The cover of Sunday’s New York Times was a jarring, depressing reminder that the pandemic has had a devastating and long lasting impact on our nation. The headline US Deaths Near 100,000–An Incalculable Loss was followed by a roll call of 1,000 names that spanned the entire front page and represented only 10% of those individuals lost to a virus that a few short months ago seemed — to many people — like some other country’s problem. As I sat and stared and digested the enormity of it, the positive, up-beat mood I’d been enjoying for the past few days evaporated into a cloud of despair. We are not ok.
As we see the country opening back up, and the images of beach-goers and boaters and back yard bbq-ers litter our social media feeds this Memorial Day Weekend, it’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security. It’s alluring to think that we’re on the other side of the crisis, that we’re moving toward normal. But in reality there is no normal anymore, and we won’t be going back to the “before”. And if we aren’t careful, there won’t be an “after” either.
By now, almost everyone knows someone who has contracted COVID-19, knows someone who has lost someone to COVID-19, knows someone who has lost their job because of COVID-19 or is personally suffering loss of a loved one or a financial hardship because of COVID-19. That’s why to me it seems unfathomable that some people refuse to see this crisis as a shared problem.
Tempting as it is to head to the salon the second it opens, or get your “TJ Maxx” on, or invite all your neighbors over for burgers and beer, or whatever…we’ve got to recognize that the more we do that now, the longer it’s going to take to get our feet back on terra firma. If there is widespread disregard for guidelines and rules set by officials with access to data and predictive models, the worse off we’re going to be in the long run. What’s that saying… “a minute on the lips, forever on the hips”? It’s kind of like that. Choose wisely now, so you don’t regret it later.
Don’t get me wrong- I am as excited as everyone else about things reopening. Meeting friends for a drink, eating a dinner that I didn’t cook, popping into a store to pick up something on a whim all seem like a dream. And, I do think it’s important to relax the restrictions a bit now (where cases and deaths are declining) because in addition to protecting the health of our nation, we also need to protect the well being of our citizens. People are suffering financial devastation because the economy has been brought to a stand still with stores, restaurants and companies being closed and jobs being eliminated in alarming numbers. The longer we wait to get small businesses up and running, the harder its going to be for them to recover (especially if the government can’t or won’t provide the relief packages that have been promised). And we can’t have that. We cannot become a nation of chain restaurants and box stores. We can’t let the American dream die.
I’m grateful that I live in a state that has a governor who is approaching the job of reopening with a plan that’s based on science and data. It makes me feel more comfortable about venturing out of the little safe bubble I’ve created for myself and my family. It makes me a bit more hopeful that local establishments and small businesses will make it through, and eventually thrive again. But the thing that worries me is that the plan also relies on the total cooperation and adoption by everyone. And that’s where the “we’re all in this together” reminder comes in. I know, I know– that phrase has been tossed around way too much lately. But there’s a reason for it.
There’s a way we can do this. We all wear masks, we all stay six feet away, we all wait patiently in line to get into stores, we all practice good hygiene, we all only gather outside and only in groups of less than 10, we do all the things that the experts are telling us we need to do when we re-enter “real life”. I don’t see how asking this of citizens infringes on their civil liberties. I don’t understand why some people feel so threatened by it. Or actually, ok I do: and it’s the current Administration, headed by a President distracted by his re-election odds and his own personal gain who can’t be bothered to set an example, and worse has a fondness for spreading dangerous and destructive disinformation. There I said it. Why can’t we have clear direction and a unified coordinated effort at the federal level that would eliminate any doubt about what’s best for individuals and the nation? Why can’t we be New Zealand?
I hate how we look at each other warily as we pass in the streets. I hate how we instantly judge someone’s character or political leaning by whether they’re wearing a mask or not. I hate feeling guilty when I stop to talk to someone I know when I run into them at the grocery store or in passing on one of the 32 walks I take every day. I think a lot of this wariness and animosity could be solved if everyone had the same plan to follow, if everyone had a true leader to look to, if we had a consistent message that reinforced and reminded us why we needed to do these things. But we don’t. We are a captain-less ship, and we’ve got no clear course.
I don’t know if you saw the videos circulating of the pool party that happened at the Lake of the Ozarks on Saturday, but I can tell you it’s terrifying. The hundreds of people frolicking and climbing all over each other in a shallow pool would be gross even if we weren’t in the throes of a pandemic. But to see it happening now is just absurd. You don’t see these types of things happening in other countries. We used to be a nation that the rest of the world looked up to. But now we’re just largely regarded as a nation of fools. I look at scenes like this and it makes me angry, but it also makes me sad. It doesn’t have to be this way. We need to figure out how to move away from this toxic individualism our country is suffering from. And by that I mean this idea that “I can believe what I want, and if it doesn’t affect me personally I don’t care”. There’s a lot wrong with our system– the staggering inequity is profoundly obvious right now– and so much of it stems from this individualistic mentality.
Maybe through this crisis we’ve been given a chance to change that…or at least start to change it.
The Chinese word for “crisis” (simplified Chinese: 危机; traditional Chinese: 危機; pinyin: wēijī, wéijī) is frequently invoked in Western speaking as being composed of two Chinese characters signifying “danger” and “opportunity” respectively.
I learned this the other day in a stress management session I attended at work. And by “at work” I mean my dining room, and by “attended” I mean “logged on to Zoom” because that’s how we roll these days, but I digress…
I’ve been thinking a lot about it since. Does it mean that within a crisis you have both danger and opportunity? Like in a pandemic, you have a danger of dying and getting others sick so you stay home which gives you an opportunity to have actual conversations with your kids, discover (or re-discover) creative passions, do lots of yoga, make a ton of banana bread and finally organize your sock drawer? Or does it mean that there’s a danger in not using it as an opportunity to foster great change? Like when a pandemic hits during a time when your nation is deeply divided and you’re being “led” by a hate-mongering, self serving egomaniac with complete disregard for law and a disdain for democracy and you decide NOT to use it as a reason to unify and join together for the better good so that you don’t lose a large percentage of your aging and vulnerable population and your economy doesn’t totally collapse? Hmmm… for the sake of argument let’s say it’s the latter.
We could use this as a chance to move away from individualism and move toward a more collective, cooperative ethos. We need to move away from “How is this going to affect me?” to ” How can I help others and ensure this disease doesn’t spread?”
Right now we’re in a crisis. And if we don’t use this opportunity to come together, all of us are in grave danger.