The Corner

U.S.

We’re Enduring a Calamity, but Rarely Actually Seeing It

A doctor in protective suite waits for patients in a special tent for coronavirus disease cases near a hospital in Lublin, Poland, March 23, 2020. (Jakub Orzechowski, Agencja Gazeta/Reuters)

I periodically write that if the growing national debt manifested in the form of Godzilla or some other giant monster, Americans would mobilize in droves, and make great sacrifices, to stop it, reverse it, and overcome it. We move pretty quick, and are pretty cooperative, when we can see a threat. We’re visual creatures; some studies indicate that 90 percent of the information processed by the brain is visual.

When something visibly threatens us, like terrorists crashing airliners into skyscrapers, everyone instantly grasps the danger and swings into action. After 9/11, Americans were hungrily looking for ways to help and do something and feel useful: blood donations, charitable donations, volunteering, memorial services, enlisting in the military. (“Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake” is one of my all-time favorite Onion stories, a perfect expression of how so many wanted to help in some way and couldn’t quite figure out how.)

But we can’t see the coronavirus, except through a microscope. If this virus manifested as a visible green gas, people would see it and run from it. There would be little or no dispute about wearing masks. Crowds would instantly disperse at the sight of a forming green cloud. No one would enter a building or room with any discernable green haze.

Americans mobilized — or in many cases, de-mobilized — on a massive scale to respond to the threat of SARS-CoV-2. (In the first week of April, U.S. residents spent 93 percent of their time at home.) They donated to charities and food banks. They canceled events, they put on masks and gloves, they socially distanced. Industries reorganized their assembly lines to make masks and protective gear and ventilators. At the Braskem petrochemical plant in Delaware, 43 men worked 12-hour shifts all day and night for a month straight, “producing tens of millions of pounds of the raw materials that will end up in face masks and surgical gowns worn on the front lines of the pandemic.” All of this for a threat that cannot be seen, and whose effects are not immediately or easily visible.

I suspect that many people expected 100,000 Americans dying from a virus in less than three months to look like something out of apocalyptic fiction — bodies in the streets, soldiers in bio-chem suits, giant scary biohazard signs everywhere.

But the coronavirus deaths are almost entirely occurring far away from cameras. This is not a request or a demand that Americans witness their countrymen breathing their last breath and succumb to the virus, just an observation that for most human beings, seeing is believing. A significant portion of America’s coronavirus victims are dying in nursing homes and long-term care facilities — locations that felt shut away from the rest of society and easily forgotten before the pandemic hit our shores.

Cities with empty streets looked eerie, but a vocal contingent on the right concluded, with some accuracy, that the emptiness of the streets was driven by the lockdown, not from the virus. It is easy to see politicians, such as the president, or Bill de Blasio, or Andrew Cuomo, or Gretchen Whitmer, or Ralph Northam bumbling through, shutting things down too late or maintaining the shutdowns too long, ignoring rules and recommendations they expect others to follow. They are all visible targets for frustration, disappointment, and ire. The virus SARS-CoV-2 is the root of all of our problems, but there’s no point in holding a rally or protest against a microscopic entity with no mind.

As for those who doubt the danger of the virus, no number of skeptics dying will convince other skeptics; the not-so-subtle glee at the irony in the ranks of the media just makes the other skeptics dig in deeper.

We are forced to muddle through as the real fight against the virus occurs behind closed doors — in hospitals, in medical-research facilities, with only brief, fleeting glimpses.

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