Things get stranger and stranger. While a majority of the country still believes that we should follow public health experts’ advice and be very cautious with “reopening,” more and more people are treating the advice as something that they think is totally right on…for everyone else (COVID for thee and not for me me me me!). Others have given up and are resigned to going with the flow. And others cannot envision an America where their “leaders” are so cruel and corrupt that they would throw people into the fire for political and economic gain, so they’ve convinced themselves that the situation isn’t as bad as it is.
All of this bugs the hell out of me. The learned helplessness and resignation are disturbing. People have given up under relatively minor pressure. The people who feel helpless and have quit are not those in the thick of things – health care workers and such. Essential workers are going into danger-zones and are dealing with it. NYC health care workers had a baptism of fire and they came through, not without trauma or damage, but they did not give up. And, as much as we fussed over them, these workers did not ask for Thank You’s, balcony ovations, and flyovers. They did not grandstand or say “look at me” or complain about anything other than stuff that they had every right to complain about (lack of PPEs, scarce equipment, under-staffing, and being abandoned by the feds). And they continue to do their part while many of those who have been asked to do nothing more than stay home have surrendered, some because they “need” a haircut or a pedicure.
More disturbing are the cynics. The cynics have lazily given up on humanity. They use Trump and the loudness of a fringe to justify their conviction that the dark soul they see is universal and will always condemn us to stupidity and defeat. Some cynics withdraw. Others abandon empathy and compassion. They order us to “toughen up” and just “fucking deal with it.” But, because they are cynics, they deny that we have any agency. The vocal ones tell us that “We can’t change anything” and that demanding and working for something better or different is a “waste of time.” They cloak their easy resignation in intellect and try to position themselves above the chaos.
Most disturbing of are the people who sense something is wrong but can’t accept that, yes, we have a president who Does Not Give A Shit About Anyone Other Than Himself And His Daughter, who will do anything to keep power, and whose fragile sense of self is more important than hundreds of thousands of lives. President Donald Trump runs counter to all the bullshit we’ve been taught about our country – American exceptionalism, the “City at the top of the hill,” Manifest Destiny, “God’s Country,” that Americans are the “bravest and most generous people on Earth.” And, yeah, even the most disillusioned among us has a bit of Americanism in them – either from 24/7 of USA #1 or a simple love of American culture.
Latent Americanism prevented us from seeing real danger in Trump the Clown. When we learned that Trump wanted to build a moat across the border and fill it with snakes and gators, we laughed, not realizing that the idea wasn’t just absurd, it was what is in Trump’s heart. Then Trump asked that his Wall be topped with electric spikes and that was kind of weird. Trump saw families fleeing Central America to escape violence and he ordered Border Patrol to separate children from their parents. He had the kids put in cages and the parents crammed into pens where some were told to draw drinking water from toilets and others were raped, beaten and abused. Baby steps from kids in cages and human rights abuses to sacrificing a hundred thousand people (or more) to maintain power and bolster the ego.
Someday, historians will look at Trump, his immigration policy, the bigotry, and the COVID human sacrifice and list Trump with Pol Pot, Stalin, Assad, and the architects of the Armenian Genocide. Harsh comparisons, but it seems to me that when a leader deliberately sacrifices a substantial portion of the population of the country he runs for his own personal gain, well, maybe Trump’s inclusion on this list is fair. Certainly, my take is less damaging and deluded than running from the fact that our country is run by the worst people.
All three cases – surrender, cynicism and fantasy – flirt with mass denial, a slippy-slide to national delusion and death. While a majority of Americans understand what is happening, I see a drift. We stay silent and unheard. The loud voices of ignorance and irrationality dominate. The loudest of the loud crowd are out of their god damn minds. Without a counter, the loud and the loudest assert their version of reality on the rest of us. Rather than risking confrontation by pushing back hard, too many are seduced by alternative realities where COVID will spare them, where we are alone in a corrupt, evil world, or where everything is fine, nothing to see here – fictional creations that spurn magical thinking.
And, yeah, I’d love an easy answer, too – that what is happening is due to God or fate and that, if we just shut up and stop thinking about “it”, we can “go back” to some idealized normal. I’d love to feel certainty, but not certainty borne of fiction, come about through denial or magical thinking, states of mind that lead us nowhere except stuck.
The sad reality is that we are in a shitty, dangerous place. The encouraging reality is that if we organize, cooperate and work hard – as many of us have been doing – we can get to a better place. Know that the either/or solutions presented to us (public health vs economy, total quarantine vs “back to normal”) are as false as choice as vanilla vs chocolate (when we also have strawberry, pistachio, and salted licorice). Accept the unknown. Understand that in chaotic times – such as in war or during a disaster – it is normal not to know exactly what is going on. The best way to deal with uncertainty is to understand that uncertainty is a huge part of life and then work to find certainty, knowing that we do not and cannot know everything.
A “novel viruses” is novel because is has not been experienced before. It appears without an operating manual. It provides no frame of reference. When it emerges, we don’t know exactly how it spreads, how infectious it is, who is a prime target, how long it lasts, what cures it, or what kills it. The very nature of a novel virus means that we can’t escape uncertainty and unknowing. And, yeah, that is really fucking scary.
However, studying past viruses and observing what others have experienced with COVID-19 gives us ideas for what we can do to prevent the virus from going out of control. We know that not everyone who has it shows symptoms. We know that it spreads easily among crowds of people, mostly through human contact. We know that people can get it from a contaminated surface. We know that hand-washing is important, that soap kills the virus; alcohol does, too. We know that most people who are infected do not get seriously ill (but we cannot predict who those people are). We know that plenty of those infected get severe symptoms and that some die from complications. We know that poor people and marginalized communities get hit harder than rich people. We know what we know because we’ve experienced these things.
We also know that adjusting our behavior can slow the spread of the virus. We know that this is called “flattening the curve.” Unfortunately, many of us do not understand that “flattening the curve” is not medicine. It is not a cure. It is a strategy used to buy time, not just to spare hospitals stress, but so that, while the curve is flat, we can institute a universal response to the problem, such as a federally-led, nationwide mass testing program with protocols that all states adhere to, not the ragtag free-for-all that we have today. While the curve is flat, researchers can discover more about the virus and scientists have time to find therapies and vaccines. We use the flat-time to discover what is in between “total lock-down” and “open everything,” and avoid false “either/or” choices. We use the flat-time to mitigate not just economic damage, but to deal with psychological stress, especially anxiety and depression. Everything we learn during flat-time, we use to revise our behavior while we continue to keep the curve flat, so what we do to flatten the curve in June is not the same (or as restrictive) as it was in March.
Those last two paragraphs are exactly what a competent, caring president would have told us back in February. Had Donald Trump spared us the pity party and elementary schoolyard taunting, the lies, deflections, and quack medical cures; had he hit my script, we would have a framework to deal with the unknown. We would know why we are being asked to “sacrifice” and what that sacrifice is for. The conspiracy theorist would still be active, but they would not have as fertile soil as they do now. We would have started to “open the country” back in April, carefully moving forward as we hit markers laid down by public health experts. We would have real leadership and a plan. But that is not Trump. His laziness and selfishness, hate and anger, and lack of competence and insight prevent him from doing the right thing. Because he is president and we expect much more from a president – even George W. Bush – Trump’s behavior is mind-boggling, something that compounds our anxiety over uncertainty and unknowing.
While I am confident that escape, denial, cynicism and surrender are not the answers to COVID (or anything else), I accept that I don’t know everything. There is a chance that I might be wrong about all or some of the above. Thing is, if I am wrong about needing to take COVID seriously, about questioning our leaders when they throw the false choice of public health v economy, and about us having to make some sacrifices, while showing empathy and compassion for each other, taking care of each other and working cooperatively (something that we can do and have been doing) – If I am wrong about all those things, what’s the risk? Mass unemployment and a trashed economy? Forget that Trump’s path has tanked the economy, let’s blame me. Happy? Let’s do something. Let’s solve the economic problems with money, something that America has plenty of. Tax the rich. Not easy but doable.
Now say we take the path of surrender, cynicism and denial. What happens if these people are wrong and we treat COVID as just another bad day, one that will soon pass? What is the cost of ignoring the danger? If Birmingham, Alabama begging Montgomery to take COVID-sick patients off their hands doesn’t answer that, wait a couple week and the hundred people who crammed themselves into an Ozark swimming pool will.
Please understand, I am not coming from some ideological place here or from a tight-ass “stay inside forever” mind-frame. I fight that rigidity, just as I fight the ideology that says that the economy is king and that we have only two choices – money or health. I truly believe that we can figure out ways to live full lives while dealing with this thing…but to get there requires imagination and hard work and some sacrifice, not just saying “This is what I want” and pretending that everything is “back to normal.” Getting there also requires that those of us who have a clue – and that is most of the country – be vocal. We have to speak up. Not just terminal loudmouths like me, but those of you who are shy to speak your mind, who are afraid of backlash, and who are uncertain in your ability to express yourself. Because you are too often silent, your words have a greater impact than mine do. People expect me to talk shit, so I can be written off. You cause a fuss and people around you take notice.
Lastly, and I cannot say this enough: We do not have to be in the place we are in now. While we always struggle with uncertainty and unknowing, what we have now is chaos, chaos that is 100% due to lack of national leadership, particularly the failure of Donald Trump. Under any other president we would have a national testing regime and international cooperation. Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford, and even the cynic Nixon would have responded to the pandemic early, with much more consistency and clarity than Trump has. Unlike Trump, they would not have dodged responsibility, attacked states, denigrated medical experts, accused nurses of stealing PPEs, or advised people to drink bleach and shine sun up their asses.
Given proper leadership, the frantic fringe would be confined to the nether regions of the internet, to 8-Chan and Gab. They would show up at state capitols one dozen strong and not be leading the national conversation about “opening the country.” When “opening” did happen it would be measured and we’d be pretty damn confident that we were prepared to do it…and to respond carefully if the virus started to reassert itself. Competent leadership would have taken our three month “lockdown” and used that time for more than an extended run of self-aggrandizement, self-pity, and self-promotion.
Trump might be a narcissist and a sociopath, but he was handed information and mitigation strategies, he was given advise by public health experts and scientists, he knew what the approximate death toll could, and, yet, he refused and refuses to act as a responsible leader should. He is not guided by fate. We are not here because God or the universe wills it. We are where we are because Donald Trump fucked up and the Republican Party enabled him. I am not being cynical but asserting reality…and there is no escaping that.