Casting Responsibility as Fear… to Own the Coronavirus

The other day, I was looking for something on my family’s wall calendar (yes, the Dalys still use a wall calendar), and came across an old event on March 15th of this year. It was a birthday party for one of my 13-year-old daughter’s schoolmates — a party my daughter had been looking forward to for weeks, because it was going to be at an indoor trampoline park, and lots of her other friends were invited.

I remember the occasion well, because it was quickly approaching at a time when anyone paying even moderate attention to the news understood that the COVID-19 pandemic had reached America, and was moving through our country at an alarming pace.

Here in Colorado, an infected tourist who’d flown in from Italy had been identified as patient zero in a major outbreak unfolding in the high country, while separate cases were popping up throughout other parts of the state. Our governor had already declared a state of emergency, and President Trump had recently addressed the nation about the spiraling threat.

You might recall that the White House speech Trump made was an absolute mess. In announcing what the federal government was doing to manage the crisis, the president botched the details of four new policies (including on travel restrictions). The result was widespread confusion among Americans at home and abroad. It certainly didn’t help that just two days earlier, Trump was still grossly downplaying the situation and contradicting the public warnings of his health experts, insisting on Twitter that the coronavirus was no more dangerous than the common flu (a statement we now know he knew to be false more than a month earlier).

Still, one would think that soaring infection numbers and a President of the United States somberly advising Americans (from the Oval Office no less) to social distance, practice good hygiene, avoid large gatherings, stay at home when they’re sick, avoid nonessential travel, and support school closings, would have served as a wake-up call to the country.

Sadly, it wasn’t. To my disbelief, the trampoline park (a germ fest for children and adults even when there isn’t a pandemic) remained open, the party went on as scheduled, and of the 12 girls who were invited to the celebration, mine was the only one whose parents wouldn’t let her go. It was the first time during this health crisis that, in the interest of keeping people safe, I broke my daughter’s heart. It wouldn’t be the last. Heck, it wouldn’t even be the last that week, as we cancelled our family’s Spring Break plans as well.

The mindset of too many others reminded me of a book title I’d seen featured prominently on Barnes & Noble shelves, a few years ago, when I was in the middle of a book tour: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. I’ve never bothered to research what the book is actually about, but the mantra seemed applicable to the situation.

I wasn’t all that concerned about myself at the time (though at 47, I’d probably have a harder struggle with the disease than many others). It was the experts’ warnings to those with pre-existing conditions that had me particularly worried — worried about my family, and anyone else we came into contact with.

Longtime readers may recall that my teen-aged son, who’s been prone to pneumonia throughout his life, had a serious battle with scoliosis a few years back; he won it, but the experience left his lung capacity at a permanent 75%. My wife was a relatively recent breast cancer survivor. My parents and parents-in-law were in their 80s. Even people I’d never met, and knew nothing about, deserved my family’s consideration for their health.

I figured my view was one of common sense, and that before long, there would be a national consensus on the importance of taking (at minimum) reasonable, easy measures to help mitigate the virus. But as the weeks went on, I was continually astonished by just how cavalierly a lot of people were still taking the crisis. Social distancing just wasn’t something a lot of people were interested in, despite the dire warnings. And whenever I’d go to the grocery store, most shoppers wouldn’t wear masks.

I understood the confusion very early on. The CDC and other high-ranking health officials devalued masks as an effective mitigation tool, doing so because they had supply concerns for front-line medical workers. I believe, as I’ve written in the past, that this deception was a big mistake. But by early April, the CDC was recommending that everyone cover their face when out among others.

One didn’t have to fully understand the proven science behind the effort to recognize the prudence of covering one’s nose and mouth to blunt a deadly virus that is transmitted through people’s noses and mouths. Additionally, donning a mask or bandana for limited periods of time shouldn’t have been that huge of an ask or inconvenience, especially when it would facilitate a faster and safer re-opening of our economy.

Instead, refusing to comply with that basic measure became a badge of honor to many people — an act of defiance against the intellectual elites of the medical world. It was, and continues to be, perhaps the stupidest culture battle of my lifetime.

For example, the county I live in, for a while, had the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the entire state. And yet, back in July, a few thousand of its citizens decided they’d had enough:

What’s particularly egregious is that such demonstrations of not giving a f*ck have been inexplicably and unforgivably fueled and legitimized by the President of the United States and his enablers.

It takes a special level of depravity for the leader of our country to casually work to discredit the simplest, cheapest, and most effective device we currently have for mitigating this deadly virus. And yet, that’s what Trump has done — time after time — and continues to do so while shaping a stigma of weakness and fearfulness around the practice.

Also depraved: the ignoring of his health experts’ emphatic warnings (and his administration’s own guidelines) not to hold large, in-person events, where social distancing and mask wearing are neither required nor even encouraged. But the president has taken self-serving, celebratory pride in doing exactly that… time after time.

When the nation’s commander-in-chief makes it crystal clear that he doesn’t give a f*ck about such things during a pandemic, the 40% of the country (according to the national polls), that still trusts him to get us through this crisis, is going to have an awfully hard time giving a f*ck too.

In sane political times, inflection points like America’s pandemic death toll surpassing 200,000, or Herman Cain dying from COVID-19 after attending an indoor Trump rally, or the president himself contracting and being hospitalized for the virus, would have put an end to all this nonsense. (Actually, in sane times, just the known facts and the nature of the disease would have kept this level of indifference from ever taking hold).

But even after numerous attendees at a breathtakingly reckless White House event (including the First Lady and people with obvious risk factors) tested positive for the virus, and even after our president suffered serious health concerns (high fever and enough difficulty breathing to require oxygen), before being flown away on a helicopter to Walter Reed (to be treated with antivirals, anti-inflammatories, an experimental antibody cocktail, steroids, and several other drugs), we’re back to the same asininity as before.

Returning home a few days later, and feeling better (but by no means out of the woods health-wise), Trump took to social media to effectively run a victory lap.

“Don’t be afraid of Covid,” he tweeted. “Don’t let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge… I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”

Next came a Bruckheimer-esque, slow-motion video trailer (complete with soaring music) celebrating his arrival back at the White House. “Don’t let it dominate you,” came the president’s recorded words. “Don’t be afraid of it. You’re gonna beat it.”

As Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner argued, Trump’s grandstanding and suggestion that his medical treatment and supposed triumph over the coronavirus (the jury’s still out on that one) was somehow representative of the experience of average citizens who become infected, was “ultimately a slap in the face to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have died from the illness, and many others who have recovered only to suffer longer-term health effects.”

The next day, Trump returned to Twitter with a statement that echoed his totally absurd take on the coronavirus way back in March: “Flu season is coming up! Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu. Are we going to close down our Country? No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!”

So, despite everything that’s happened over the better part of a year, the White House is right back to where it started: suggesting, against everything we know, that COVID-19 is no more dangerous than the common flu, and therefore shouldn’t be feared or treated any differently.

No lessons learned. No personal responsibility for past recklessness. No new tone, or change in behavior. No calls on those who’ve been irresponsible to start acting responsibly.

Regarding those conscientious measures that thoughtful citizens have taken since March to help protect the people around them: well, those acts were pretty much pointless — fearful deeds from fearful people who never bothered to consider that Trump-like, cinematic bad-assery is how you really beat a super-virus into submission.

“Learning to live with Covid” may be what the president typed, but what he’s really talking about is the simple art of not giving a f*ck. And on this particular issue, he has perfected that art.

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