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The Coronavirus and the Frightening Thought of Being Powerless

Nurses wearing protective gear wait for patients at a drive-through testing site for COVID-19 coronavirus in a parking lot at the University of Washington’s Northwest Outpatient Medical Center in Seattle, Wash., March 17, 2020. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Today’s Morning Jolt is a timeline that goes from the onset of symptoms of the first recorded coronavirus patient in Wuhan on December 1, to January 24, when the CDC confirmed the second case in the United States. In that interim, just about any chance to contain this virus was lost; everything after that was and is crisis management.

A clear-eyed look at the known facts around the coronavirus reveals a sequence of events and decisions that compounded error, denial, willful ignorance, coverup, and lies.

This is similar to the events leading up to other major catastrophes in history — the sinking of the Titanic, 9/11, the Great Recession. You rarely see just one error that caused it. It’s usually a sequence of mistakes and bad decisions cascading and compounding the consequences, like a line of dominoes falling.

The Titanic will probably fascinate historians forever. The shipbuilder couldn’t find enough of the preferred kind of iron for the rivets, and settled for the second-best kind. The launch of the Titanic was delayed six months; if it had launched at the original date, it probably would not have encountered icebergs. The crew and ship hadn’t run enough safety tests. A forgotten key meant the lookout station didn’t have the required binoculars. Wireless warnings about ice weren’t passed along to the bridge. As the ship approached the iceberg, it was traveling too fast to avoid it. After the ship hit the iceberg, passengers left their porthole windows open, making the ship sink faster. And of course, the ship didn’t carry enough lifeboats.

Life can be so unjust and randomly cruel sometimes that most of us prefer not to think about it. When something terrible or tragic happens, some people will try to find some way to explain how the victim’s actions or decisions led to the terrible event, and that as awful as it was, most of us don’t need to worry about that happening, because we make different decisions. “That car accident was terrible, but everyone always said he was always a reckless driver.” “It’s terrible she developed lung cancer, but we warned her about her smoking habit.” “It’s terrible that they were robbed, but that’s what happens when you live in a neighborhood like that.”

It’s a form of trying to impose a moral order on a chaotic universe and trying to bolster the reassuring belief that by making the right decisions, we can ensure the tragedies of life will never strike us like a bolt out of the blue.

Good decision-making can lessen the chances that sudden tragedy will afflict our lives, but it cannot eliminate it. Safe drivers can die in accidents caused by unsafe ones. Cancer can strike people with no particular unhealthy habits. Crime can occur in seemingly “safe” neighborhoods, and those who live in unsafe neighborhoods rarely have an easy option for moving out.

And as we learned to our shock and horror nearly two decades ago, 19 guys with box-cutters can destroy the World Trade Center, hit the Pentagon, and kill thousands of people. A little more than a decade ago, we learned that reckless decisions about bundled loans at big financial institutions can set off a great recession.

And, based upon what we know so far, some guy in China can eat bat soup or some other unusual animal can set off a global pandemic.

The thought that one random decision halfway across the planet could bring calamity into our lives is terrifying. Few ideas could make us feel more powerless. Most people hate feeling powerless and begin a desperate search for some other factor that made this bad thing happen, preferably a person or force that they already didn’t like.

Scapegoating is a logically flawed effort to reimpose a moral sense to a sequence of events. If you headed into this crisis thinking Trump was a bad president, you probably think he’s now even worse, recklessly endangering American lives with not-all-that-accurate statements and simply forgetting to order enough tests and medical equipment.

If you headed into this crisis thinking most of the U.S. national media was sloppy, inaccurate, and heavily biased and unfair, you probably now think it’s even worse, stirring up hysteria and deliberately trying to worsen the economy to ensure Trump doesn’t win reelection. If you previously disliked one party or the other in the U.S. Senate, you loathe them with a passion now.

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