If you judged by social media, you’d think that America in the coronavirus crisis had a pro-lockdown faction led by Dr. Anthony Fauci and a “let it rip” faction led by a handful of red-state governors and professional conservative saber-rattlers. This may be a useful narrative for people whose jobs thrive on controversy, myself included. It may even be helpful for organizing our thoughts on the virus. But mostly, it just isn’t true.
What is true is that people will feel themselves instinctively sympathetic to one message or another ringing out from these online camps, whether it’s, “I’m done with this” or, “The health of my spouse is more important than your haircut” or simply, “This is unsustainable.”
The public polling seems to show that a significant minority thinks our pandemic-control measures have gone too far, even as a significant majority supports continued efforts at social distancing. Capable public leadership and institutions can, through heroic effort, more or less harmonize those instincts. In East Asian countries, a public conditioned by the 2003 SARS outbreak met a proactive public-health response, allowing cities such as Seoul and Singapore to get to back to something resembling normal more quickly than their European and American counterparts. (The plight of Singapore’s foreign workers does slightly complicate this narrative, to be fair.) The worse or more laggardly the response, the more that “the economy” and “public health” seem like irreconcilable goals rather than two parts of the same puzzle.
Supposedly, Americans hate the experts. But overwhelmingly the American people have complied with their advice to socially distance, so much so that the curve has flattened into a plateau and is now starting to slope downward. In fact, in some ways, Americans were ahead of or anticipated the advice of officialdom. Perhaps one-fifth of the country has helped accomplish this by taking enormous leaps into the unknown, unsure whether life would be the same once the crisis began to pass. In an age when some conservatives have asked if their countrymen were capable of recognizing the common good, the coronavirus has provided enormous proof that our countrymen are willing to sacrifice for it.
Americans have also suffered tremendous personal losses. The ersatz expansion of our personal networks through social media means that almost everyone is acquainted with at least one of the over 85,000 people whose deaths have been attributed to COVID-19 in the United States, or at least knows someone else who is grieving.
All that sacrifice and suffering can make publicly debating the issues surrounding the pandemic and our response to it incredibly difficult. Someone venting an uncontrolled anger at masks may be hurting for a relative whose economic situation just became a lot more precarious, or for a loved one who just died. Someone shouting “grandma killer” at a conscientious person who nonetheless voices skepticism of or dissents from shut-in orders may be feeling real, coronavirus-related pain.
So, at the risk of sounding like a total drip, let me just say: People, try to be generous to one another.
There is a good reason to hesitate to judge, namely our ignorance. Plagues are a time for scapegoats and blame-shifting precisely because they deal out suffering such a seemingly unjust and random fashion. Our leaders say they will follow the science, but they can’t, really. With a heretofore-unseen virus such as this one, the science is more like inherited wisdom and intuition from previous, similar maladies, at least at the start. What follows is a confused rush to catch up through trial and error. The results are not always pretty, or immediately useful. And although those who stay with their own carefully constructed echo chambers might think otherwise, where COVID-19 is concerned the evidence has not come down decisively on one side or the other of the false lockdown/let-’er-rip dichotomy.
The fiercest skeptics have had to make embarrassing revisions to their models. Richard Epstein predicted 500 U.S. COVID-19 deaths, then revised upwards logarithmically. Skeptics had to put a lot of faith into a Stanford study on the prevalence of COVID-19 antibodies that indicated a much-wider and much-less deadly spread of the disease. This study has mostly fallen apart, and other sero-prevalence studies have indicated that in fact, most of us haven’t contracted the virus. They also touted the Swedish “herd immunity” approach, but on examination, social behavior there does not look so different from in other European countries, even if the official recommendations are looser.
On the other side of the ledger, the worst doomsaying predictions of millions of deaths have been memory-holed. The most dire epidemiological models, like the infamous Imperial College study, have danced around like a loose firehose as the store of actual data about social behavior in the crisis grew. Pandemic hawks who predicted major breakouts from spring breakers, from Florida beaches, or from Georgia’s re-opening before its number of cases declined all turned out to be wrong, not just on the scale of the outbreak but on the direction.
At the beginning of this crisis, I wrote that plagues have a tendency to tyrannize people with fear, or inspire a certain kind of heedlessness. Those extravagant reactions remain a danger. But I think if you polled the American people on their actual behavior in this crisis, you would not find two neat camps of “shut ins” and “exiteers.” Instead, you would probably find a rough and messy consensus of people trying to navigate the contrary impulses in their own hearts, the ones that incline them toward caution or even paranoia and the ones that urge them to be courageous or even defiant.
There are fewer neat divisions among public figures as well. Dr. Fauci advised on a well-conceived plan for opening up. Some of the most vociferous dissenters against lockdown, such as the British journalist Peter Hitchens, are nonetheless conscientious about wearing a face covering and keeping distance in public.
Among my own friends and family, plans for extensive plane travel have been put off indefinitely. Masks are worn in public places, but not on walks around the neighborhood, where socialization happens halfway across the street. At the same time, summer-vacation plans that are more local remain on. We hear the deposits are still coming in at normal rates for rentals in our usual Jersey beach town. And the beaches are opening up for the season (with restrictions).
We are all muddling through, trying to live the best we can while this threat is out there. We are tempted to take out the frustration, anxiety, and anger these months have generated on each other. But what most of us need now is the mercy of basic kindness.