A Plea for Generosity

A man reaches for a face mask handed out by Urban Park Rangers as the coronavirus outbreak continues in Queens, N.Y., May 4, 2020. (Shannon Stapleton / Reuters)

Be charitable to your fellow Americans because they are just like you: try to live the best you can while the corona virus remains a threat.

If you were judged by social media, you would think America had a pro-lockdown faction in the coronavirus crisis led by Dr. Anthony Fauci and a “let it rip” faction led by a handful of Red State governors and professional conservative saber rattlers. This can be a useful story for people whose jobs thrive on controversy, including myself. It can even be helpful to organize our thoughts about the virus. But most of the time, it just isn’t true.

What is true is that people instinctively feel sympathetic to one or the other message that comes from these online camps, be it ‘I’m done with this’ or’ my partner’s health is more important than your haircut ‘or just’ This is unsustainable. ‘

The public opinion poll shows that a significant minority believe that our anti-pandemic measures have gone too far, even though a large majority support ongoing social distance efforts. Competent public leadership and institutions can, through heroic efforts, more or less harmonize those instincts. In East Asian countries, an audience conditioned by the SARS outbreak in 2003 received a proactive response to public health, helping cities like Seoul and Singapore achieve something more normal than their European and American counterparts. (The plight of Singapore’s foreign workers to be honest, this story makes things a little more complicated.) The worse or slower the response, the more “economy” and “public health” seem like incompatible goals instead of two parts of the same puzzle.

Americans are said to hate the experts. But overwhelmingly, the American people have followed their advice to distance themselves socially, so much so that the curve has flattened to a plateau and is now starting to slope down. In some ways, Americans were even ahead of or anticipated the advice of the official domain. Perhaps a fifth of the country contributed to this by making huge leaps into the unknown, unsure if life would be the same once the crisis was over. At a time when some conservatives were asking if their countrymen could recognize the common good, the coronavirus has provided tremendous evidence that our countrymen are willing to sacrifice it.

Americans have also suffered massive personal losses. The ersatz expansion of our personal networks through social media means that almost everyone is familiar with at least one of the more than 85,000 people whose deaths have been attributed to COVID-19 in the United States, or at least know someone else who mourns.

All that sacrifice and suffering can make it publicly difficult to debate the issues surrounding the pandemic and our response to it. A person who breathes an uncontrolled rage about masks can hurt a family member whose economic situation has become much more precarious, or a loved one who has just died. Someone who yells “granny killer” at a conscientious person who nevertheless expresses skepticism or dissent may feel real coronavirus-related pain.

So, at the risk of sounding like a total drop, I just want to say, people, try to be generous to each other.

There is a good reason to hesitate to judge, our ignorance. Plagues are a time for scapegoats and debt shifts precisely because they suffer from such a seemingly unjust and arbitrary way of doing things. Our leaders say they will follow science, but they really can’t. With a hitherto unseen virus like this, science is more like the inherited wisdom and intuition of earlier, similar ailments, at least in the beginning. What follows is a confused rush to catch up with trial and error. The results are not always beautiful or immediately usable. And while those who stick with their own carefully constructed echo chambers would think otherwise, as far as COVID-19 is concerned, the evidence on one side or the other has not been decisive in the false lockdown / let-rip dichotomy.

The fiercest skeptics have had to make an embarrassing reviews to their models. Richard Epstein predicted 500 US COVID-19 deaths and was subsequently revised up logarithmically. Skeptics had to place great confidence in a Stanford study of the prevalence of COVID-19 antibodies indicating a much broader and far less lethal spread of the disease. This study has largely fallen apart and others seroprevalence studys have indicated that in fact most of us have not contracted the virus. She also praised the Swedish “herd immunity” approach, but research has shown that social behavior is not that different from other European countries, even though official recommendations are looser.

On the other side of the ledger, the worst ominous predictions of millions of deaths are remembered. The most horrible epidemiological models, such as the infamous Imperial College study, have been dancing around like a loose fire hose as the storage of current data on social behavior in the crisis grew. Pandemic hawks predicting major outbreaks of spring breakers, Florida beaches, or Georgia reopening before the number of cases declined were all found to be wrong not only on the scale of the outbreak, but on the direction as well.

At the beginning of this crisis, I wrote that plagues tend to tyrannize people or inspire a certain kind of carelessness. Those extravagant reactions remain a danger. But I guess if you were to question the American people about their actual behavior in this crisis, you wouldn’t find two neat camps of ‘shut ins’ and ‘exiteers’. Instead, you would probably find a rough and messy consensus of people trying to navigate the opposite impulses in their own hearts, those who tend to caution them or even paranoia, and those who urge them to be brave or even challenging.

There are also less neat dividing lines between public figures. Dr. Fauci advised on a well thought-out opening plan. Nevertheless, some of the most vociferous dissenters to lockdown, such as British journalist Peter Hitchens, are conscientious about wearing a face cover and keeping a distance in public.

Plans for extended air travel have been postponed indefinitely among my own friends and family. Masks are worn in public places, but not on neighborhood walks, where socialization takes place halfway down the street. At the same time, summer vacation plans that are more local remain in effect. We hear the down payments still come in at normal rental rates in our usual Jersey beach town. And the beaches open for the season (with restrictions).

We all muddle through trying to live the best we can while this threat is there. We are tempted to take away the frustration, fear and anger that have sparked each other these months. But what most of us need now is the grace of basic kindness.

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