Early on in this outbreak, a Russian television station “interviewed” the coronavirus — a guy in a giant spherical virus mask/helmet and with a weird, echo-y voice, declaring he had flown in from Italy but didn’t register until 10 days later.
As a deadly-crisis-generating foe, the SARS-CoV-2 virus is a frustrating enemy. It has no real face or voice. It has no headquarters to bomb or raid. It has no henchmen to capture and interrogate for intelligence. It has no persona to mock or disrespect. It cannot be taunted or insulted. It cannot be forced to the bargaining table. It has no particular goals, other than its endless appetite for reproduction. It does not make demands or issue manifestos, other than, “I am a species better equipped to survive on this planet than you are, and I will create the equivalent of suburban sprawl in your bodies and build condominiums in your lungs, because your continued ability to breathe means nothing to me.”
When something terrible happens, human beings look for someone to blame or hold responsible. When this process goes well, it’s called accountability; when this process goes badly, it’s called scapegoating.
After 9/11, many of us focused our anger upon Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. But not all of us. Some Americans chose to focus their anger against their own government. Don’t let anyone tell you that the anti-war movement of the Bush era was spurred by the decision to invade Iraq. By spring 2002, fairly large gatherings in Washington D.C. protested “US and Israeli military aggression and the Bush administration’s assault on democratic rights.” A disturbingly high number of people chose to believe that the attacks happened because of America’s alliance with Israel; the implication was that all the United States needed to do to stop future terror attacks was abandon the Jewish state. New Jersey senator Bob Torricelli focused much of his anger upon the Central Intelligence Agency for not detecting the attacks beforehand; his critics argued the organization was impeded by his own pre-9/11 demands “that placed restrictions on the CIA’s ability to recruit informers who have a criminal history.”
One aspect of the climate-change discussion is that it takes terrible natural phenomena — hurricanes, droughts, floods — and places the responsibility for those terrible disasters upon those who create a lot of carbon emissions — usually people who drive SUVs and eat meat and live the typical middle-class American lifestyle. (Certainly not celebrities, politicians, and powerful people with private jets and or who fly internationally a lot!)
Many of us would argue that the figures most responsible for our current crisis are the Chinese government authorities in Wuhan, Hubei Province, and Beijing for denying the contagiousness of the virus for weeks, threatening and silencing of doctors for telling the truth, keeping reports about the outbreak out of the Wuhan media, letting the potentially infected travel internationally, and not allowing the World Health Organization’s Epidemic Intelligence Service to enter Wuhan for weeks. (This is all separate from the question of whether the virus jumping to humans relates to some sort of mistake at either of the two laboratories in Wuhan researching coronaviruses in bats.) The Chinese government didn’t invent SARS-CoV-2, but their early decisions ensured that by late January, the rest of world would be dealing with an out-of-control global pandemic instead of a localized outbreak that could be contained by a quarantine.
But some people find blaming China uncomfortable; either they’ve been conditioned to think of China as a “partner in prosperity,” or they fear any criticism of China, no matter how valid or well-supported, will inherently stir up animus towards Chinese-Americans or Asian-Americans. I suspect that in many cases, people had a longstanding worldview of who was to blame for the ills of the world, and the Chinese government wasn’t on that previous list.
So some of us choose to blame other Americans for the pandemic and its cascading catastrophic problems. President Trump is easy to blame. As one of my colleagues observed, the media is much more focused upon the future risk of coronavirus fatalities in red states than the ongoing accumulation of coronavirus fatalities in nursing homes in blue states. Bernie Sanders continues to denounce “greedy pharmaceutical companies”; he must think that the research on treatments and vaccines are being done by someone else. Sanders also contends that landlords and mortgage companies are being unreasonable for expecting rent and mortgage payments to continue during the pandemic.
Others will prefer to focus their ire white-collar urbanites working from home who are supposedly callous to the suffering of the unemployed. Bill de Blasio makes a handy scapegoat for New York’s uniquely horrific epidemic; he’s made a long list of mistakes, but even the best mayor would probably still be presiding over the most cases in the country. Some on the right contend Nancy Pelosi is worsening the crisis by refusing to reopen the House. Or the media is at fault, for allegedly “hyping” this threat. Or the police are the problem, for enforcing quarantine rules that restrict our rights.
Or we get mad at our fellow citizens for making decisions that strike us as reckless or foolish. The sudden and widespread outbreak of “Karens” is almost as frightening as the outbreak of the virus.
We can’t yell at the coronavirus, so we will find someone else to yell at.