Onward, Through The Covid Fog!
One quote I am fond of repeating in this space is a line from a Slovak Catholic priest, about the current situation in our culture: “Under communism, the Gospel shone a light through the darkness. Now, that light only strikes fog.”
It came to mind reading Damon Linker’s latest column, which is about how our leaders — political (federal and state), business, cultural, church, and so on — are having to make monumentally important decisions based on confusing, contradictory, and constantly-changing information about Covid-19. Some optimistic scenarios have failed to pan out, as have some pessimistic scenarios. Linker:
How could we be surprised? What we know about COVID-19 — a virus that didn’t exist six months ago — is vastly surpassed by what we don’t know. We don’t know how contagious it is. We don’t how widespread it is in the general population, which means we don’t know how fatal it is. We don’t know if or how much it will wane in warm-weather months or if it will return in a second wave later this year or next. We don’t know how many strains there are or might be. We don’t know if people become immune once they’ve been infected. We don’t know how long any immunity might last, or if it will protect against other strains that emerge. We don’t know if it will be possible to devise a vaccine to protect against it, or how effective it might be, or how long it will take to develop and disseminate one.
Read it all. This tracks with what Wyoming Doc has been saying to me privately: that this virus behaves like nothing he has ever seen. It’s unpredictable.
The problem, as Linker says, is that our leaders have to make decisions now, based on imperfect information. I get why so many people are so freaked out on either side of the issue. There is terrible pain and suffering happening right now. The economic pain is a lot more real for a lot more people than Covid, but I tell you, if this disease has touched your life, you know how vividly horrific it can be. I talked this afternoon with a New Orleans friend whose buddy was in the hospital for three weeks with the stuff, about a third of that time in ICU. He almost didn’t make it. You know somebody like that, and you know this is not an abstract threat. At the same time, the city of New Orleans has been economically devastated by this thing — and that pain is harder to measure than the effects on a particular body of this disease, but is also very real.
People are being so hard-edged about this, and wanting to believe that there is more certainty than there is, because it’s less frightening than to believe that We Just Don’t Know. Believing the worst on the health side makes the excruciating economic sacrifices we’re making worthwhile. Believing the best scenarios is a way of asserting control by saying that if it weren’t for those foolish politicians making bad decisions, everything would have been bearable — and (therefore) if we elect better politicians, we can put all this behind us.
The truth is, We Just Don’t Know. I’ve made no secret of my belief that Donald Trump and his administration have been mostly bad in this crisis, but the truth is, other countries who are not led by Donald Trump have done as poorly or worse. When you have a disease like this, which is unlike anything most of us have had to deal with in living memory, it’s hard not to make mistakes.
I mention here from time to time a study I read in 2010 — I wish I could remember the authors, or the kind of information that would help me find it — in which social scientists found that people who lived with freedom, but a lot of uncertainty, fared worse in terms of mental health measures than people who lived under oppression, but for whom life was predictable. In other words, we think that maximal freedom is optimal, but it’s not really true. Most people don’t thrive without some kind of limits, even if they’re more restrictive than they want. In our Covid situation, it would be more bearable if we had certainty that doing X for Y amount of time would defeat the virus. It’s the open-endedness, and the unpredictability, that’s eating us alive.
Future historians will find it fascinating to see how social media made us all so much less resilient in the face of this challenge. I’m hearing from so many friends that Facebook is a cesspit of spite and recrimination now, with people who are family and friends tearing into each other with unrestrained viciousness. The virus is ripping the mask off. Last August, I posted this blog entry about a new NBC/WSJ poll , and what it revealed about the American people. This excerpt is taken from the NBC News report about the poll:
The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that — despite Americans’ overall satisfaction with the state of the U.S. economy and their own personal finances — a majority say they are angry at the nation’s political and financial establishment, anxious about its economic future, and pessimistic about the country they’re leaving for the next generation.
“Four years ago, we uncovered a deep and boiling anger across the country engulfing our political system,” said Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt of Hart Research Associates, which conducted this survey in partnership with the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies. “Four years later, with a very different political leader in place, that anger remains at the same level.”
I wrote then:
The poll finds strong pessimism about the future of the country, even though the economy is strong. Just wait till the next recession!
Well, here we are, and it’s much worse than a recession. In that same blog post, a reader pointed to these findings…
… and said:
So to sum up: we have an angry, young, rootless generation with little love for their country, no adherence to any higher moral authority, and little interest in investing in future generations.
Yep, bright days ahead for the American republic!
Look, don’t think that I’m blaming the younger generations for the anger and division over Covid-19! It’s not just them; it’s all of us. There is a story in the spaces between the green and the yellow dots on that chart. The Millennials and Generation Z did not raise themselves. How did we go from a country where most people thought it was important to love your country, to believe in God, and to have kids, to one where most adults under 40 do not? What does that say about our capacity to be resilient in this catastrophe?
Until we have more certainty about the nature of this enemy, we are going to keep making it easier for it to defeat us. The most valuable leaders we could have now are those who can figure out how to inspire resilience, and steadiness through the fog.