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The United States has begun to grasp the severity of the novel coronavirus after weeks of watching other countries struggle to combat infection rates. Suddenly, across the country, events are getting canceled; nightclubs are temporarily closing; live talk shows are being filmed without any audience members. Often, the cancellations and closings come with the same justification: “an abundance of caution.” And last night, Donald Trump — before canceling two events of his own “abundance of caution” — delivered a stilted, pained address to the American people, in which he announced that travel from most European countries would be halted for a month, immediately sending airports around the world into chaos. Meanwhile, news broke that Tom Hanks had contracted the virus in Australia, where he was filming a movie about Elvis, as had an NBA player on American soil, forcing the season to end prematurely. Elsewhere, Sarah Palin was revealed to have been the psychedelic pink bear on The Masked Singer. All of this transpired as she was performing a folksy rendition of “Baby Got Back” on television.
To consider this morass of developments is to appreciate what the phrase “abundance of caution” accomplishes. It has an air of rhetorical largesse; it implies politeness and restraint instead of flailing panic. It’s a verbal lasso around galloping unpredictability. Though the scale of its terms are oxymoronic — abundance signaling plenty, caution calling for restraint — that only serves to make it sound more poetic. Imagine a kind neighbor coming over to your house and sharing their caution with you, because they had an abundance this year. An unlimited buffet with a caution fountain, caution towers, baskets of caution. As though we’re all positively relishing in our carefulness rather than preparing for the worst. There is something particularly American about turning something stark into a cornucopia.
Behind the loveliness of the word “abundance” lurks something far more sinister, an irony which turns nearly cruel when you consider the material scarcity it camouflages. The coronavirus has paralyzed Italy, a country iconically associated with abundance (there it’s abbondanza) that has now been reduced to silence and standstill: piazzas, restaurants, and bars are empty, as the Trevi Fountain bubbles for no one. Italian doctors are having to triage patients in their emergency rooms because there aren’t enough breathing machines to go around. Experts warn that things could get even worse in the United States. The U.S. has only 2.8 hospital beds per 1,000 people; as of a few days ago, we were testing for infections at a rate of five people per 1 million. Dozens of Americans have come forward with stories about trying to get tested for the virus, like being put on hold for hours, or told they don’t qualify unless they are actually coughing too hard to speak (though that would presumably make it difficult to ask for help).
So as easily as “abundance of caution” slips off the tongue, it performs a sort of doublespeak. It evokes tranquility, makes it seem as though hunkering down is a luxury that we can all enjoy — we actually have a surplus of it — despite the fact that many people can’t afford to. While some Americans are emptying Costco shelves, others are bracing themselves for restrictions on food stamp benefits implemented by the Trump administration. The White House says they will go into effect anyway, despite people needing to stock up on food, with schools possibly closing that provide meals for many of the neediest children. The Senate remains hung up on passing a coronavirus stimulus, in part because Republicans are resisting a measure to mandate paid sick leave by employers so workers can stay home if they’re feeling unwell, without fear of losing income. It’s fitting that Trump’s unwillingness to confront the spread of the disease is deepening the crisis, all from the man associated with American opulence, the golden toilet of presidents; instead of releasing a plan to increase testing around the country, Trump has focused on tweeting maniacal claims about the health of the stock market and emphasizing the need for his border wall.
In response, state and local governments and businesses are attempting to take matters into their own hands, providing sick leave themselves, suspending mortgage payments and even eviction notices in some places, to try to create some stability, never mind abundance. It’s possible that the coronavirus could shift the paradigm for many, many people, who once felt confident in America’s wealth and who are now seeing a true harshness, a hollowed-out core at the center of our society for the first time, despite all our stuff, our embarrassment of riches.