Into the rapids

Hilary notes a change in the tone and content of the mainstream news. No longer do the networks foreground warnings about behavior that might accelerate the transmission of the coronavirus, or stories about exhausted medical workers, or supply shortages. Instead, the emphasis has shifted to costs of reopening — and reopening is now treated as an inevitability. This has been coupled with stories about the restlessness of the American worker, who, we’re assured, simply cannot cope with any more time spent indoors, but must instead risk his life on the assembly line.

Meanwhile, the White House finally concedes what we already knew: the body count continues to climb, and that climb will be further hastened by the easement of social-distancing restrictions. Whether ordinary people can stomach two to three thousand deaths per day (their numbers) through June is irrelevant. What matters is that the authorities are determined to crack the whip and drive people back to work.

It is worth remembering that other countries are taking a different approach. Taiwan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand are neither isolated nor uninterested in global commerce. They’ve managed to reduce their cases by emphasizing everything that we aren’t: testing, contact tracing, comprehensive and honest counting, biology, intelligence, caution. In the past, I’d have assumed that those governments would eventually follow the behavioral lead of the United States, as we’ve got the bombs and the Chicken McNuggets, and those have always tended to carry the day. Today I expect those foreign governments to reject our model with some emphasis. We’re not the world leader anymore. It turns out we’re the rogue state. You might cheer our recalcitrance as a deserved nose-thumbing to the global elites; you might be inclined to dust off your passport. Regardless, the time to learn Norwegian and move to the fjords has passed us by. Singapore doesn’t want us. We’re stuck here — and regardless of our political affiliations, we’re going over the falls in the same canoe.

Nobody knows what awaits us at the bottom. A few weeks ago, those who pressed for a return to business as usual were arguing that warm weather and vigorous activity would hold the virus at bay, and hey, maybe those social distancing guidelines are ineffective anyway? Now, no one is even bothering to make lame excuses. Thousands will die, and many more will become critically ill, and under the red, white, and blue, that’s just the way it goes. Those wheels of capital aren’t going to grease themselves, therefore, it’s time for the American proletariat to get busy.

Yet two things never seem to occur to the cheerleaders: 1.) there’s no returning to economic normalcy in the middle of a global pandemic, and 2.) infectious diseases can come for anybody, anywhere, and the more people who have it, the more likely it is that you’re going to get it. That’s true for you even if you’re a master of the universe — even if you’re toting heavy weaponry on a militia compound. An infernal-red light blinked on over the heads of the worst among us when we learned the coronavirus was disproportionately killing African Americans. White supremacists everywhere must be tickled by the stories coming out of Detroit, Newark, and New Orleans. But I don’t want to put too fine a point on that. On a deep-psychological level, I don’t think it matters too much who gets chucked into the volcano. America demands a horror story. We’re getting one.

You don’t have to be part of that story. Circumstances outside your control may pull you under — and some of your neighbors might make it harder for you to protect yourself — but you aren’t powerless. What we’ve learned from other countries is that protective measures work, and that a successful response to an infectious disease involves millions of small individual actions. It would help if American authorities weren’t actively undermining those actions, and would instead cultivate the humility that the moment demands. Today, we seem farther away from our ideal than we ever have been, which is astonishing, given what we’ve all been through together. Some moral problems are truly confounding. This isn’t one of them. The right thing to do is coming through, loud and clear, on the wavelength of your conscience. All you’ve got to do is cut out the noise, and listen.