Tag Archives: health care

Monday Musings: Covid-19 and America’s Character Flaw

Many of you know that I have a Ph.D. in U.S. History. My years of studying America’s past have taught me a lot and left me fully aware of the dangers inherent in making broad, sweeping generalizations. And yet…

I believe our nation is failing so completely in combatting Covid-19 at least in part because we, as a society and as a nation, are not capable of doing what we must to succeed. The ethos of American culture, such as it is, revolves around “individualism” and “personal liberty,” values that are fundamentally antithetical to communal sacrifice and collective thinking. The pandemic was bound to hit us hardest, because we are not wired for the sort of social solutions needed to combat it.

Right now, the United States, which accounts for about 4% of the world’s population, has seen approximately one quarter of all reported cases and deaths worldwide. Yes, there are legitimate questions about the accuracy of the figures released by a few other countries, but there can be no doubt that the U.S. is faring far worse against Covid-19 than it should, and far, far, FAR worse than the countries we consider our peers and closest allies. Some of the blame for this falls squarely on the Trump Administration, whose response has been scattershot, ineffective, and deeply irresponsible. Some of the blame falls on local politicians, who have parroted Trump’s denials and lies. Some of the blame can also be tied to the size of the United States, and the diffuse nature of our various levels of government.

But that is also where we start to see the impact of our obsession with “liberty.” Months ago, the Federal Government should have issued an order requiring the use of face masks in all public places. But many state leaders would have screamed bloody murder at such “Federal overreach.” Localities, they would argue, ought to have the final say in what sort of dictates are imposed on their citizens.

Unless those dictates are deemed too onerous by the Liberty Junkies. Brian Kemp (Moron — Georgia) has sued the mayor of Atlanta, Keesha Lance Bottoms, and the Atlanta city council, because they dared to issue a mandatory mask order, in violation of his ban on such orders from all localities in the state. Kemp claims to believe that people ought to wear masks, but he is adamantly opposed to making this mandatory. Similar debates are taking place all across my state of Tennessee. A coalition of doctors here asked our governor, Bill Lee (Spineless — Tennessee), to issue a mask mandate. He refused, instead authorizing county mayors to issue such directives if they so choose. Too many have chosen not to, including one who said explicitly, “We were debating masks when we should be discussing liberty, freedom, and personal responsibility.”

I want to ask these people if their belief in personal responsibility extends to driving 100 mph on their county roads, or if their troopers will still be ticketing for that. To my mind there is little difference between speed limits and mask requirements. Experts tell us that filling the roads with drivers who drive at excessive speeds will lead to property damage, injuries, and deaths. Controlling speeds is a matter of public safety. Experts tell us that the spread of coronavirus will be slowed by people wearing masks that protect themselves and others from the spray of infected liquids that results from human respiration and conversation, not to mention coughing and sneezing. It, too, is a matter of public safety.

Will wearing masks prevent all new infections? Of course not. Nor will speed limit laws prevent all accidents. Is it possible that someone not wearing a mask will manage to avoid getting sick and infecting others? Sure, it’s possible. And it’s possible that some asshole driving 97 on a twisty county road will reach home alive. That doesn’t make it a good idea.

The problem is, the Liberty Junkies have never gotten over being nine years old and shouting “It’s a free country!” every time someone tells them to do something they don’t want to do. Honestly, I don’t understand the vehement reaction of mask-wearing. It’s just not that big a deal. Even if it were more onerous, though, that wouldn’t change the essential facts: Wearing a mask makes each of us less vulnerable to the disease. It makes it less likely that we will spread Covid to someone else. And, by keeping us healthy, it also protects our friends and loved ones from subsequent infection. That, to my mind, should be the end of the discussion.

In New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and many European countries, infection rates spiked and then subsided because people took quickly to masking, to social distancing, and to complete and prolonged economic inactivity. And, actually, those steps briefly worked here, too. For just a moment, we had started to get a handle on this thing. The advice of the experts worked. (And, I’ll add, it also didn’t hurt that all of the other countries I mentioned have universal health care coverage, making it easier for the sick to get the treatment they needed.)

But here, too many people still refused to wear masks and to distance, and attempts to close down the economy were met with impatience and outright resistance. It doesn’t help that many in Congress have been unwilling to extend the sort of financial relief that would make a lengthy economic shutdown less destructive. That’s part of the American obsession with individualism as well. As a nation, we don’t want “socialized” anything. We don’t want to give people “handouts,” even when such benefits are precisely what circumstances demand. Because somehow catering to the public welfare in such a way is equated with “weakness” and moral turpitude.

Lots of factors have contributed to our country’s disastrous response to the pandemic, and I believe the Trump Administration bears much responsibility. But I would argue as well that Trump and his lackeys couldn’t get away with their demonization of experts and their rejection of masks and other simple, proven methods to contain the virus, if our national culture didn’t make such tactics so easy. For too long, we have idolized America’s “rugged individual” and fetishized “personal freedom.” Is it any wonder that so many in this nation find it perfectly acceptable to ignore the common good?

Monday Musings: Covid-19 Anger Redux

Back in mid-April, I wrote a post about the pandemic that drew a bit of attention. In it I expressed a good deal of anger. Anger at claims that the virus was not as bad as some were making it out to be. Anger at people who were calling dire projections of high fatalities a “hoax” because the CDC had lowered some of its worst-case estimates. And anger at government leaders who were calling for an early re-opening of the economy because, really, how bad could the virus be compared to a steep recession.

If you think I was pissed off then, how angry do you think I am now?

Let’s start with those fatality projections. Here is what I wrote in that April post:

“How many of you have heard people claiming that, because the national death toll is now projected to be lower – ‘merely’ 64,000 rather than 100,000-240,000 – the more alarmist projections were a ‘hoax’ and symptomatic of panic and overreaction?”

First of all, how quaint that experts were projecting a death toll of 64,000 in April. We’re beyond twice that number now, and deaths in the U.S. are rising again. We’re over 135,000, heading toward God-knows-what. When I wrote that piece, the U.S. had 682,000 Covid-19 cases (we’re over 3.2 million now) and 23,000 deaths. And we thought things were terrible. It was a crisis. We took solace in that 64,000 death projection, horrible though it was.

As I said at the time, those who were shouting, “Hoax!” because the projections had gone down, ignored the reason those estimates fell: namely that the country had adopted safety measures recommended by health experts. We were washing our hands, starting to wear masks, distancing ourselves from the people around us. And we cut way, way back on our economic and social activity. The popular phrase was “we closed the economy.” Those measures worked. That’s why the death toll seemed to be falling, why the outlook improved so markedly.

Let me pause here to say this: The pain of a recession, particularly one that begins so abruptly and dives so deep, is no trifle. People are hurting. Those who have lost jobs are in danger of losing their homes as well. They may lose access to health care, in the short term at least, and in the long-term as well if the Trump Administration’s attempts to destroy the Affordable Care Act finally succeed. I do not mean to ignore the suffering caused by this economic downturn.

But the fact is, we opened up too soon. Here’s something else I wrote back in April.

“…The President’s talk of opening up the country before his own health experts deem it safe is a recipe for disaster. We are in the first wave of this pandemic. More waves will come. Flattening the curve now does NOT mean we have won. It means we have bought ourselves a bit of time.”

Look, I’m not trying to engage in a gotcha game of “I Told You So.” I’m not a medical expert, and I don’t claim to be. Everything I said in that first post I learned from others, from reading articles and listening to reports from respected news sources. Anybody could have written that post, if only they had been paying attention. Anybody should have been able to see coming what has happened in our country over the last month. Cases are spiking all through the South and the Sunbelt. All those states that looked at New York and New Jersey and said, “Well Covid-19 is their problem,” are learning now what they should have understood then: New York was not the exception, it was their future.

It is too simplistic to blame one party, much less one person. But let’s be honest about this, too: Donald Trump helped set the stage for this by engaging in wishful thinking, by downplaying the danger of the virus when all his medical advisors were telling him how bleak our future might be. And people like Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis and Brian Kemp and Doug Ducey (the governors of Texas, Florida, Georgia, and Arizona respectively) were all too happy to parrot him.

As a result – and this is the truly tragic and infuriating element in all this, as pointed out recently by Rachel Maddow – the sacrifices we made back in March and April, when we did close the economy, when millions upon millions of people lost their jobs, when social distancing denied so many grieving families the opportunity to mourn properly for lost loved ones, have turned out to be for naught. We sacrificed so much, and because we were careless and impatient and overeager, we are suffering mind-numbing losses anyway.

And still people don’t get it. Every day throughout the country, people whose definition of “liberty” suddenly means “not having to protect themselves and others from infection by wearing a mask” are making matters worse. They have decided that being “free” is more important than being part of a community. They have decided that their right to risk their own health is more important than your right, and my right, not to be placed at risk. Pardon my bluntness, but fuck them. We wear masks to protect ourselves and to protect those around us. We wear them to protect our families and friends who might be at risk if we contract this vicious disease. We wear them because smart people, qualified people, people who are experts in medicine and epidemiology, tell us that doing so is the prudent thing to do.

Those same smart people are now trying to warn us, to warn our President and the political sycophants who run so many states, that reopening schools without taking extraordinary precautions could put our children at grave risk as well. The President is having none of it. Same with too many governors.

Are we willing to see tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or millions of school children infected with Covid-19? We have already seen this sort of scenario play out. We know how this could end. We have gotten so much wrong since this pandemic began. Our leaders have failed us in so many ways. We cannot take this chance.

Please.

I don’t want to write another post like this three months from now. I certainly don’t want to write it about children.

Monday Musings: Covid-19 and Hope

Last week, when I wrote my Monday Musings post, I was pretty ticked off at the world. And this week, after watching “protesters” in Michigan, North Carolina, and other states take part in the worst sort of astroturf demonstrations, one might expect that my mood would be even worse.

I mean, think about it. People in NC drove to the state capital to demand that their state be opened up because, they claim, the governor has overreacted to the crisis. Yet, many of these protesters remained sequestered in their trucks wearing face masks! You can’t make this shit up! Then there are the Michiganders who showed up for their protests carrying high-powered rifles and Confederate flags (dude, I live in the South, and the flag has nothing to do with my heritage. It sure as shit has nothing to do with yours…). One guy carried a banner that read “Trump Pence” and that displayed between their names an enormous Swastika. Yes, that ought to help their reelection chances. Hard to believe they haven’t yet turned it into a lawn sign…

Kellyanne Conway, one of Donald Trump’s most visible flunkies, was on Fox News the other day trying to justify the Trump Administration’s withholding of money from the World Health Organization, and she actually said “This is Covid-19, not Covid-1, folks…” implying that health officials should have been better prepared. The problem with this “logic” is that we didn’t have Covid-1, Covid-2, Covid-3, etc. The disease is called Covid-19 because it was identified in 2019. But, hey, it’s not as though Kellyanne is a senior aide to the most powerful political leader… Oh, wait…

On Saturday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis opened Florida’s beaches. Yep. And Floridians flocked to them, unprotected and, it seems, utterly clueless. This after DeSantis was caught on camera putting on a face mask the wrong way – he put one of the ear loops around his head so that the mask hung sideways over his face with the other ear loop dangling below his chin.

We’re fucking doomed.

Except we’re really not. And that, actually, is the point of today’s post.

My wife is the provost of the university here in our little college town, and as the Chief Operating Officer of the school, she is tasked with coordinating the Covid-19 response. The other day she sent out a message to the university faculty and staff that concluded with a personal note about how much hope and solace she took from the community’s response. And I was amazed at how similar her thoughts were to my own percolating ideas for this very post.

Let’s start with the obvious: many of the reactions we see to the crisis – on all sides – are rooted in fear. I am observing social-distancing and stay-at-home guidelines because I don’t want to get sick. I’ve read enough about the disease to harbor a healthy fear (as it were) of contracting it. In the same way, the protests we’ve seen – however wacky and misinformed and filled with rage and hate – are based in people’s legitimate fears of an economic depression. Fear is, and has always been, a powerful stimulus for political action and governmental response.

But I see more than just fear at work here. I am worried about the economy, too. I don’t know anyone who isn’t. A large swath of the population, though, has made a conscious choice – a supremely rational one, in my view – to sacrifice their short-term economic security for the health of their families, their friends, their communities. We have said, “Yes, I know this is going to be painful, but I want to keep my children safe, my elderly parents safe, my neighbors and friends safe. And I want to be safe, too.”

We have done this despite the utter absence of Presidential leadership, and often despite the absence of leadership at the state level as well. Sure, there are people who thumb their noses at safety, at community. And yes, every day we see new idiocy from our leaders and opinion shapers – Doctor Mehmet Oz telling Sean Hannity that losing 2-3% of our school children would be an acceptable outcome if we reopened schools; Bill O’Reilly telling us that many who have died from the coronavirus were “on their last legs anyway.”

For the most part, though, people throughout the country and the world have put material concerns aside in order to save lives. And that ought to give all of us grounds for hope. If we can do this to stop the spread of Covid-19, might we also be capable of doing it to curb global climate change? Might we be willing to make the far, far smaller economic sacrifices necessary to ease social inequality, combat the historical economic and social impacts of systemic racism, and find solutions to our ongoing health care crisis?

This is a rare moment. A historical inflection point. A tragic moment to be sure. We are being tested daily. Some days we are found wanting. Too often, our elected leaders and media outlets fail us. And yet, I’m hopeful, perhaps naïvely so. People keep saying that even after we emerge from this crisis, our society will never be the same. I believe that. And I believe the differences between the old normal, and what my wife calls “the next normal,” can be ours to choose. Likely we will find ourselves in a more cautious world, maybe a less physically intimate world, at least at a societal level. But I choose to believe that it will also be a world in which we will appreciate more fully the potential of cooperation, communal action, and commitment to something greater than ourselves.

Wishing you all a healthy, wonderful week.