As the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic raged across the country over the summer of 2020, there was no shortage of public health officials, epidemiologists, medical practitioners and statisticians warning that a second wave of the virus could be expected. They implored the public to minimize social gatherings, continue wearing masks when around people and prepare for the possibility of new restrictions and lockdowns. Instead of adopting these recommendations, state and federal leaders whined, complained, argued and actively fought against them in a effort to end lockdowns and return the economy to a semblance of normalcy. The fact that a second wave of coronavirus would coincide with the annual influenza season seemed not to bother them and, in direct defiance of specific and dire concerns from the medical community, forged ahead with their often politically motivated reopening plans. Not content with simply ignoring these well-reasoned please from experts, the Trump administration, state governors, right-wing media outlets and groups of angry inconvenienced citizens took to undermining, demonizing and even outright threatening those experts in the name of ‘individual freedom’ and to avoid the unpleasant work of crisis mitigation.
Now we have arrived at the holiday season and, sure enough, the country appears to again be awash in infection, hospitalization and death. Just as the models foretold, the relaxed isolation and quarantine precautions and the remarkable public resistance to masking and social distancing have led to a dramatic increase in COVID-19 diagnoses and a renewed strain upon the nation’s already buckling healthcare infrastructure. There are no simple answers as to how or why this has happened when many other countries have demonstrated that timely and concerted action can make an enormous difference. Part of this stems from a century of learned American exceptionalism, an ultimately self-destructive notion that the United States has nothing to learn from anyone and that whatever route benefits the US is the best option for the rest of the world. Another part of the issue is the result of electing a self-absorbed buffoon as the nation’s head of state and allowing his horde of devotees inside and outside Washington spread their toxic miasma of disinformation, suspicion and nationalistic claptrap. A third part is bound in the waning influence of science and rationalism in the West as reactionary quasi-fascist groups claw their way into power at the expense of liberal democratic institutions.
In the United States, however, a key source of this pushback against masking and limiting social interaction comes from the fact its has been generations since Americans have had to, as an entire society, sacrifice their standard and routine of living to combat some greater threat. I would argue that the last time the average American citizen had to make major changes to their everyday lifestyle in response to some existential threat was during the Second World War. Durning the 1940s, Americans had to ration commodities and limit consumption to ensure a steady supply of resources and supplies for the troops overseas. What has happened since then that demanded such societal modifications? The 1970s’ oil crises necessitated some short-term adjustments in America’s buying habits, but those changes were soon abandoned in the ensuing years as energy became inexpensive again. There were various economic downturns and military adventures over the 1990s and into the new millennium, but none were sufficiently serious to cause wholesale changes in the consumption habits or the lifestyle on the country.
Regardless of the platitudes fed us by politicians, Americans aren’t the best at handling large-scale changes and adaptations. We fought a cataclysmic war, in large part, because certain states wanted the ‘right’ to practice chattel slavery. We saw citizens threatened and beaten for daring interrupt the machinery of industry by calling for better working conditions. We watched as our black neighbors were terrorized for upsetting deeply entrenched racism by demanding civil rights. Now we are watching as a poorly managed public health crisis expands daily because we, as a society, are largely unwilling to commit to the drastic and long-term actions required to rein in this epidemic. I fully understand that comparing the current animus to lockdowns and compulsory masking to the firebombing and lynching of the Civil Rights era or the militant opposition to organized labor at the beginning of the 20th century is both unfair and hyperbolic. The comparison is designed to illustrate how there is a connecting fiber and how, throughout the republic’s history, there have been people willing to go to extraordinary lengths to preserve their own sense of identity and control, even if it meant endangering themselves or others.
Despite what sensationalist headlines might have us believe, SARS-CoV-2 has not rebounded just because a hundred thousand bikers drove to their annual party in Sturgis, South Dakota or because some domestic terrorists in Michigan opposed the governor’s handling of things and thought kidnapping her was an appropriate course of action. The virus has renewed its spread because of a million innocent interactions in thousands of locations across the country. By the time August and September arrived, even the most tightly restricted states had relaxed their limitations and were moving through their various reopening phases. Churches were holding in-person services again; schools were having more classroom teaching; restaurants and bars were getting crowded again and there was a general feeling among many that the worst we over and that we could all finally loosen up. Then October came, and the figures began climbing again. In fact, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, October alone added about 2,000,000 new infections to the national disaster. Another 2,000,000 have been logged since Halloween and, as of this writing, we are still not to Thanksgiving.
At the end of the day, the problem with this country’s response (or lack thereof) to this global pandemic has to be there are simply too many problems:
- The appalling laxity among national leadership
- Presenting the pandemic as a geo-political issue rather than a public health one
- A lack of uniform and coordinated response from state governments
- Rampant misinformation campaigns by foreign and domestic actors
- Social media replacing traditional journalism
- Traditional journalism being increasingly influenced by corporate demands
- The fractured and unwieldy nature of American for-revenue healthcare
None of these problems by themselves would have caused the level of chaos and suffering we have witnessed since March, but the combination of these and other contributing factors (many of them directly attributable to the presence of Donald Trump in the White House) created a maelstrom that has resulted in nationwide confusion and tension with no discernible end in sight. The constant vacillating on the part of national and many state leaders, their laissez-faire approach to a fast-moving and increasingly serious public health crisis and the widespread distrust of hitherto respected sources of information have led us to this point and, sadly, a change in administration in January will only accomplish so much. There is, in many quarters, a powerful movement against so-called liberal institutions that have come to include scientific communities, higher education, mainstream media and any entities working alongside international organizations. This trend will, in all likelihood, only continue in the coming years and we must find ways to combat its damaging rise without succumbing to the counterproductive tools of shaming, lecturing and pontificating. This will also prove an monumental challenge.