Can’t happen here

We started getting reports from China in early January. They were sketchy, but we knew something was going on. Then there were the cruise ships, at least one of which regularly docked in Bayonne. Close to home, quite literally, but the news didn’t clarify much. By late February, the doors to the Life Care Center in Kirkland were shut. Shortly after that, life in Seattle changed, and it has yet to change back. The Seattle Times was all over this; they lifted the paywall and shared their coronavirus stories with anybody who wanted to read them. I read them.

Ordinary dispatches from Seattle reached us, too. One independent journalist laid it all out for us in blunt language. What we’re experiencing now, she told us, you’re all about to experience. It’s all coming to your town: lockdowns, shortages, store closings, park closings, government warnings, constant fear of contracting and transmitting a communicable disease. If you think you’re going to dodge this, you’re wrong. I read it. In mid-March, people in Bergamo posted videos from isolation and sent love across the Atlantic in anticipation of our coming hardship. Soon you must suffer like we suffered. I watched those videos.

Yet there was a part of me that simply refused to believe it. It was completely irrational, but it was there. I didn’t want to stockpile food. I didn’t want to stay inside. Maybe I wouldn’t have to. Maybe the virus would burn out before it reached us. If you’d sat me down during the second week of March and forced me to have a reasonable conversation, I think I would’ve conceded that the whole world was about to go sideways. But I was not open to reasonable conversation; not entirely, anyway. There were already too many voices in my brain — too many anxieties, too many competing claims, too much noise in an overtaxed system.

While the certainty of the denialists isn’t something I have the capacity to understand, I do think I get where they’re coming from. I experienced a version of it myself. Because visible worry is a bad negotiating tactic, and we value strategic acumen above all other mental traits, Americans are taught never to admit weakness. Americans are trained to downplay threats. We refuse to behave like we’re rattled, even when circumstances might forgive us a little panic. If somebody rushes into town with the news that the neighboring village is on fire, we’re supposed to remain cool, act nonchalant, and lead with our skepticism. So it doesn’t matter what I say to a doubting Arizonan or Floridian about my experience in Jersey City in April and May. He might not dismiss me outright. Intellectually, he might understand that community spread is accelerating in his state, and an intervention might need to be made. But he’s probably not going to change what he’s doing. He’s more likely to dig in.

The global health crisis has magnified the country’s least appealing traits. Among other things, we’ve been exposed as atrocious risk assessors. Our tendency to minimize has never served us well; lately, the consequences of our national complacency have been pretty lethal. They’re reminders that the coronavirus is hardly the only crisis we’re facing. People have been warning about our ecological recklessness, our unequal distribution of power, and our staggering debts for decades. Sometimes, we’ll even agree that these are crises. Nevertheless, we won’t act. We treat them like television shows that will inevitably wrap up with tidy endings, and all we’ll have to do is kick back and watch. We’re not going to be the ones running around with our heads on fire, because those people look silly, and silly is the one way that Americans cannot bear to look.

People in other countries don’t share our vanity. They don’t have to pose with their chests puffed out and pretend that they aren’t afraid of fearsome things. They’ve cultivated other modes of sociability and other ways of being, and hard as it might be for us to hear, we might want to follow their lead. As an American myself, I hate to be shown up, but as a person with eyes and ears, I can acknowledge that that’s exactly what has happened. Hong Kong has shown us up. Austria and Germany have shown us up. New Zealand has shown us up. Taipei has shown us up. Vietnam, a country we actively tried to destroy not so long ago, has certainly shown us up. People did not have to watch their immediate neighbors die before they admitted that the virus was real. They didn’t wait until the house was on fire before they turned on the pumps. They took the word of the epidemiologists and acted accordingly. America prides itself on its initiative and its productivity, but our individualism isn’t worth much if individuals can’t muster the will, or the wisdom, to put aside their differences and work together when we absolutely have to. The whole world has watched us mess this up. Admirers overseas are now going to turn to other models, other leaders, and other systems to emulate. It’s hard to blame them.