Updated: Dec 23, 2020
(originally posted 5/12/20)
The new coronavirus and its associated pandemic are remarkably well suited to wreak havoc on the 2020 United States of America. Between science denial, division, stubbornness, short term thinking, and empty leadership, it would be hard to create a worse scenario for us. Before we detected our first case of COVID-19, the United States in 2020 was already plagued by polarizing divide on somehow nearly every issue, even to the level of what facts are and whether they are important. This is a deadly problem to have in a pandemic. A pandemic functions on large scale societal levels. It requires a unified response. This is true of all viruses, it is how they succeed and function. Without a cohesive reaction, the viruses will seep into the cracks in our defenses and wreak havoc, bringing death and suffering to many.
This division is intimately connected with many of the other issues that put us at great risk to this virus. One side of these divisions has a deep distrust of science. Largely traceable to marketing efforts by fossil fuel and tobacco companies, this view has become pervasive for a large part of the country (I recommend reading Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway for a good look into part of this mechanism). This combines with the American narrative of the almighty individual. A deep streak of anti-authoritarianism runs in this country and often intersects with a distrust of science. It is cohesive as a belief system, trusting the system and methods of science to provide you with answers requires admitting that someone may know more than you about a given topic. This is an anathema to the idea of the rugged, exceptional American individual. It also factors into the division between urban and rural communities that has arisen in the United States. There is often a deep distrust of city dwellers (or those that appear to be) in rural places, and cities are where much scientific research is conducted. The sentiment that “some city slicker won’t tell me what to do” is not uncommon (this is partially rooted in the fact that state centers are generally in cities and people in rural communities can feel left out of decision making processes and ignored when they need support). However, with apandemic, a unified response is crucial. This is particularly true because of how connected our world is. This has been laid very bare with how the novel coronavirus has spread.
One of the unique elements of fighting a pandemic is that success looks very uninteresting. Success is nothing happening. This requires foresight and fortitude. Strong actions need to be taken early to prevent spread, because once spread starts it becomes hard to stop. This requires trust in science and in government, two things that are largely vilified by a big portion of the country. It requires believing that litigation is best done using our best science and that the government is the right entity to coordinate these efforts. It requires trusting that taking action before much negative has happened is a good idea. Trust is not something our country is good at right now. It also requires leadership that will act. We currently have a federal government that is largely bluster. The virus is not a human problem. It is a biological problem. It is an inhuman problem with human consequences. It requires real action, not a show. Viruses are not alive, they cannot be convinced of anything and they cannot be fooled. They simply do. You cannot negotiate with an avalanche or stare down a hurricane, either.
In addition to this lack of real action, the federal government and much of the rest of the country suffers from a significant case of short-termism, that is thinking about short term gains over long term benefits. This leads to a lack of inconvenient early action because it is inconvenient, regardless of how much it will help later. Economically speaking, much of this can be traced back to the “shareholder value above all” (that is, short term profits above all) line of thinking that was spearheaded by Milton Friedman and picked up by a number of others. It has now become a dominant paradigm in American Capitalist business and has trickled down to the middle and working classes far more effectively than any of the money those same people claimed would. Short-termism combines with a distrust in science to make it nearly impossible to convince a large section of the population to do something inconvenient - especially economically - in the name of potential future benefit because scientists have learned that it is a good idea.
Much of this division appears to be created by a split media atmosphere. America’s most watched cable news network was started by a Republican media strategist. It is hard to see something like that as a journalistic endeavor. Reality doesn’t care about feelings, or opinions, or spin. It simply is. If your first motive is truth, politics are irrelevant. If your first motive is politics, truth becomes irrelevant. If truth is irrelevant, science - the pursuit of truth - becomes an enemy. If science becomes an enemy, you will distrust it. Our division and our lack of interest in the truth over politics is now literally killing us.