We and our science are not in control. It took a 120-nanometer virus to remind us.
As I have traveled and skipped across the “fruited plain” recently, I was struck by how tolerant and decent our fellow citizens were in the first weeks and months of the Wuhan COVID crisis.
National, state, and local governments called upon Americans to sacrifice their livelihoods and way of life to stop an unseen threat. To shelter in place, and close the main lines of commerce to kill a microscopic alien. Americans complied with the rules by and large, even without the evidence that the solutions were even effective. The option of millions of their fellow citizens dying was no option. Or so the scientist and experts told us.
The mantra is that we have to believe the science, not question it.
Now, two months later, the veneer of necessity has been lost, and Americans are finding that the cost is staggering, complicated, and frustrating. Thirty million-plus are out of work, and millions of jobs may be lost forever as perhaps millions of small businesses close for good. (And the lives of their owners will be turned upside down.)
Many citizens watched in suspicion as behemoth box stores remained open, often selling the same goods or services sold at the closed up businesses they can see up and down their boulevards. While the layoffs and furloughs rolled through the private economy, conspicuously, no government workers were laid off. President Trump has barely left the White House grounds in months, yet the Congress has been gone for weeks and is planning to leave town again.
Worse, perhaps, petty little bureaucratic governors and mayors across the country showed their real character. They love unchecked power like a kid loves ice cream. They can’t get enough. Worse, when they’re challenged, they become hostile and demeaning. Americans are also learning that these new potentates are often operating outside the rule of law. Many state constitutions or enabling legislation for emergency powers during a crisis, don’t identify the boundaries to that authority, or describe how those powers can be enforced (which means cops end up arresting a mom in an empty park with their kid, even though there may or may not be any real authority to do so.) The Bill of Rights became The Bill of Maybes overnight.
Now there is growing and loud push-back.
The general attitude of our fellow citizens during my travels, at least, is this whole thing has gotten out of hand. Enough is enough.
A dog groomer of a long-established business told me, I’ve got weeks, not months, or I’ll have to close for good.” He went on, “Here’s the thing, you drive up to PetCo, and they’ll do all the grooming you want. How’s that right?”
I asked, “What if we’re told that we have to shut down again next year, or the year after, what then?”
“Knowing what I know now? No. Wouldn’t do it.”
But even small businesses that are open are being crushed. A small convenience store’s traffic is down 80% the owner reports. A dry cleaner is open, barely. With so many businesses closed and employees at home using Zoom or Facetime, business has slowed to a trickle. The owner is the only one left to service those that do come in. “Just me here. I would be better off just closing.”
A hairdresser just got back to work. “With the restrictions, I can only be here a few days a week because we have to rotate with other stylists,” she mumbles through her mask. “It’s really hard, and I have to plan for more time spent with each customer.”
(In this case, both her mother and grandmother became infected, and her grandmother had to be hospitalized, where she recovered two days after she received a Hydroxychloroquine and Azithromycin treatment. They both have underlying medical issues.)
I asked her, “So, tell me, God forbid we have a re-run of the COVID, do we shut the economy down again?”
She barked, “Absolutely not! And no one else here would either. We won’t do it again.”
Everyone obviously is heartbroken about the death toll and isolation of older Americans in retirement homes. And they are saddened that there are no good choices for how to address a crisis like the COVID. However, for many millions of citizens, the cure was indeed worse than the disease, and they seem to understand and accept that there is no perfect answer. Still, there are common-sense solutions short of crashing the entire economy for the whole nation.
How can they not be conflicted? The science and the doctors and models were insanely off in the projections. Every other day offered new estimates that proved wrong. Also, there are many doctors and nurses (some of whom have been taken down by social media platforms) coming forward and explaining that if you have no underlying health or immune system issues, and you’re under 65 years of age, there is no statistical reason you shouldn’t be at work or school. They don’t make the nightly news.
Also, it’s now clear that the Wuhan bug’s concentration of deaths has been in the New Jersey, New York, Connecticut corridor, plus Massachusetts and Illinois. These were all states that were telling people “not to worry” right into March and where nursing homes were not locked down. In comparison, major states like Florida and Texas and the vast majority of smaller states have experienced comparatively light infection and death rates.
The question, “What do we do next time,” may have already been answered out beyond the Washington beltway.
And, finally, here is one thing your humble commentator believes has happened in the course of this nightmare; new generations of Americans are being challenged by eternal truth, that we and our science are not in control. It took a 120-nanometer virus to remind us.