With the disastrous reopening of the United States under way, as the country continues to reach new coronavirus-infection heights, we find ourselves confronted with countless absurd juxtapositions in our strange reality.
These play out on the news and across social media. A doctor in Texas tells reporters that he has only three critical-care beds for ten young people with potentially fatal coronavirus infections, one week after a photo of a woman, maskless and forlorn at a restaurant, goes viral for her husband’s caption: “waiting for shredded cheese, as it’s the only way she can eat fajitas.” Reports of 900 people waiting in 100-degree heat at a single coronavirus testing site in Arizona, the new epicenter, come out after a town insists on hosting thousands of people at a Fourth of July parade because it is erring “on the side of freedom.” The coronavirus stay-at-home orders put two Americas into sharp relief: one with people who could actually stay at home and one with essential workers — working-class people, overwhelmingly people of color and immigrants — who couldn’t. Now these two Americas are meeting each other face-to-face in reopened bars and restaurants and gyms. Or, more accurately, they’re meeting face-to-mask. The contrast has been crystallized in a new genre of viral outrage photo that suddenly feels ubiquitous — of brunchers blithely getting back to normal by enjoying outdoor dining, masks lying beside their plates, as servers in masks, gloves, and face shields refill their mimosas or bring them their meals.
But as reckless as the behavior of the restaurantgoers or the eager clients lined up outside a hair salon may seem, this outrage is directed at people who are doing perfectly legal activities. Their actions are tacitly endorsed by state governments that continued with their reopening plans as quickly as possible (some of which have now been retracted as infection rates soar) and are explicitly endorsed by both a president obsessed with getting the economy going again and an administration whose new coronavirus strategy reportedly is to hope that Americans simply “learn to live with it.” Directing our anger at individuals is easy and it’s cathartic, but it obscures a much bigger and far more troubling issue: We have essentially been left to fend for ourselves. We’ve been taught to think that “defeating the virus” is a matter of personal choice — if everyone wears a mask and is responsible, then we’ll be okay — totally minimizing the government’s role in utterly botching the situation, here in the wealthiest country in the world.
Consider the background of all this “reopening.” At the onset of the pandemic, the federal reaction was slow and piecemeal, eventually resulting in stimulus plans and other measures that were inadequate even then and are set to expire now. The Paycheck Protection Program, which doled out funds to small businesses to keep workers employed, has ended. The $600 federal unemployment-insurance benefit will end on July 31. Eviction moratoriums are over too, and no state has canceled rent despite these programs winding down. In Milwaukee, where housing courts reopened in May, there has already been a 13 percent increase in eviction filings; the pattern is expected to repeat across the country. As schools scramble to figure out their plans for reopening, working parents have been left stranded — like those at Florida State University, where administrators have decided that staff must provide proof of additional child care or they cannot work remotely. Many businesses are reopening because they have to, just as many of their employees are coming in to work for the same reason — individual choice is actually not the real story here at all. Without a robust social safety net and with governments unwilling to take decisive action that prioritizes public safety over economic revival, wait staff in PPE is the only logical outcome of a pandemic like this.
The idea that individual choice could (or should!) have significant bearing on this public-health crisis is absurd, especially in light of the economic devastation that came in its wake. Try to make just one decision, as a consumer, about the ethics of reopening, and you’ll see. Should you go to a restaurant, where tipped workers will finally be making money again? Or should you not go to a restaurant, because its workers are at risk, knowing that having fewer customers means they may not be able to pay rent this month? The vacuum of responsible leadership has created uncertainty, leaving people to have to decide for themselves what’s too dangerous. Should you stay home from a party on the beach with your friends, even if your state opened up the beach as well as the bars on the boardwalk? To many, the answer seems like an obvious no — but regardless of what you decide, the fact remains that, in the face of an unprecedented national health emergency, the task of weighing scientific and medical evidence is falling on individuals. The burden of safely and responsibly navigating a pandemic should not be on our shoulders as lone entities; preventing the spread of coronavirus is not a matter of individual responsibility.
Three White House officials told the Washington Post this week that they are hoping Americans will “grow numb” to coronavirus and “learn to accept tens of thousands of new cases a day.” Yes, it’s outrageous to see evidence of Americans who seem to be actually taking that cue, of people who must be growing numb if they can stomach all this sickness and death just to be able to hit the beach or their favorite bar. But it’s even worse that those at the highest levels of government have left us with no recourse other than policing the behavior of ourselves and others. In theory, our most powerful public institutions have that power only because we give it to them. They deserve the biggest reserves of our anger and to be publicly and prolifically shamed.