A new adversary in the coronavirus fight: ourselves

Protesters demonstrate at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Monday, April 20, 2020, demanding that Gov. Tom Wolf reopen Pennsylvania's economy even as new social-distancing mandates took effect at stores and other commercial buildings. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

We have reached the point in this pandemic when our greatest adversary now has a rival. The novel coronavirus that entered the United States sometime early this year and which has now killed more than 75,000 Americans in 68 days remains our biggest concern – or at least it should. The financial catastrophe left in its wake is a close second, and soon will be No. 1 when and if the virus wanes. But closing fast in third position – and affecting very much how those first two issues will be resolved – is another foe we have to deal with: Ourselves.

How well we as a nation and as individuals will emerge from these ordeals will be a direct product of our own intelligence, discipline and perseverance – or lack of them.

And right now, it seems the lack of them is showing itself in disappointing and divisive ways.

I wrote early on in this pandemic about the danger of taking our eyes off the ball – and what seems to be our American proclivity for doing just that.

It feels to me as if the American attention span has been sapped. And even if the virus still is killing more than 2,000 people per day in this country – Pearl Harbor every day – we’re bored. People are more upset that they can’t get a haircut than the virus in our midst.

So we go back to work. Which, let’s face it, we have to do. Somehow. And if we do it with some degree of intelligence and discipline, we should be fine. At-risk people stay at home and out of the way as much as possible, those who are out take precautions and socially distance. It can work.

I don’t think it’s going to work. We’ve gotten tired of the virus, and dealing with it, and so we have gone back to our political corners. In the right corner, they don’t want to wear masks and think the doors need to be thrown wide open at once. In the left corner, they think we’re opening too soon and get angry when people with legitimate concerns dare voice them.

And both sides have idiots on cable news feeding them propaganda 24/7 if they want to watch it. They have Fox News telling them that the virus is overblown and that protesters are “patriots” (unless they’re protesting against their side) and they tell us that Blue Lives Matter until it’s one of their own who decides to get in the face of a policeman. Over at CNN, they’re lobbing any spitball they can find at the president, while over at CBS News they’re staging a line of cars so a testing site won’t look empty on a morning news hit.

I get why people are tired of everything. I even get why they buy into some of the tripe they’re fed on an endless loop. And I get why they don’t trust anyone, government, media, even doctors and scientists just trying to get us through all of this. I suppose I even get why they might be attracted to a YouTube video “documentary” centered around a failed researcher turned grifter for the anti-vaccination movement who tries to scare them all into believing some wild conspiracy tale of forced vaccinations with “experimental poison.”

No, I take it back. I don’t get that. We have a vaccine for the flu. We’ve had it for years and years. It is not mandatory. Nobody has to get it that doesn’t want to get it. In 2018, our worst flu season since the Swine Flu scare, pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. shipped 155.3 million doses, a record. And that’s for a disease we know, and had time to get ready for.

There are roughly 330 million people in the U.S. Neither Bill Gates nor anyone else could vaccinate the entire American population if they wanted to. We probably couldn’t vaccinate half of the population.

That flu vaccine in 2018, by the way, was only 29 percent effective. Which feeds the mistrust that this video looks to stoke. It’s not that there’s zero truth in it. It’s just that you have to dig around a lot of misinformation to find it.

Still, one scare video goes onto YouTube with a vast army of (probably automated) backers behind it and all of a sudden anyone with a suspicion of any person or group in the U.S. (and that’s most of us) is willing to listen to a presentation of half-truths and dubious “science” because it feeds their mistrust.

If you step back and look at actual numbers and facts, and if you take a moment and think about it without running it through some pundit on TV some other political strainer you’ve made for yourself, you realize, this isn’t right. We’ve been through pandemics before. We went through one in 1918 and nobody was trying to control the world with it. These things just happen. Those people sheltered in place in 1918 saw a percentage of the world population die, came out too soon and saw more people die, then moved on.

They shut down churches and schools and places of mass amusement. Just like we have. We’re not special. We’re not going through a new thing here.

What’s new about it is that we have more people in places of power trying to take advantage of the situation now, and more media looking to keep your eyeballs on them. We have more information than at any time in world history, and more misinformation.

And we have this Bernie Madoff syndrome. People loved investing with him, because the statements showed them these amazing gains on their investments. They never questioned the gains, because they were seeing what they wanted to see. Many people would rather see what they want to see than what actually is, even if the reality behind it is utter fiction.

We had a pretty good plan. If you read this space, you know I’m not a Trump hater. I’ve pointed out where I thought the president made mistakes – and he has made them – and I’ve pointed out where I think he’s done well in this. And once he started to take this virus seriously, under his direction the federal government did pretty well, or as well as governments do, in shipping resources and equipment and assistance. In the end, more was probably delivered than was needed in the worst places, which gets you pretty high disaster relief marks.

The problem was before – when he didn’t take the threat seriously enough (though as I have pointed out, he was not alone among our political leadership in that) – and now after.

The reopening plan presented by Trump and his Coronavirus Response Task Force was measured, sensible, set up reasonable guidelines and gates for a phased restart of the American economy.

Trump issued the guidelines, and a morning later was undermining them himself, rousing protestors in states with his calls to “liberate” them. This is what we call playing both sides. It is a shrewd political strategy. Issue sensible guidelines so you can say that you’ve done it, then stir your base as if you’re protesting against your own plan. It can also be called lacking the courage of your convictions. If you want states “liberated,” don’t bother with issuing those guidelines, just stand up there like a leader and issue your instruction. Don’t run to Twitter. Just do it – don’t play both sides.

Within a week, protesters who no doubt support the president were descending on statehouses to advocate the end of restrictions that the president had just days before advised to keep in place with the very guidelines he set out. It’s not exactly how, say, Ronald Reagan or Dwight Eisenhower or Teddy Roosevelt would’ve played it.

And with that, all of this went from a national health problem back to a political circus.

And our eyes have been off the ball ever since.

Yes, we need to get back to work, but as long as anywhere close to 2,000 people are dying every day from this virus in this country, it’s not going to be business as usual.

We, as Americans, need to stop being motivated by fear. We must stop being motivated by our fear that someone is out to “take us over” or strip us of our rights. Half the country won’t even put on a mask to help keep someone else from getting sick, you think we’re going to give up our rights? The danger isn’t in someone swooping in and taking them, the danger is in us losing our minds and giving them up freely, in buying so completely into this philosophy or that leader that we take leave of our senses.

We can’t be motivated by fear of this virus. Some of these lockdown efforts have gone too far, even if they were well-intentioned. But they are easing up. By today, easing of shutdowns had begun in 43 states. And I hope they succeed. Nobody on either side wants to keep this country locked down forever. But we do have to respect this virus. And we’d better know, if we don’t follow distancing guidelines, it’ll be back, not in months but weeks. (We’d also do well to acknowledge that, if you take away the declines in New York City, the virus remains in growth mode in the rest of the country.)

Our actions should be guided by the bulk of medical opinion, by research, and by common sense. We should question anyone we encounter, especially on social media, whether it is a friend, doctor, politician or pundit, by considering their motivation or outside agenda. Do they have the public good at heart, or do they just want to get back to work, or have a business interest, or political points to be gained?

This is no time to allow political affiliation to guide our actions. To count on a political philosophy or leader to protect you, left or right, is to bet on the wrong authority.

Think about this poll released last week by CNBC/Change Research. (I give you the source so you’ll consider the source.) It was conducted in key battleground states in the upcoming presidential election: Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. They asked, do you feel safe letting your kids return to school? How many answered yes? 54 percent of Republicans, 4 percent of Democrats. They asked, do you feel safe dining at a restaurant? 70 percent of Republicans answered yes, 5 percent of Democrats. Do you feel safe going to a hair or nail salon? 77 percent of Republicans said yes, 9 percent of Democrats.

The moral of that poll (beyond that you’d better hope there are a lot of Republicans close by if you’re reopening your business) is that we’re divided. Which we all know.

But we are in the midst of a situation with a virus that doesn’t care about party affiliation. The real conspiracy isn’t to take us over, but to keep us divided. And to keep us stirred up and distracted. I don’t even think it’s an organized conspiracy. But a distracted population is one that is easy to move and call to action.

I think, as Americans, we need to keep in mind that we can manage this. New jobs numbers are expected out Friday, and could show us the greatest unemployment since the Great Depression. We shouldn’t give into the scare tactic of making us think we are on the brink of another great depression. I’ve seen estimates that employment could be back down around seven percent by the end of the year. Many of the jobs lost are just waiting for employees to come back to refill them.

We can get all of this going again, if we drop our stupid political arguments and our nit-picking over how deadly this virus really is and all of these insane little arguments based on our boredom or our choice of party and just keep these three things in mind as we head back into the workplace:

Be conscious, be cautious, and be considerate.

I don’t want to wear a mask, but I’m going to do it because it might help save someone and because the research is that if everyone does it, everyone benefits. I don’t want to wear a mask but I’m not going to run to find every study I can find to justify my own desires. I’m just going to shut up and do it, because there are even more studies that show it helps slow the spread. I’m going to be conscious that we’re not out of the woods. That this virus is a threat not only to our lives but to our continued economy. If it spreads it risks your job, and mine. And I’m going to be cautious, and try not to do something stupid, like get myself sick.

Trump this week held an interview with Fox News at the Lincoln Memorial. Since Abraham Lincoln first uttered the lines, we Americans have been under a frequent appeal to heed the “better angels of our nature.” Now is certainly one of those times.

Government is never going to get it completely right. No matter who is in office.

It is always up to us. For a population that hasn’t been asked to do a great deal for our country or society, we’re comparatively soft. But even we know, the time is coming for us to stop complaining and get back into the game, and probably do some things we don’t want to do. Let us do them consciously, cautiously, considerately. We do that, we’ll move on through this, and live to fight with each other another day.