Sitting around housebound during the first week of the countywide coronavirus shelter-in-place order, and inundated with relentless, depressing media accounts of the pandemic, I have had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the crisis, and on our reaction to it. It is likely that once this column is published in three weeks or so, the situation will have clarified some, and these observations may prove dated. However, I can confidently predict that the phrase "social distancing" will become the buzz words characterizing 2020.
One of the things I have found most striking is how little confidence people have in our leadership, and in institutions like the media. This failure of trust manifests itself in myriad conspiracy theories being floated online—explaining the origin or fault of the pandemic, questioning whether it actually exists or the true severity of the infection, or whether it was designed to serve some insidious purpose. It also manifests itself in the panicked hoarding by some of the public, fearful that the government will be unable to maintain control and services, and apparently terrified that they will never again be able to buy toilet paper—a commodity apparently deemed even more important than food or water.
The lack of confidence is also displayed in dismissive reactions to the virus. Many young people appear convinced that the virus won't hurt them and refuse to engage in protective behavior, reasoning that the virus will only kill off those annoying boomers. We have seen students refusing to give up their spring break debaucheries and defending the constitutional "right to party" that our forefathers died to protect. Admittedly, drunken kids are not a demographic that has ever displayed the best judgment, nor the greatest devotion to civic responsibility.
Of course, much of the distrust is well deserved, especially toward a media that has "cried wolf" too many times. Many times before, we have been subjected to sensationalized, breathless reports of some supposed "crisis" in an effort to generate clicks and readership, only to have it amount to little, so it's understandable that such reports would be received with a bit of skepticism. Sometimes these crises never amounted to much because they were successfully dealt with pre-emptively, such as the Y2K event or the ebola outbreaks. And sometimes the crisis was just over-hyped in a quest for viewers. The tendency of many politicians to exploit public alarm for political purposes is well known, and, sadly, some have used this crisis to advance political agendas.
As I write this, we have competing relief bills stalled in Congress with politicians seeking to sneak in spending on unrelated pet causes. With hundreds of billions of dollars in play, we have people clamoring for their "fair share" of the money, even though they haven't suffered any loss of income. My plea to the politicians: Get it done. Republicans, prohibiting the use of corporate bail-out funds for executive compensation, or stock buy-backs, is not unreasonable. Democrats, using the emergency to force through your usual "wish list" of a $15 minimum wage, student loan forgiveness, climate change, same-day voting, pro-union rules, etc., will be seen as blackmail in November.
There has been plenty of finger-pointing. Not surprisingly, we have seen criticism of Trump and his administration for not acting soon enough, even though some of these critics had called him a racist when he had earlier imposed travel restrictions. Trump's blustery denial, boosterism, and clumsy attempts to reassure people didn't help. Being America in the year 2020, it was sadly inevitable that race would come up, with Trump facing charges of "racism" for referring to this strain of the coronavirus as the "Chinese virus," despite a long-existing convention to identify a virus by its original source.
And then there is the predictable human tendency to view disasters solely through the lens of our own pre-existing concerns and causes. One spring break student dismissed the virus by saying there are more important things to worry about—such as poverty, the environment, and racism—dazzling me with his beery logic.
This tunnel-vision "focus" reminded me of an old cartoon satirically predicting the front page headlines that various publications would use when announcing that a massive asteroid was going to destroy the Earth the next day:
The New York Times: "Asteroid to destroy Earth. Poor and minorities hurt most."
Wall Street Journal: "Markets react to imminent destruction of Earth."
Washington Post: "Polls show strong opposition to asteroid."
San Francisco Chronicle: "Asteroid to destroy Earth in setback for climate accords."
HuffPost: "Kardashians clap back at asteroid headed toward Earth."
New Times: "Asteroid impact voted 'Best Apocalypse' in SLO County."
Unlike any prior crisis, which has only affected limited areas or persons, the pandemic has had an almost unprecedented and nearly universal impact—whether to our own health, the health of others we care about, or to the jobs and economy we all depend upon. We are truly all in this together. No one is a disinterested spectator.
I wish all of you, including you annoying liberals, good health and a quick recovery from these trying times. Δ
John Donegan is a retired attorney who lives in Pismo Beach, and who can be found these days glued to the TV and obsessively smearing himself with hand sanitizer. Send comments to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org, or submit a letter for publication to email@example.com.