Fifteen days. That’s how long we were told to stay at home- excuse me, I mean #StayAtHome- before the situation would be reassessed, wasn’t it? My memory is sort of hazy, as traditional time keeping has lost all meaning. But according to the Gregorian Calendar from days of yore, that seems to be where we’re at now. So, what’s the story?
Although this new and shockingly different phase of American life is so unpredictable, nothing could be more predictable than the idea that the quarantine would last longer than fifteen days- MUCH longer, in fact. Regardless of whether or not the pandemic will be as bad as the experts claim- and the jury is still very much out on THAT point, at least- nothing could stop the death toll from rising well into the Spring of 2020, if not longer. The idea that we could just turn everything back on after two short weeks, as the hospital beds and body bags started piling up- literally- was always absurd. But give the politicians credit, however reluctantly, for realizing that it would be much easier to sell the public on this idea in short phases, as opposed to telling us how long it would really take. America has had endless nostalgia for World War II for longer than most of us have been alive, so it’s no surprise that in mobilizing the public- or demobilizing, in this case- we hear all about the sacrifices our grandparents and great grandparents made for their country. But the harsh reality is that this whole thing looks far closer to a different war- Vietnam.
THE RISE OF INCREMENTALISM
Unlike World War II, Vietnam never had a defining Pearl Harbor style point of entry. America got involved very slowly, first assisting the French, followed by the South Vietnamese. Before we knew it, we’d taken over the whole operation, without any definitive goals or exit strategy. All we knew was we wanted to slow the spread of Communism, even though we didn’t know by how much or by which measures. Sound familiar?
Of course, this is not a perfect analogy- very few analogies are. Unfortunately, the analogy breaks down largely because there are far greater consequences to the “war” we are currently fighting. For one thing, it’s already a distinct possibility that we could lose more people to COVID-19 this year, than we did in the entire Vietnam War combined. But on an even larger scale, Vietnam did not have a direct effect on the majority of the population. Oh sure, people grew their hair longer and came up with some slogans to yell in the street, but for the most part, American life continued on uninterrupted. The coronavirus gives us no chance to avoid the fight, to enroll in a university (most of them are closed down, anyway), or have well-connected parents keep us safe. These days, we are all growing our hair longer, because hair salons have been forced to close, much like most American businesses. Even more disturbingly, at least to some of us, is the government is giving us even less of a chance than the virus itself, as they clamp down on more and more of our freedoms, in the name of “keeping us safe”. But the government can’t do this alone. Fortunately for them, they haven’t had to.
Thanks to some well-crafted propaganda, restrictions are getting tighter, while deadlines for *ahem* “returning to normal” are getting longer. Although the liberal side of the aisle are more enthusiastic about embracing these measures in the name of “the greater good”, no one in power- not at the state level, not at the federal level, nor anywhere else of significance- gets a pass here. If anything, conservative politicians should be more criticized for this, because it’s their responsibility (at least in theory) to take unpopular positions that protect individual liberty over what the public might be clamoring for. Instead, we have the Republican governor of Maryland, taking some of the most draconian measures of all, to attempt combating the pandemic.
Whether or not these methods are the right thing to do or not (you’ve probably figured out what I think by now), it’s hard to remember a time that political spin in implementing them has been so successfully used on the public. Rather than admit the error of underestimating the virus’s spread before it hit our shores, the government turned to medical experts on what we need to do now. That’s all well and good, except for the fact that at least as of now, there isn’t much that can be done to change the course right now, given how quickly the virus spreads and how interconnected our society is. But, since we need to do something, the good doctors (we HOPE they’re good doctors, anyway) have sold us all on “social distancing” to “flatten the curve“- two concepts that did not even exist in American life at the beginning of this month, yet somehow BECAME American life by the end of this month. How effective are these methods? What is the cost? What is the trade-off in using them? None of these questions were asked in a thoughtful manner. We were just told that this was the way through, and seeing how frightened the American public became, it became accepted as gospel.
So this is where the propaganda machine really goes into high gear. Even believing the most infallible projections of social distancing’s effectiveness in flattening the curve, there was no way it would show strongly measurable results after a few weeks. Seeing how impatient our society is, that part was significantly downplayed, as Americans were told to wait it out for 15 days, then see what happens. So 15 days came and went, the death tolls (predictably) started rising, and what did happen? We were told that, “Gosh, the quarantine just didn’t work- not because we were given a false timeline, but because of those rotten Spring Breakers! And how about those people happily jogging around the block, or…gasp…flying kites in a public park?? THEY’RE the reason we need to lock-down longer!”
An angry public was all too happy to grab onto this myth, because like the climate change debate (remember that?) and many other complex problems, it’s more comforting to find a scapegoat, than to admit a problem is largely out of our control. The reality is, though, the American public adhered to these guidelines in astonishing numbers. Somewhere between 80% and 90%- and probably a lot closer to 90%- of the public willingly took themselves out of the daily grind, in the name of “stopping the spread”. (Another nifty phrase that has entered our lexicon.) In fact, most people were so willing to take this to an extreme even beyond what was recommended, those who wanted to continue going about their business outside, to the extent it was even allowed, could easily do so and STILL followed social distancing guidelines! The country is more unified in taking action (or inaction) than it was after 9-11.
Unfortunately, the divide-and-conquer strategy of pitting the majority living in extreme caution (if not outright fear), with the minority taking a more moderate approach, is working. This ultimately will not help anything get better. It will, however, give those already in power a reason to grab more, which they surely will.
None of this really answers the question of whether the virus will live up to the hype, nor does this blog post dare to even attempt answering that question. It is worth acknowledging that in New York City, New Orleans, and a few other spots across the country, there already seems to be a highly troubling strain on hospitals. But even with that in mind, tragic as it is, we are still nowhere near the kind of plague-like warnings that would justify shutting the economy down, assuming that would even be an effective countermeasure to begin with.
Unfortunately, one thing that already has been established, is that the rate of damage we are seeing done to the economy in real-time is without precedent in American history. Whether the damage itself will be unrivaled has yet to be seen, but after a mere three weeks, the signs are not looking good, particularly with the astonishing number of those filing for unemployment. Given that this shutdown will continue for AT LEAST another four weeks from this blog post, there’s no telling how much destruction will be done to our financial system and previous way of life. But at the current rate, it will certainly be far greater than the damage done by the virus itself.
(Next blog post will address the people that seem to be most vulnerable to the coronavirus, and the questions necessary to best deal with the surrounding facts.)