Last week, I spent several days hiking the Appalachian Trail with my family, after our pre-pandemic plans to fly cross-country and get lost in Yosemite (which my children never struggled to pronounce, even in elementary school), obviously didn’t seem like a wise idea as cases continue to spike.
I’ve been hiking the trail for over a decade and feel fortunate that one of my passions is still pretty safe during coronavirus, although I did take some care to avoid some heavily trafficked sections. That worked out well for the most part, although my daughter and I were stopped on an early-morning hike by a maskless family who were kind enough to warn us of bears three miles ahead, but refused to social distance as they chatted away (and yes, they seemed offended by the request). Now I can’t say that wearing masks in humid 90-degree weather while huffing to a summit was the most enjoyable experience, but it sure was nice to stare out at mountains instead of my home office wall, as I have every day for the last five months.
I also took advantage of spotty internet service and deleted my social media apps for good measure, so I thankfully missed useless news cycles of racism and sexism about the Kamala Harris VP pick and the Kardashians pretending they’re not in on Kanye West’s troll campaign to help President Trump.
During the brief time I was gone, I did miss some important stories, like the morbid milestone of 170,000 COVID-19 deaths. Since February, I’ve been tracking various health dashboards multiple times a day. I’m not going to lie and say it wasn’t a relief to let that go, too. Like most people, I’ve seen what coronavirus does up close to those I care about and I don’t think we’ve grappled with how much of a toll this has taken on us all.
And it didn’t have to be this way.
Most other rich nations have showed us that the disease can be contained and schools, museums and businesses can reopen. But while it’s easy to point to boneheaded decisions by individuals, from sandbar parties to refusing to wear masks in grocery stores, this selfishness has been encouraged at the top by Trump and too many Republicans making laughably bad analogies to the Soviet era. And the president’s gross negligence and refusal to help states — especially those led by Democrats — is ultimately why COVID-19 is still raging in America, the richest country in the world.
Time on the trail gives you time to think. I thought a lot about my kids and millions of others whose education has been stunted because business lobbyists and politicians cared more about making sure that bars reopened than schools. While I will always choose their health above all else and am grateful they have online learning options, it’s not fair.
And again, it didn’t have to be this way. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
But we have a weird fatalism in America, which allows us to accept the unacceptable too many times. And that leads to many defending the indefensible. We look at large structural problems like racism, poverty and sexual violence and tend to throw up our hands and make excuses that there’s nothing we can really do. It is what it is, man. There’s also a powerful libertarian undercurrent that trying to solve problems will make them worse, so it’s actually more noble to do nothing at all (suiting powerful people who benefit from these inequities just fine, which is the point).
So it’s not terribly surprising that this mindset has helped define our horrible response to a pandemic. We’ve long ignored the inconvenient fact that other rich nations don’t have the same problems with mass shootings, infant mortality, police brutality and wealth inequality as we do, so it’s easy to have an insular view of COVID-19. And once we accept that there’s nothing that really can be done to stop mass death — as Republican legislators have repeatedly said — then you can see why a (loud) minority of Americans don’t see the point of masks and social distance.
The utter failure of White House leadership and the GOP’s sycophantic response has meant now that people are left praying for a vaccine to save us. But of course, therapies take time to develop safely. It’s also likely that more than one vaccine will be necessary, as there appear to be different strains of COVID-19.
And then there’s the issue that many people have been dancing around: How do we contend with the fact that 20% of Americans say they won’t get immunized? Anti-vaxxers have always been a fringe movement, but they’ve taken advantage of YouTube, Reddit, Facebook and more to spread harmful misinformation quicker than ever before. And most shamefully, traditional media outlets have often done “both sides” stories and allowed them to propagate lies, often sweetly dispensed by brave moms (who just want to make irresponsible choices for their kids and endanger public health).
When we look back at the conspiracy theories and lies that have hampered our COVID-19 response, I believe scientists will draw a direct line to the explosion of anti-vaxxer propaganda in years prior and the failure of journalists and politicians to combat it with facts.
All of this points to the harsh reality that COVID-19 may not be under control for years. I can’t say what that exactly will look like, of course. But nobody should be surprised to still have to wear masks in movie theaters, deal with rolling business closures as clusters periodically pop up and still see a death toll in the thousands in 2025.
There will be no complete return to normal as long as a vocal minority gets to run roughshod over public health and take down the economy for good measure. It’s pretty simple, but too many leaders seem to believe that offending angry irresponsible folks (who live to be offended) is a more serious problem.
When I was taking a break on the trail last week, I mused to my husband that scientists working on the 1918 flu pandemic must have discussed what the next crisis would be like and have been hopeful that future medical breakthroughs would ease suffering and death.
That’s the way it should be now. We have every tool at our disposal — advanced technology, a top-notch medical infrastructure and mass and social media to spread life-saving information. And yet here we are, staring down at the real possibility that a quarter-million Americans will be dead by Election Day with leaders like Trump telling us it’s no biggie.
Functioning societies can tame pandemics. We’ve seen it throughout history; we’ve seen it across the world today. America is at a breaking point and it’s going to be a very long road back. But that can only happen after we finally come to grips with why we’ve failed so miserably in the first place.