The Coronavirus Culpability of Ordinary Citizens

When I was a kid growing up in Colorado, my family did a lot of camping. We had a Starcraft pop-up trailer that we’d pull behind my father’s Chevy pickup, and throughout the summer we’d make weekend trips up to the mountains — sometimes by ourselves and sometimes with other families.

One particular camp-out I remember was to Grand Lake, a few hours northwest of where we lived. The area is home to the state’s largest natural body of water. We met some neighbors up there, and we stayed a couple nights on a nice patch of shore. On the second day, those neighbors were kind enough to let my me and my older brother use their aluminum canoe to venture onto the lake.

My mother wasn’t crazy about the idea. She was notoriously overprotective of her boys, but I was probably in the 5th grade by then, and the water was calm enough that she eventually caved in to our pleas. Once our life vests were on and given the parental once-over, we set sail.

I was in the bow, and my brother took the stern. Each of us had a wooden oar that we used to put some distance between ourselves and the shore. Our parents had told us not to go beyond a certain point (which was a bit ambiguous, being that there weren’t any markers, but we had the general idea).

Over the next 20 minutes or so, we roamed around in the water, staying within view of our campsite. At one point, we apparently floated out a little farther than our mother was comfortable with. She stood up from her lawn chair in front of the campfire, and motioned us back toward the campsite with her arm.

“She wants us to come in closer,” I told my brother.

“Okay,” he acknowledged.

We both began rowing, but after 30 seconds or so, I realized we weren’t getting anywhere. Worried we were caught in some kind of tide (an oddity for a lake), I turned around in my seat to better assess the situation. That’s when I spotted my brother rowing backwards, in the opposite direction. He wore a big grin on his face as he did.

“Okay, quit screwing around,” I told him, watching our mother’s arms swinging harder from the shore.

“Okay, okay,” he answered with a chuckle.

We began rowing again, and it didn’t take long before I noticed that we still weren’t making any headway. When I turned my head again, I saw that he was again rowing backwards. He broke into laughter, enjoying the expression on my face.

“Knock it off!” I shouted at him.

By now, our mother was beginning to panic. She yelled at us from the shore, jumping up and down and swinging her arms like a windmill.

For a reason I still can’t explain to this day, my brother wasn’t phased at all. He could tell (as I could) that our mother was losing it (and that was never a good situation for anyone), but to him everything was still fun and games. He laughed while I cursed him out, and when I angrily began rowing again, he — once again — worked against me.

I was at my wits’ end, and I let him know it with a fair amount of name-calling. If I hadn’t been afraid of capsizing us, I would have taken a swing at his head with my oar.

Well, our mother had finally reached her snapping point. Between our perceived inability to work our way back in, and our distorted, verbal commotion echoing across the lake, she was convinced her sons were in imminent danger. Maybe she thought we were sinking, or perhaps she feared one of us was injured. Regardless, she began running along the circular shore to get closer to us, frantic in her movements. Other adults joined in. Soon we had three people sprinting to our “rescue.”

The sight brought my brother back to reality. Realizing what he had triggered, he finally cooperated and rowed normally. We made our way to the nearest shoreline (where the adults were headed). There, I tried to explain what happened, but our mother didn’t want to hear it. As far as she was concerned, we’d had our chance and we’d blown it. Seeing that neither of us was injured, and that we weren’t taking on water, she deemed us both incompetent and incapable of navigating a canoe. She then subjected us to the humiliation of having to sit idly inside the canoe as she got in and rowed the three of us back to our campsite (where we were forbidden for the rest of the weekend from taking the canoe out again).

I’ve been thinking about that story lately, because I’ve been noticing some parallels between it and a national debate we’re currently having about the COVID-19 health crisis — specifically in regard to the economic considerations.

In order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, many state governors have temporarily shut down “non-essential” businesses and issued stay-at-home orders to citizens. The economic impact has been devastating, from stocks tanking, to small businesses struggling to make rent and payroll, to 25 million people filing for unemployment, to a likely recession.

Thus, some Americans are demanding (their sentiment echoed by members of the right-wing media) that their governors immediately rescind their safety orders and, for the sake of people’s livelihoods, “re-open this economy!”

Still, poll after poll shows that most Americans (by a strong majority) support these safety measures, believing them to be a necessary burden for the time being. And there’s plenty of data that validates their concerns.

Though COVID-19 death estimations have been scaled downward in recent weeks (and that’s a very good thing), the fact of the matter — as National Review’s John McCormack points out — is that the coronavirus killed more Americans in one month than the flu kills in a year. And that was with unprecedented lock-downs and extreme social distancing across the country.

Imagine how many more Americans would have died if such measures hadn’t been taken.

Unfortunately, sincere passion on both sides of the debate has spawned shallow and reckless accusations, mostly along the lines of one side not caring about the suffering and concerns of the other. Here are a couple of examples:

While there’s certainly a point to be made about different people’s perspectives, and who has “skin in the game” in regard to this crisis (as Michael Frankel wrote about in a thoughtful piece on this website), successfully navigating this pandemic requires a more nuanced approach than the most enthusiastic voices on either side are putting forth. Portraying the other side as monsters for their differing views achieves nothing but additional anger.

As this pertains to my canoe story (and you’re forgiven for not seeing the connection yet), it seems to me that an extraordinary amount of progress could be made under the current conditions, or even under evolving conditions, if we could at least get everyone to row in the same direction.

Last month, the president and governors alike were framing the need for extreme social distancing as a two-week initiative. Sure, there were some variations across the nation (with some leaders’ rules sounding more open-ended than others), but the basic idea was that if every citizen could do their best to stay away from others for 14-days, it would go a long way toward essentially “starving out” the coronavirus, and keeping or medical institutions from becoming overwhelmed. The science, in regard to the infection and recovery periods, backed that up.

Of course, the plan was never going to be a perfect or absolute solution due to communication hurdles, learning curves, and a mental and logistical unpreparedness to deal with such a stark change. (The mixed messages from our elected leaders and governmental departments certainly didn’t help).

But now that we’re several weeks in, it’s pretty clear that the adjustment has taken us much longer than it should have. And we as a society have run out of excuses.

Many of us have done what has been asked of us. We’ve followed the restrictions and altered how we work and live. We’ve sacrificed (some more deeply than others) for the common good. In other words, we’ve done (and continue to do) our part to row the canoe back to the shore.

Unfortunately, too many others still haven’t taken the health crisis seriously, or at least as seriously as they should. They’ve trivialized the situation, not because of a principled objection to the effort, but rather a certain level of situational unawareness. This has rolled back (or perhaps rowed back) some of our gains. All the jumping up and down from the government shoreline has brought us a certain level of success, but not to the extent we’d hoped for. Thus further restrictions have been imposed.

I should note that as a conservative, I tend to resist using metaphors in which elected leaders play the role of our parents, but in the rare context of a legitimate public health crisis, the comparison is somewhat appropriate.

The division between the forward rowers from the backward rowers doesn’t exactly line up with that of the “wait on the economy” and “open the economy now” crowds (though I’m sure it would make for an interesting Venn diagram). As such, I’m not making a pro-quarantine vs. pro-business argument, or even putting forth a public policy critique.

To me, this is largely a personal responsibility issue — those responsibilities being: keep your distance from others (especially those who are high-risk), wear a mask when you have to be close to others, practice good hygiene, and stay home when your sick.

It seems so simple, but it’s been a real slog.

Case in point, I live in Greeley, Colorado. It’s in Weld County, a little over an hour north of Denver. Weld currently has the highest COVID-19 infection rate of any county in the state. And Greeley, which makes up a very small geographic portion of the county, accounts for more than 75% of those infections.

You would think that everyone here would be awfully concerned about the situation, and quite cautious in how they conduct themselves in public. But, to my amazement, I’m still seeing an alarming number of people having casual (and physically close) conversations with others. At the grocery stores, most customers still aren’t wearing masks, or in any way covering their nose and mouth, as they brush against each other along narrow aisles. In some restaurant carry-out lines, I’m still seeing people standing just a couple feet apart.

And I’m not convinced Greeley is an exception. I hear these same stories from friends and acquaintances across the country, even in major cities that have been hit hard. While a lot of people are being careful, a lot still aren’t. Again, there’s no ill-intent (in most cases); it’s more of a social disconnect. But it’s harmful nonetheless, and it is postponing our return to relative normalcy.

If we had all done our part during those first couple weeks (or by the third week, or by the fourth week, etc.), we could have started responsible re-openings sooner. We could have spared medical professionals, business owners, and other workers a good amount of chaos. We could have kept a lot of tensions from ever boiling over, and begun our economic recovery sooner.

But we failed in that respect. We’ll get there eventually, but the societal hardships and fears have intensified. And when that happens, patience runs out. People are inclined to fall back on their tribal instincts, casting those who don’t see eye-to-eye with them as villains. Lines are drawn in the sand, and respect for order and authority diminishes.

But pinning the problem on those in authority isn’t entirely fair — not in this particular situation. The global pandemic is no more the fault of our leaders than it is our citizens. How those leaders have responded to the crisis, on the other hand, is absolutely subject to criticism. And for that same reason, ordinary citizens deserve their share of criticism too.

Because sometimes — just sometimes — the problem is coming from inside the canoe.