvested the glowering discontent that the Democrats barely noticed. But he’s not the only one who can do that. This crisis is too valuable to waste.

Effective organizations would pressure both major parties. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are blameless; both have turned themselves over to interest groups out for themselves with little care for the common good. If we cannot get unstuck, watch out for the next tsunami.