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  • Christopher Strain

A Too-Soon History of the COVID-19 Epidemic

I’m no epidemiologist. What little I know about public health precautions I’ve learned from those who know a lot more than me (which could be said about everything I know). I’ve listened to the experts and tried to do what they say. We all did, for the most part—for a while at least.

We’d seen social distancing and safer-at-home measures work in other places. We tried them and they seemed to work here too. We canceled vacations and business travel and bought webcams and Chrome Books and stocked up on cleaning products and hand sanitizer and stayed home if we could. We stitched homemade face coverings to substitute for surgical masks. We deemed those working on the frontlines “essential personnel,” giving their jobs the heroic recognition they deserve. There was a sense of solidarity. We were working to flatten the curve, biding time for the scientists and their anti-virals and vaccines.

Homeschooling was difficult and our kids were driving us nuts and we couldn’t find any toilet paper and the novelty wore off fast. It was stressful and inconvenient and scary and just plain hard. We joked about day drinking and found new appreciation for teachers, who showed us that the nation’s oft maligned public educational system was also its most nimble bureaucracy.

The worst was the economic hardship. Many of us were hit hard—very hard. We worried about our jobs and worried about having enough money to pay bills and make ends meet. Restaurants closed and businesses shuttered. We missed mortgage payments and rent checks.

But we were in it together, rising to the occasion by coming together in the face of fear to help each other and overcome adversity. And things seemed, maybe, to be getting better. The wave of sickness and death that had seemed imminent never washed over most of us.

A vocal few clamored for a return to normality. Some, like small business owners who were suffering, had legit complaints. Others seemed to be parodies of themselves: the selfish and invulnerable(-feeling) millennials, aching to get back to the gym or the bar or both; the women whose roots were showing and felt they needed a dye job; the corporate bigwigs who cried poor mouth and turned their pockets inside-out to show they had nothing; the vociferous Tea Party cranks insistent that their “freedoms” were being trampled. It might have been funny that the flag-waving uber-patriots were the ones shirking their civic duty over something as petty as wearing a mask in public; instead it was horrifying, as those protesting at state houses morphed into terrorists with pistols and AR-15s slung on their hips and chests, respectively.

We learned that the protests were “astroturfed,” and so learned a new vocabulary word, a helpful term to describe the practice of concealing the sponsorship of political messaging to make it appear to have grassroots origins. The protests were neither spontaneous nor organic. Many web addresses related to the protests could be linked to domains associated with only a few gun advocacy groups, lobbyists, and other conservative organizations. We were reminded how, in the digital age, democracy can be easily distorted and manipulated. When Americans should have been focused on fighting a dangerous, unchecked virus, they now had to worry about misinformation and counterknowledge, wielded by partisan political operatives, too.

It was hard to keep up with all of the conspiracy theories: China deliberately engineered the virus in a lab; the virus was spreading via 5G technology; Bill Gates wanted to use vaccination to microchip the populace, and more. Conspiracists undermined fact-based argumentation with their tweets and Facebook posts, which followed a recognizable pattern: “I don’t have an opinion about [Plandemic/Pizzagate/This Other Questionable Thing I’m Sharing Online]. I’m not looking for a fight. I just think it’s interesting [or funny]. Just putting it out there.” None of these notions was posed as an actual argument to be debated, countered, and disproven with logic and reason—and if one tried the plucky conspiracist would accuse skeptics of being humorless or, even worse, being uninformed or gullible (“Wake up, sheeple!”).

If there was a silver lining it was in the way the planet exhaled, enjoying a break from her humans withdrawn to their shelters. The air cleared and the streams brightened and the animals ventured out from the few remaining natural corners into which we’d driven them. Nature seemed to revel in the spaces we’d vacated.

Some of us gained new insight, a new perspective forced by adversity. We were reminded that the normality for which we ached was itself substandard, with spiritual and medical and political and economic shortfalls. We noticed that some Americans lacked empathy, willing to let vulnerable populations fend for themselves. We noticed that our health care system was ill-prepared for a massive influx of patients; our hospitals were short on beds, ventilators, masks, and test kits. We noticed a gross lack of political leadership. And most of all we noticed an inhumane economic system so oriented toward profit and the bottom line that it couldn’t pivot to protect out-of-work people who needed assistance. Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (or CARES) Act on March 27, 2020, but the $2.2 trillion of scattershot “Economic Impact Payments,” liberally distributed not only to those who needed them but also to those who didn’t, dissipated ineffectually.

In the midst of it all, a killing in Brunswick, Georgia, reminded us that racism and intolerance could survive even a global pandemic. Ahmaud Arbery, an African American man, was stalked and killed by a white sheriff’s deputy and his son while jogging through a white neighborhood. We were not, and had in fact never been, inoculated against white privilege, racial profiling, and vigilantism.

And, seeing the environmental degradation and profiteering and racism and sickness, some of us wondered if a new normal might emerge from the ruins of a broken society, a phoenix rising from the ashes. Had the pandemic, so disruptive and frightening, lifted a veil on our cognitive dissonance? Could we or would we even want to go back to the way things were?

But we were trapped by a paradox predetermined by our current political divisions, the widening gulf between us and them. Some saw less illness and mortality than expected and noted that the public health measures were working; some saw less illness and mortality than expected and noted that the public health measures were unnecessary, much ado about nothing. And the gulf swallowed us and we just kind of gave up. We were tired and we needed haircuts and our masks itched and we quit.

It’s been a devastating spring so far: 33 million Americans out of work, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and 84,000 Americans dead of COVID-19 in the past fourteen weeks—which is 28 times the death toll of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, more than the U.S. combat deaths in the Vietnam War, and one-quarter of the total global casualties from the coronavirus pandemic. Despite roughly 1,800 deaths per day in recent days and rising infection rates in parts of the country, at least 41 states have begun to ease restrictions, or are preparing to do so. Governors have proceeded with reopening despite not having achieved benchmarks set by public health officials. As a result, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has amended forecasts, estimating that some 3,000 Americans could be dying per day by June 1, the equivalent of 9/11 every day.

One is left with a sense that it didn’t have to be this way. We could have had a pandemic response team. We could have been preparing since January. We could have had a competent, unified federal response, coordinating with the CDC and the WHO. As Haley Sweetland Edwards recently wrote in Time, “There’s no reason the wealthiest country in the world—the nation that rebuilt Europe, that went to the moon, that claims exceptionalism as its birthright—should have to choose between economic resilience and protecting the lives of its most vulnerable citizens.” Other nations that acted more quickly to curb the spread of the virus have limited damage on both fronts.

Perhaps it’s not too late. Perhaps through American ingenuity and pluck we can right the ship. What happens next hasn’t happened yet, and the ending to this story has yet to be written. Perhaps—in our unity and buoyancy in the face of hardship—we can make America great again, or, better yet, make it better than it was. What will our new normal be? What will we become, post-COVID-19?

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