In 2010, I woke up in the ICU on a ventilator. With both arms badly broken and a tube down my throat, I had no way to communicate. In order to cope with the horror of complete immobility, I resolved to survive the time on the ventilator and then everything was going to be all right. After the ventilator came off and I was still 100% immobilized, I obsessed on the next step—sitting up. Then walking, then using my hands. After about 6 weeks, it sunk in that nothing was going to be the same for a long time, if ever.
Does that sound familiar? My trauma psychiatrist said it takes the brain a minimum of 6 weeks to process a complete and sudden life change, like the unexpected death of a loved one, or waking up in a radically changed body when your last memory is of pedaling a bicycle on a country road. The world is processing a complete and sudden life change from the pandemic, and realizing that it’s not just going to stop and go back to exactly the way it was any time soon.
That realization is showing what we’re made of. It’s bringing out the best in some of us and the worst in others. Most of us are in the middle, just being the best regular schmucks we can be. I’ve seen enough now to pick out some trends among the protesters who don’t want to continue with precautions and distancing.
The biggest thing I see is misplaced outrage. The “we have rights” protesters are focusing their anger on government officials. What do you do with a virus, an antagonist you can’t see? How do you hate it effectively? You can’t, so you blame the people in charge, or maybe the people who look like they come from its country of origin. It’s not even that the protesters disagree with the philosophy behind the cautionary measures—it’s doubtful they’ve even thought beyond “I don’t want to do that.” They’re just angry and lashing out. There’s no way to force them to get over themselves, and when they form mobs, they validate each other’s maladaptive impulses.
When Washington’s Governor extended stay-at-home orders to May 31, many people lashed out at him personally. Think about that. He’s one man; he doesn’t have that kind of power. He’s been advised in many hours of meetings by science and health professionals, he’s been furiously getting up to speed on epidemiology 101, and he’s making a judgment call that tries to balance the conflicting needs of his people, with saving lives as the top priority. I wouldn’t want to stand in his shoes for anything. Many people scapegoat him because they don’t like his political affiliation. A pandemic is nonpartisan. The economy is going to take a hit no matter how we play this. Either we lose because we can’t run our businesses, or we lose because a substantial portion of our customer base dies. There is no winning scenario here.
The people protesting the stay-home orders represent a basic tenet of American culture—that of rugged individualism. It’s made us a difficult people to govern. Americans do not instinctively obey authority. Other countries have contained the pandemic far better than we have, because people have readily complied with instructions. They trust their elected (or not) leaders and the science and health professionals who advise them. Not so with Americans. “I can’t get a haircut? How dare you! You at-risk people should isolate yourselves and let the rest of us get on with our lives.”
What these people aren’t getting is that when they exercise their right to risk their health, they increase the total viral load that’s out there to be exposed to. This graphic illustrates the effect of exercising your “right” to go out, and your choice to stay home:
The vulnerable are told to lock ourselves away. After all, we aren’t useful citizens. We’re not essential workers, people who provide non-essential services they still want, or people they love, are we? We’re a formless “other” to them. They want us to sequester ourselves so they can go on as usual without having to think of us. The thing is, though, the person who brings us our groceries may bring 5 cooties or 500 with them, depending on the general level of exposure out there. If the majority of people are complying, it’s safer for everyone.
It’s not about whether or not you have the right to choose your level of risk. People who think it’s about rights are too afraid to look at the real cause of their confinement. They want it to be about bureaucracy and their political opponents, because a pandemic is too dystopian.
There may be an element of religious betrayal there as well. We’ve all seen the video of the woman who proclaims she can go out in crowds because she’s “covered in Jesus’ blood.” People who have been raised with certain ideas of who and what God is can’t believe that “he” would really let them get sick and die. The heathens will get what’s coming to them; the faithful have an exemption from plagues. They are so sure of this that they’re willing to test it. Maybe they’re willing to lose that bet because they don’t want to live in a world where what they believe is found to not be true.
In any case, it’s not helpful to simply denounce them as “deplorables,” even if you strongly believe that’s what they are. Tensions between people are high. The differences between us are exacerbated by the ways we handle this global interruption of our lives. Try to be kind and listen to what people are really saying. They may give you something you can work with.
I have genuine empathy for non-essential workers who are stuck at home and not able to pay their bills. Some are even newly food-insecure. They have the right to expect better from their government. If you want to talk to me about why you believe our current approach to pandemic safety isn’t right from an epidemiological standpoint, I’ll listen—provided you’re packing a Bachelor of Science degree or higher. If you just want to defend your right to go to a concert, grow the hell up.
I’m supposed to be bike touring this time of year. I can’t wait until it’s safe to weave slowly through a crowd at Ambleside Park on my bike, smiling at random people, listening to the live band and stopping at a food truck for Vietnamese fish tacos (yes, they exist and they’re grotesquely delicious). I want to mindlessly lick the dribbled sauce off my fingers and maybe touch things before washing my hands. Of course I want that back.
That doesn’t give me the right to say “the hell with it” and go to a COVID 19 party (they’re a thing, honest, see the news story below). Missing life as it was is normal. Doing the hard work to figure out how to move ahead sustainably is noble. Taking our angst out on public officials and willfully spreading pestilence is lowly. Most of the people in this audience don’t have the privilege to pick a camp. Deplorability isn’t an option for us. May the majority continue to do the best we can so humanity makes it out the other side of this.
Reference: NBC News