Home/Rod Dreher/Against Coronavirus Free Riders

Against Coronavirus Free Riders

Christians attend Palm Sunday services at Baton Rouge's Life Tabernacle, in defiance of governor's ban on large group meetings (Photo by CLAIRE BANGSER/AFP via Getty Images)

Last night, my 16-year-old son went to shoot hoops in a neighborhood park, alone. He came back earlier than expected. Why? He said a group of kids — friends of his — came out en masse to horse around. We had told our son that if that happens, he is to come home, and not risk contact with others. So he did.

It’s really discouraging to me that some parents are letting their kids run around like it’s a normal summertime. A friend in Alabama told me the same thing is happening in his neighborhood: adults social-distancing, but allowing their kids to carry on like they’re just on vacation. The cognitive dissonance is jaw-dropping. When I tweeted about this last night, someone asked what the big deal was. I responded with something like, “Say one of the kids in the scrum is carrying the virus, but is asymptomatic and doesn’t know he’s got it. He passes it on to my son, who comes home and passes it to me. I’m immunocompromised, and am at real risk.” My interlocutor answered:

You see? Ben Esler is correct; this is basic civic responsibility. But these other two, they’re not going to let anybody tell them what to do, even though we are in the middle of a deadly pandemic that is killing tens of thousands worldwide, and is destroying economies. Because their “rights.”

Do you think that there is going to be any serious resentment over all this? My late father and his uncle hated each other. It started back in the 1940s, when the US was at war. My dad was a boy. The man who became his uncle was a gentleman farmer — a city boy whose wealthy father bought a hobby farm for him out in the country, to help him avoid the draft. In those days, farmers were allowed to stay home to keep feeding the nation. The future uncle, who married my dad’s sister, was a pampered kid from uptown New Orleans — a fake farmer, in other words.

One afternoon, my father’s aunt brought her beau by to meet the family. Daddy ran to hide under the house, so he wouldn’t have to greet the man. My grandmother called out to him to come out and say hello to Auntie’s suitor.

“I ain’t doin’ it!” Daddy called out from his hiding place. “He’s a damn draft dodger!”

Auntie married that man. He and my father hated each other all their lives. It turned out over the course of their lives that my father’s youthful assessment of the man’s character was right on target.

I wonder if something like that is going to happen here, over social distancing. I know that I, personally, feel very hard towards those Pentecostals in Baton Rouge who are continuing to meet, in defiance of the governor’s order and public health advice. We have not been able to have church for a month or so now, which has been a painful sacrifice, but we’ve done it because we know that saving lives depends on making that sacrifice. And saving lives depends on that sacrifice being shared. It’s in the nature of this virus threat — not just shared sacrifice for the sake of social psychology, but more important, for reasons of epidemiology. The more people we have who refuse to obey the guidelines, the harder it is going to be to flatten the curve, and the longer the rest of us who are making the socially responsible sacrifices are going to have to do so.

These church people, the neighborhood folks,  and people like the Twitter commenters above, are all free riders on the rest of us doing the right thing. If any of them get sick, and if there happens to be hospital beds for them, it will be in part because so many of us did what we were supposed to do, and stayed healthy. I really am wrestling with anger at those others. I hate being cooped up in this house, but what choice is there? First of all, I don’t want to catch this virus and risk death. Second, I don’t want to spread this virus to my wife and children. Third, I want to be part of sacrificing my own personal desires for the greater good.

I live near to a fire station — close enough so that I can hear their sirens every time they go out on a call. Some of these calls are not fires, but medical calls. Those men have to put their own health, and the health of their family members, to whom they return after the shifts, on the line to protect and serve the rest of us. They don’t have a choice. The least we can do for servants like them is to stay at home to help keep the virus from spreading, and to make it more likely that if any of them fall ill and require hospitalization, that there will be beds for them.

Or think about the men and women who are staffing grocery stores and pharmacies. They are now starting to die of the virus. Because they go out there every day to keep the shelves stocked, people like us can keep our pantries and our medicine cabinets full. When they fall ill, will there be hospital beds for them? Or will spaces that they deserve be taken by people who got sick because they wouldn’t do even the minimal work of social distancing?

When I think about people who sit at home bitching about “my rights being trampled” because they can’t live exactly as they please right now, or who go to church because they’re “covered in Jesus’ blood,” which they figure gives them immunity, I think about those firefighters, the medical personnel, and the grocery and pharmacy workers. If the “muh rights” people, and the defiant church people, the Brooklyn hasidim, and others,  were only putting their own lives at risk, that would be unfortunate, but that would be their choice. But it’s not only about them!

I have friends who are jobless, friends whose businesses have gone under already. These are people who desperately need this disease to pass so they can get back to work. The longer we drag this out, the longer it is going to be before they can start to look for work, or rebuild their livelihoods. Is it too much to ask the rest of us to stay at home to do our part to help out the plight of the jobless?

If we were at war, and the government said that we had to live under blackout at night so that enemy bombers wouldn’t be able to find their targets, how would you feel about people who kept their lights on, because they weren’t going to let the government trample on their rights, or because they claim to be covered in the blood of Jesus, and therefore their lights won’t be visible to enemy pilots? That’s what we are dealing with here. Asian countries have had more success than we have in suppressing the infection curve because they are culturally more willing to make personal sacrifices for the collective good. But we Americans?

Here’s news from Idaho today:

Inside an old factory building north of Boise, a few dozen people gathered last week to hear from Ammon Bundy, the man who once led an armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge.

The meeting, which appeared to violate orders by Gov. Brad Little of Idaho to avoid group gatherings, was an assertion of what Mr. Bundy said was a constitutional right to peacefully assemble. But Mr. Bundy said he also hoped to create a network of people ready to come to the aid of those facing closure of their businesses or other interference from the government as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

“If it gets bad enough, and our rights are infringed upon enough, we can physically stand in defense in whatever way we need to,” Mr. Bundy told the meeting. “But we hope we don’t have to get there.”

In a state with pockets of deep wariness about both big government and mainstream medicine, the sweeping restrictions aimed at containing the spread of the virus have run into outright rebellion in some parts of Idaho, which is facing its own worrying spike in coronavirus cases.

The opposition is coming not only from people like Mr. Bundy, whose armed takeover of the Oregon refuge with dozens of other men and women in 2016 led to a 41-day standoff, but also from some state lawmakers and a county sheriff who are calling the governor’s statewide stay-at-home order an infringement on individual liberties.

Health care providers and others have been horrified at the public calls to countermand social-distancing requirements, warning that failing to take firm measures could overwhelm Idaho’s small hospitals and put large numbers of people at risk of dying.

“There are a lot of people that listen to those voices around here,” said Dr. Hans Hurt, an emergency doctor at Bonner General Health, a medical center in the town of Sandpoint, 45 miles north of Coeur d’Alene. “Even if it’s just a small group that wants to exercise their right to assemble, it puts the community at large at such a high risk.”

Many of the latest claims about the Constitution have come from Idaho’s northern panhandle, where vaccination rates for other diseases have always been low and where wariness of government is high.

State Representative Heather Scott, a Republican from Blanchard, northwest of Coeur d’Alene, is encouraging her constituents to push back on the statewide stay-at-home order, saying people have “a God-given constitutionally protected right to peacefully assemble.”

Read it all. It’s amazing. These ideologues are going to ensure that the nation’s suffering is prolonged. The coronavirus doesn’t care about the US Constitution. You might as well threaten an approaching tsunami with violence if it rolls across your property line and trespasses. Go ahead, Don’t Tread On Me Man, shoot the tidal wave with your AK-47. That’ll save you.

The virus doesn’t care about religious claims. God certainly can miraculously protect whoever He chooses from infection — but do not put the Lord your God to the test! (Luke 4:12) That South Korean Christian church that was initially responsible for the virus spreading in that country — did the blood of Jesus not cover them too? How does one know? Christian faith is not the same thing as magical thinking.

Seems to me that this viral pandemic is putting the American way of life, and of approaching life, to the test, and is revealing the extent of our decadent individualism. This is not a conservative or liberal thing. It’s an American thing. We are dealing with a crisis that requires us all to pull together and sacrifice together, and we are failing. Not all of us are failing, but we are surely being failed by some of our fellow Americans. I don’t see a lot of difference between progressives who believe the entire world has to rearrange itself, and to deny basic scientific fact, to accommodate their individual desires (for example, transgender activists) and right-wingers (church people, muh-rights people, et alia) who insist on the same thing, for their own reasons.

Ideology kills. The weird thing is that I am not used to describing Pentecostal churchgoers and ordinary Republican subdivision dwellers as selfish individualists. But this pandemic has been a real apocalypse, in ways I didn’t expect.

UPDATE: In the 11th Pandemic Diaries entry, which appeared on March 26, a reader in Oklahoma wrote:

My in-laws are old-time Pentecostals of the “claim the blood of Jesus and go about your business” tribe. They did so, in spite of our respectful then increasingly insistent warnings. Between bad theology and Fox News, both are now in the hospital.

The reader wrote this afternoon to say:

Just wanted to let you and readers know that, grief upon grief, both my in-laws have died — may Perpetual Light shine upon them. My MIL passed on March 27 and my father-in-law joined her in eternal rest this morning, April 7. We are undone, but we do not grieve as those who have no hope.

It takes my breath away that there are still people who do not believe this is real.
UPDATE.2: Reader Thomas comments:
I work at/own an essential business. If you want your city to still have running water, you want electricity, you want farmers to have water, want sewage to work, and so on we have to be open. We stock the stuff the cities, plumbers, and electricians need and manufacturing centers need. We are like Lowes/Home Depot but for the professionals and we do allow the public to come in. The problem is that the public is coming in not for essential stuff but even for the most minor things like their sprinkler system needs a new rotor head. It is highly infuriating. There are not enough real masks for the medical people so you know we can’t get any. People are hoarding up on hand sanitize and Clorox wipes that it is hard for us to get any. We are getting by for now with them thanks in part to you sounding the alarm and me stocking up in February and some timely supplies coming in. People will not stay 6 feet away but want you to talk on their phone for them and get close to you. Some think it is a hoax. We have implemented a lot of things to limit people contact but people still just keep coming in so much so that we had a huge month last month and this month is shaping up to be same. It is about the only time I have been angry at people while making a good profit off them.
UPDATE.3: Reader Jonah R.:

As of March 2, Bill DeBlasio, mayor of our largest city, was suggesting that the fatality rate was so low that “it’ll resolve on its own…we don’t even think it’s going to be as bad as it was in other countries.” On Twitter, he told New Yorkers to “go on with your lives and get out on the town.” The next day he told the press that you can’t catch coronavirus from anything but “prolonged, constant contact.” Even as he ordered protective gear for the city, he insisted nobody was going to get coronavirus from riding on mass transit, and on March 11 he was encouraging people to go to restaurants. He didn’t close schools until March 15, several days behind our Republican governor here in Maryland. DeBlasio was still working out at a gym at a public YMCA on March 16.

When I went out early in the second week of March to get toilet paper, a long-term supply of medications, and a stash of non-perishable food, neighbors in my bright-blue, highly educated, media-savvy suburb were genuinely confused. When I predicted that schools and businesses could close, they thought I was nuts.

Look, I have no love for Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or any of those guys. The Pentecostals still going to church are vain, thoughtless fools. I don’t agree with what happened in Wisconsin. But the narrative that large numbers of the American right dithered while everyone else was informed and prepared is utter hogwash. The large numbers of African Americans who crowded the D.C. fish market last weekend aren’t Fox viewers or Trump voters. Neither are my neighbors with the Bernie Sanders bumper stickers whose idiot teenagers are still skateboarding with their buddies at a closed public park.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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