Like most everyone else this weekend, I have been experiencing the shock of the expected changes in lifestyle and perception of others that the new coronavirus has precipitously thrust upon us. The virus, a yet unknown and incompletely understood member of the larger coronavirus family, has become a worldwide urgent health concern. Although its effects can be mild upon the otherwise healthy who become infected, it is deadly to the frail or immunocompromised. Although its incipient sources are variously reported (official and other theories), the source of the virus is irrelevant. It is how we respond to it that matters. It is also concerning that despite all we hear on the media, some of the responses, official and popular, to which we are all supposed to agree, do not make sense. There is a lack of thinking through. We have certainly had time, since the initial appearance of the virus in China, to create planned responses.
I realize that those of us who speak out not fully on the bandwagon are likely to become anathema to some extent. That phenomenon itself is another issue. However, we need to complete the thinking through, and for that to happen, disagreeing voices need to be heard.
There is a need for reasonable caution and increase in the frequency of habitual hygiene, both in keeping the areas around people clean and in the frequency with which we wash or sanitize our hands. What is unnecessary is the complete panic which leads people to anticipate infection at any moment and dire consequences, up to and including death. Most of us are afraid both of death and of the unknown. I see this fear being exploited into a general public panic, one which not only guarantees public submission to official directives but also ensures ostracism of anyone who is viewed as not in line with the public fear. At least on the surface, most of us agree with how horrible this all is (and it is most certainly a threat) and how necessary and correct are all the official directives. One of the directives is to make sure one stocks up in case of restriction to homes, i.e., quarantines. Public panic is added to this, and hoarding and barren shelves are the result. We need reasonable precaution; we do not need fear, hysteria, and battles in the grocery stores.
Then there are the issues of preparation. Apparently, we do not have enough respirators, masks, hospital beds, or protective gear for caregivers to ensure proper care for those who need it. If we listen to the news, that would be most of us. However, this intensive care is needed for only a few of those who become infected. Why have we not anticipated the need and prepared before the rapid spread of the virus took place?? We do not even have sufficient home tests so that people who are uninfected or mildly infected can definitively determine whether they are a risk to others. Instead, we have a directive to mostly stay home and be sure we are six feet away from another human being. Infected people need to stay away from others, and let people know they are infected; uninfected people should be allowed to do their business as usual, because we need people who can keep things together and running smoothly. However, as it stands, no one really knows who is infected and who isn’t, which leads to the assumption that everyone is infected, and that other people are a threat. Why do we not have an abundant supply of tests?
We need to focus more of our attention on the healing of those who are seriously affected. The official count is that 80% of those infected with the virus will have mild or even no symptoms and will not need treatment. The remaining 20% do need that treatment, and it should be available. Instead we have focused on prevention. Prevention, of course, is most valuable, although some of the measures directed to be taken are rather Draconian. Prevention, however, does not dismiss the need for treatment. If everyone who needed it (and I suppose that 20% of the population of the country is a significant number) could readily get treatment, much of the panic might be alleviated. I do not hear reassurance that treatment will be readily available; I do hear intense insistence that all Draconian directives be observed. If 80% of us will not need treatment, why is treatment inadequately available for the 20% who do?
The largest of the more Draconian directives is the conglomerate subsumed under the title of social distancing. Included in this category are some categories of quarantine or limitation of movement, closing of schools and businesses, the designation of six feet as the distance that needs be between people, cancellation of events which many people attend, such as sports events, weddings, concerts, and places of worship, and the instruction to not touch each other, except perhaps by bumping elbows. People are advised to communicate mostly via mediation by machines, e.g., computers. There are two major effects of this directive. One is economic; the other is the way in which people view each other.
Economically, the closing of schools and businesses, especially those that do not lend themselves to working virtually from home, throws an already unequal and fragile economy into chaos. Most working people do not have a few months of savings on which to live; many also have no leave and are paid only for the hours they work. Closing the businesses or requiring that people work only from home means that a great many people may well be en route to joining the homeless; they will not be able to pay for rent, food, utilities, on even a basic level, unless they work. Closing the schools and daycares only further exacerbates this. In families (most of them) which require the income of both working parents, the income of one parent will be lost because one parent must stay home with the children who are not in school or daycare. The recommendation is that family (i.e., grandparents) not be called upon to babysit, as those people are at higher risk from the coronavirus. Cooperative daycare also violates the principle of social distancing. Add to this that the schools are where many kids get their most nutritious meals of the day, and the special services that some of them need. These resources are lost when the schools close, putting further strain upon the already strongly disadvantaged families. This kind of economic breakdown can seriously exacerbate the advance of a virus.
When one is required to keep six feet of distance between other people and oneself, and is told not to touch others, especially not to hug family and friends, because doing so is not only the way to catch the virus but also to endanger others, the basic perception of others is changed. Instead of being a support in times of stress and change, people become the threat. One is psychologically isolated, taught to look upon others as suspect or at oneself as harmful to others. People are genetically constructed as communal animals; we need to live together, trusting at least in our own groups and nourishing each other with touch. The results of insisting that people distance themselves from others cannot be fully known in the present, but I cannot see that the changes will be positive or constructive, leading us to cooperate and create a constructive future.
One of the most traumatizing aspects of social distancing is the forcible separation of families from their elder members who are living in nursing homes. Billed as protection for the elderly, this in fact neither protects nor solves anything. Many if not most of the elders in affected homes are infected with the virus. Staff are also affected by the virus. Some of them become ill and cannot work, resulting in shortage of care for the elders. Others have no symptoms but are carriers. They are not screened but come to work and leave in a normal fashion. Relatives of residents, who are banned from visiting them, attempt to comfort their elders via telephone and gestures outside their windows. Many of those elders are ill or dying. They are left to recover or die alone. This has been on TV news, in particular but not limited to a nursing home in Washington state. What is the problem that causes them to be separated from their families to die alone, often inadequately cared for? If they are ill already, they cannot be re-infected by their families. Families may catch the virus from them but are unlikely to be as severely affected. If staff is short, cannot families volunteer to cover at least some of the care of their loved ones? There is no reason to forcibly separate an ill or dying elder from his or her family. No virus is slowed thereby.
The suggestion that social distancing is not a problem because we can communicate adequately via machine mediation (computers, phones, devices) is basically untrue, unless the goal is to have all people living online instead of in the world, where, of course, they can be more easily influenced and monitored. I am not suggesting that there is a conspiracy to that effect, simply that the suggestion that human communication, which requires touch and presence, is adequately achieved via technology, marvelous though technology may be, is a falsehood. Humans communicate differently from robots or computers. Robots and computers are wonderful and useful, but humans cannot become them.
Most of the changes suggested to prevent or slow the virus have already been implemented in other countries. There have been no sustained studies of their effects, but also no reports that the implementation of these directives has resulted in slowing the virus. There are absolutely no reports that it has prevented the virus’ spreading. One wonders, for such small return, why such widespread change and sacrifice are so insistently required. Is it to distract from basic truths about the virus – that it runs its course and is little if at all slowed or stopped, that it is mild in 80% of the population but severe and/or deadly in the remaining 20% unless treated soon and thoroughly? Or??
Another effect of the intense focus on the current coronavirus is that other issues that need attention are being ignored. For example, the climate crisis is as much a threat to human life as is the coronavirus. Nobody seems to be paying attention anymore. Or, one can hope that the results of the current election will set a direction for the next four years. The selection of a candidate seems to have dropped below the radar of attention. Yes, the health crisis of the coronavirus needs attention, but not at the expense of other issues of equal urgency. We can pay attention to reasonable precaution without panic at the same time as we focus on how to heal our planet and notice how whom we elect or do not elect can influence both issues. The hullabaloo and panic are doing us no good.
The crises will not spontaneously go away – we will be faced with them during the near future. Let us learn to not simply react in panic, but to think through the results of the ways in which we respond.