Two things happened yesterday, one macro and one micro, that made me realize how so done I am with what passes for our response to the coronavirus. I am tired of feeling punished for incompetence from the White House and for happening to live in the state that got hit third-hardest in the nation. The macro thing that happened is I learned that an annual event I always look forward to, the Lowell Folk Festival, has been cancelled for this year. (Lowell has also cancelled July 4th fireworks which are less interesting to me personally.) The Folk Fest would have been more than two months away and we do seem to be heading in the right direction in terms of cases, but I guess nobody wants to take any chances. For me every closure, restriction, and cancellation sounds like an admission of failure that I am not accustomed to in this country. The oft-cited precedent is the Spanish flu, but that was 100 years ago. Do you mean to tell me that in 21st century America with all our supposed medical knowledge and technology the best we can come up with is spread out and wear a mask – SERIOUSLY?!
Speaking of masks, that leads us to the micro event from yesterday that just about sent me over the edge – I went grocery shopping. I do this about once a week, but yesterday was the first time since Governor Baker made face coverings mandatory in such venues. (We’ll get back to executive fiats in a minute.) This was extremely uncomfortable to me and I tried, unsuccessfully, to get in and out of the store quickly. The covering was as loose as I could make it without falling off, but I still struggled to breathe. When I found myself without anyone in my immediate vicinity I removed it for a couple of seconds to take in some fresher air. I am not looking forward to repeating that experience next week.
I’ve also noticed that masks have become the latest method of virtue signaling for many on the left. To hear some tell it if you don’t want to wear a mask you must want people to die. Never mind a hospitalization rate of 5% and a fatality rate of 1%, and that’s just among those who contract the virus at all – a percentage which is also pretty low. On FB today I mentioned in a comment my breathing difficulties and other commenters told me to suck it up and that it was a small price to pay since the virus is much worse. Daily Kos has become mask orthodoxy central. If we were always this concerned about potential fatalities we would never fight another war, never get into a car, and definitely get more serious about access to firearms.
Our reaction I think has bordered on hysteria, but now instead of witches or Communists under every bed it’s COVID carriers. We rushed to shut everything down without deliberation regarding how this would affect all aspects of life. Public health voices are important, but so are voices regarding the economy, personal safety, education, civil liberties, etc. Almighty science can be a blunt instrument and we seemed to have used it as a sledgehammer when maybe a scalpel would have been more appropriate. The banning of gatherings is constitutionally fraught at best, especially when worship services are included in the ban. There is no more public health exception to the Constitution than there is an exception for terrorism. The United States should not bow to anything – not terrorism and not pandemic – and if we had reacted to September 11th the way we are reacting to the coronavirus we would have said the terrorists have won.
If we must fudge our liberties then at very least it should be by specific law enacted by the legislature rather than executive order. In a free and open society the people’s representatives need to be heard, though in this case many legislators we like were pushing the hardest for Baker to act even more quickly and decisively. I was very disappointed that liberals were not the ones asking the questions about how this would impact jobs, how it would impact education, how do we protect abuse victims, how does this square with protected rights, etc. As a co-equal branch they should on general principles question the executive on the use of his power, but we got barely a peep. While I’m sure Baker is acting in good faith, constitutional restrictions exist for those who might not. Banning gatherings reminds me of the Massachusetts Government Act which helped spark revolution. Face masks seem contrary to the idea of sovereignty over one’s own body and personal space.
I’m not against government action of course. In fact more of it early on would have been nice. The WH threw out Obama’s manual and council for fighting pandemics largely because I suspect they were indeed Obama’s. While I do not favor xenophobic blanket travel bans it seems beginning with the turn of this year we should have tested everyone seeking to enter the country – whether immigrant, visitor, or returning American – for the virus and isolated those who tested positive. Here in MA we should have contact-traced the heck out of February’s Biogen conference. It also seems we should have started work on a vaccine as soon as this appeared and meanwhile inoculate people with something that was close enough for a similar virus. I know this particular strand is new, but we do have some experience with similar viruses such as SARS, H1N1, and MERS. Even the “common” colds are in the coronavirus family. We should have done more to isolate the vulnerable, but in a way that did not have to involve upending the lives of the rest of us.
We have done what we can and it’s time to reassess the risk. I say let’s get on with it. There will likely be a bit of a spike in cases in the immediate aftermath of reopening whether we do it now or later, but waiting until a vaccine which may not be widely available until next year as I’m starting to hear some suggest is not tenable. Our species was not designed to hibernate. Our species was not designed to live in hermetically sealed six-foot radius bubbles. Our economy was not designed to take such a deliberate gut punch, but let me make this clear. I don’t want to reopen “for the economy”. I really could not care less about the health of Wall Street per se, but I’m also getting a little tired of hearing how the virus tanked the economy. No, the REACTION to the virus is what mostly tanked the economy. Some of us would like to get back to work, even though we may actually be making more through unemployment and stimulus than we were before.
I want to reopen my LIFE. I want to go to my meetings and events, and see people in the flesh. I want to get out of my lightly-furnished studio with half a kitchen that I was calling my cell even before all this happened. I don’t think it is selfish to want to do more than exist and I certainly don’t think it’s selfish to want to breathe in public. I also don’t think the consequences of easing up are going to be nearly as bad as some fear, but I for one think we can handle the risk. Part of me thinks we just have to let this run its course to some extent. That said, we should probably be more careful about germs, but not in a way that drives us nuts. We can all come up I’m sure with 100 different ways germs can get transmitted in the course of a normal day, which to me says we just have to accept it on some level and trust our immune systems. Basically I’m saying develop and maintain healthy habits, but without becoming Howie Mandel in the process.
As we reopen we need to recalibrate how this is reported as well. The numbers are real, but not given a lot of context. The media have continued the mentality of “if it bleeds it leads”. They are quick to report new cases and new deaths, especially when those stats cross a round number threshold, but they have not pointed out how low the percentages are. I usually have to do that math myself, as well as go digging for recovery figures, which have consistently far outpaced deaths. The vast majority of people would probably be content to live their lives as normal if not bombarded by this story day in and day out. While I for one have a “keep calm and carry on” attitude and will be happy to jump right back in to life with both feet as soon as permitted many will be much more cautious, especially if all they continue to hear is the bad news. One way or another, sooner rather than later, we have to simply decide it’s time to move on even if we don’t have perfect solutions on the virus.
(end of rant)