The Ides of March seem as good a time as any to start this. Known by most as the date of Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, the Ides Of March was also regarded by the Romans as the date of settling debts. In a society where collective and individual debt is rampant, it seems appropriate the way of life most Americans have grown accustomed to in the past 70+ years appears to be, if not coming to an end, at least entering a period of extreme disruption and inconvenience.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) is here, it’s deadly, and with no human immunity developed against it, it has the potential to spread and wreak havoc on a scale incomprehensible to far too many people. There is no shortage of data, models, graphs, charts, or information on what this virus is and what type of potential it has. Not to mention recent evidence of what it has already done in China, Japan, South Korea, Italy, and Singapore. And because it will take widespread cooperation and radical acceptance of the inconveniences involved in “flattening out the curve” of the infection rate, it is deeply unfortunate there is also no shortage of Americans who believe COVID-19 is either an outright hoax, is being exaggerated by the media in order to undermine the Trump Presidency (at the behest of “The Deep State,”), or is simply just “the flu,” and will pass with the coming of spring.
Shit is about to get real, people. School districts in several major cities are closed for the foreseeable future. This afternoon WA Governor Jay “Snake” Inslee has decreed bars and restaurants close (except for delivery orders) until further notice. And people all over the country are being asked to practice “social distancing.”
What is “social distancing”? We’re being asked to stay the hell away from each other, as much as possible and to the best of our ability. For a society built on hard core individualism that in modern times has been calcified by personal tech devices, you would think this would be an easy ask. But you couldn’t be more wrong. We’ve all decried (often hypocritically) people immersing themselves in their phones in public places, earbuds inserted, to the exclusion of all regard for common courtesy. People move down the streets, ride public transit, drive their cars, ride their bikes, their bodies in motion through our shared space while their minds are firmly immersed in the individualized world of social media, iTunes, or whatever movie or podcast they’re consuming at any given moment. You’d think asking such people to simply stay home during a time of widespread threat to society, while not denying them the shiny objects of their affection, would be a minor request. And in reality it is. But too many people find this notion a preposterous intrusion upon their right to select their own reality during every waking moment of their life. Apex freedom!
Well, reality can be a bitch. And COVID-19 is about to bitch slap all of us. And perhaps rightfully so. The industrial revolution brought forth unfathomable advances in travel, manufacturing, agriculture, and infrastructure. Those of us born and raised in the midst of it can barely imagine what life was like before electric lighting, the internal combustion engine, and all the other marvels and inventions that have allowed us to feed, clothe, house, and entertain ourselves with a minimum of effort on our part. The price of this marvelous lifestyle has been massive dispersal of carbon into the atmosphere. Our toys are concrete, but carbon emissions are not even visible. So it’s not surprising the idea of giving up our post-industrial revolution lifestyle in order to enable the planet to remain hospitable to our species is more popular in theory than in practice. And in fact, much like the COVID-19 deniers/minimizers, there are no shortage people so willfully ignorant they refuse to grant the reality that is available in mountains of data – that we are making the Earth inhospitable to human habitation.
As someone who was raised Catholic, grew into atheism as a teenager, and mellowed into humble agnosticism in middle age, I have to say I have long suspected that if something came along that could, in a relatively short period of time and on a large scale, change the behavior of the beneficiaries of the industrial revolution so that we significantly reduce our carbon emissions, I would have to seriously consider the possibility that there is a Being out there who cares enough about us to save us from ourselves. You might even say Someone is here to collect on a debt, and that the only chance we have to dodge the Debt Collector is to stay in our homes and not answer the door.
You might say, “You are trivializing this. People will lose money. People will go out of business. Think what this will do to the economy!” In a society that valued people above money, these legitimate questions would be almost moot. If banks and large industries can be bailed out, why not regular working people? Can’t landlords forgive a few months rent to some of their tenants? Can’t banks forgo a few mortgage payments so people can not lose their houses during a crisis like this? And can we stop fetishizing the Dow Jones and come to grips with the fact that unlimited financial growth is a pipe dream of the class who reaps most of the benefits in a system they almost entirely control? But we live in a society that does, indeed, value money over people. It will take individuals of extraordinary grace, or individuals who simply recognize it’s in their own best interests to take a monetary loss on this crisis rather then evict people from apartments and houses to which there will be no other available renters anyway. It will take banks and mortgage holders of rare magnanimity (or unusual foresight) to cast aside the ravings of John Calvin and tell their shareholders that it’s better to sacrifice a dividend here and there than to further exacerbate a health crisis that widespread homelessness and economic hardship will only make worse.
I’m not sure those in power are ready to make these concessions, even if it is plainly in their own best long term interests to do so. Like those of us who have grown accustomed to carving out our own experienced reality within the obligatory confines of the three dimensional world, the rich and powerful have grown accustomed to ruthlessly grinding countless less fortunately people into the ground simply in the name of having more for themselves. The fact that we collectively relate wealth with virtue further complicates this. I am no more convinced those in power can behave rationally in this crisis than I am that us common folk will follow a few simple rules for a couple months in order to save our own asses.
Which brings us back to the larger issue of our collective ass. In the longer view, perhaps we save ourselves collectively (especially later generations) by succumbing to our own individual selfishness. Go mingle with people. Hoard toilet paper. Eat in crowded restaurants. Drink in crowded bars. Take your kids to the park and watch them climb play structures and slather each other with COVID-19 before taking them to grandma’s house for dinner. Let’s up the body count. A flattening of the curve is not likely something that will keep our attention over time. Twelve to eighteen months from now, if COVID-19 is experienced as a crisis in which we were momentarily inconvenienced, but emerged with just a few minor scrapes and bruises, we are likely to go right back to burning as much carbon as we can so that we can live a life of further ease and comfort. Perhaps the only thing that could reduce our collective carbon footprint drastically and over a long period of time is a body count so high and deep we’re all forced to literally bury a few people we know. I suspect digging a number of 6’x8’x3′ holes would stay in our bones for quite some time, a muscle memory that would come alive with every click of the mousepad, every turn of the ignition key, every flick of the light switch.
I hope everyone stays home and avoids each other as much as possible in the coming weeks. And by “coming weeks” I mean starting right now, not the middle of next week. I received my first phone call today from a close friend who is in quarantine because two of his coworkers tested positive for COVID-19. I expect this week will bring several more of my friends and acquaintances into quarantine, and inevitably someone I know I will test positive. And then more people. And perhaps I will. And all of you will go through this same process. And in two or three weeks, after not enough of us have sufficiently practiced social distancing, martial law will be declared in at least some parts of the country. We will be assigned days and times we’re allowed to buy groceries and pick up medicines. There will be little or no roaming about freely. Perhaps you have a porch or deck upon which you can sit in the open air. Perhaps not. Either way, this thing is coming. You might not think it’s fair, but that is beside the point. The point being is that it’s here, it’s real, and it is simple math, and math does not care about fair, foul, or how this might effect someone’s chances for re-election. Deal with it. Be nice to others. Be respectful. Isolate yourself. Wash your fucking hands. Wash your fucking hands again. Wash your hands until you’ve beat boxed your way through every note of the guitar solos in “Freebird.” Use that phone to call people. If you can, call an elderly neighbor and ask if she needs anything. Our efforts might seem small to us, and in our isolation it can be hard to measure the value of virtue, but leaving a bag of groceries on an elderly person’s doorstep will make you feel better, and that’s no small benefit in times when there is so much to feel bad about.