(This is the second in a series of observations on our pandemic times.)
I’ve argued elsewhere that misinformation endangers us more today than even the exposure of our personal information; that information’s usefulness, its value, is better understood by those who use it versus those who own it; that we each create the value of the information we see by attaching it to things we already know: our tacit knowledge, the sum of our learnings, influences the value of what we see.
Now we are in the midst of a massive explosion of information. This information attempts to describe the developing contours of a situation whose arc continues to unfold as we grapple with what it means. We have rightly but too narrowly labeled it a pandemic. Rightly, because an out-of-control disease presently stalks us everywhere. Too narrowly, because there are several outbreaks which, for whatever reason, we’ve seemed unable to manage. Speaking only as an American, these outbreaks may be tied to our decline, a fact widely recognized elsewhere despite our attempts to shout it down.
A virus often replicates inside a population inversely to its potency. Too strong, and it consumes its host prematurely, limiting its own spread. Too weak, and it spreads widely but with less serious impact. The SARS-CoV-2 virus balances adroitly between these two extremes. Even so, the fruits of its hunt are as usual the population’s weak points: the elderly, the severely overweight, those with underlying conditions (diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure). It takes down the front-liners disproportionately. Those who do the jobs we take for granted. Health care workers. Delivery folks. People in the food industry. It takes down the poor, the minorities, often for reasons that swirl around its ability to replicate — health conditions, cramped living, limited or no access to care, work on the front lines).
If you’ve studied history, you’ll recall the ultimate pandemic of the past century, the 1918-1920 influenza outbreak popularly known as the Spanish Flu.* Then, the flu virus (H1N1) circled the world in waves of varying intensity, killing millions — probably more young people than had just been slaughtered in the Great War.
We staggered out of the Great War and the Great Pandemic into a recovery, then into the Great Depression, and then into the Second Great War and the first and only use of nuclear weapons. During this period, a scant 30 years or so, about 200 million people around the world died from wars, the pandemic, and hardship.
How we survived all of that is amazing. But we did.
Now we are faced with a pandemic once again. Only this time, information overwhelms us every day. Hundreds of times, electronic agents interrupt our thoughts: Pay attention to this. And this. And now this. Now this.
Some information mines our deeps where fear and survival reside. Other information confuses — and more pours in by the hour. Separating fact from fiction has never been more crucial, nor more difficult. For what is “fact” in many cases other than generally settled opinion? And our opinions are far from settled.
We are united in our confusion, our fear, our hope and our determination. But determination to do what? Early on, it was everything. Make masks, made beds, make ventilators. Put up makeshift hospitals. Share stories constantly. Scare each other. Lock down. Rebel. Open up. Chase a vaccine. Chase bleach. Chase something, anything that will work.
Then, as the lockdowns wore us down, we reacted predictably, with protests against curtailment of our freedoms, with worries about the economy, with starting back up, with how things should look, how we should behave. We juxtaposed images of physical distancing in work environments and work from home Zoom galleries with images of people frolicking together in pools and at beaches, acting on the one hand as though everything had changed and on the other as though nothing had changed at all.
Why is this?
Perhaps (and only perhaps) this. What we do not have at the moment, anywhere in the world, is a strategy. What we do have, just about everywhere, is a set of disconnected, variably effective reactions to what we think the problem we are facing might be. Everything is up in the air, and all actions are either laudable or suspect, depending on your point of view.
Some think if we do nothing, catastrophe will hit. Others think if we lock down any longer, catastrophe will follow. Still others realize both catastrophes will happen, but without a sense of how much of either will result. We weigh the catastrophe of lives lost against the catastrophe of livings lost and come no nearer to an understanding of what’s worse. We vacillate between worst-case, worse than worst-case, or better than expected viewpoints. Our politicians are whipsawed, criticized for inactivity if they do nothing, criticized for hyperactivity if they take action.
The problem is, we don’t know what the problem is.
A much wiser man than me - Richard Rumelt - said of strategy that a good deal of strategy is figuring out what is going on.
What we’ve seen are the kinds of things that happen when you haven’t yet figured out what is going on. Even so, we must react to the symptoms we see. That’s high-risk, high-stakes activity.
Now, some months into the situation, we have countries and states reopening, various economies trying to sputter to life, and all the while the overall impact likely has not hit. Such is the delayed reaction to trauma — first the shock, then the realization that something profound has occurred, and then the long, slow, often agonizing coming to grips with what it all means. The second wave may well be noisier than the first — chaotic, rebellious, with disease stalking us as we wrestle with governments and with each other.
And still we reopen. We use phrases like “post-COVID19.” There is no post, not yet, not while cases are rising and fatality rates are gyrating all over the place because we have no idea, anywhere, of how many people have been infected. Not while there’s the biggest capture-the-flag race to profits cloaked under altruistic for-the-good-of-us-all messaging around technologies, vaccines, drugs, things we can do to ourselves rather than figure out what we can do for ourselves. Not while we’re unsure of what a “new normal” may be, whether it’s time to live with this thing that, unchecked, could kill somewhere between one in fifty or one in a hundred of us before it dissipates — leaving the remaining forty-nine of fifty or ninety-nine of a hundred of us to try to sort out what it all meant.
It might be better if we declared the instant the FIRST suspected case of SARS-CoV-2 was detected as the “post-COVID19” moment. Or perhaps when the thing was declared a pandemic as “post-COVID19.” Or when Italy groaned. Or Iran. Or when, like the lumbering and ignorant toddler it so often is, America woke up and felt the sting.
Because the times have changed, the path has forked, perhaps multiple times, and we are down one of those new roads, with no maps, no markers, no true sense of where we’re going, with the “old normal” ever receding while the “new normal” may be somewhere in the trees, over the next ridge, or beyond the next crook in the path. We are already “post,” we can’t go back.
Our trajectories are tragically familiar, though — politics, profiteers, plutocrats, patriots. And, of course, the poor — which, these days, is almost all of us, our poverty measured not by our personal wealth (which may be enviable in many cases) but by what we lack - vision, understanding, compassion, good roads, commitment to teachers, police, firefighters, grocery folks, delivery people, wait staff, and on and on.
Above all, we lack access to truth.
Our diet is spin.
Spin by media. Spin by politicians. Spin by corporate interests. Spin by talking heads. Spin and spin and spin and spin and spin.
We choke on spin, gorging without digesting, upchucking it ourselves in opinions that we hope are well-constructed but, even like this one, are at best half-formed, malformed, and for some reading it uninformed.
Attempting to manage this spin, we turn to tribal behavior, accepting information that fits within our tacit worldview and rejecting that which doesn’t. And because that which does fit and that which doesn’t fit both come at us, freight trains filled with facts, alternate facts, false facts, these facts, those facts, we desperately filter that which doesn’t fit and continue to drink in that which does — until we, separated, angry, anxious, depressed, can look at a black man expiring on a street after nine minutes under the knee of a cop and see two different pictures.
In America, we have augmented the noise of this pandemic in predictable ways. A series of killings of black people, George Floyd the latest but not the last — coupled with the disproportionate number of blacks and other minorities the pandemic has singled out to sacrifice — has set the flame to the tinderbox of racial inequality once again. That there is rampant inequality and continued flow of wealth to the top — as evidenced by grudging $2 / hour “hero pay” temporary allowances while billions in profits continue to be accumulated — is not lost on people.
Once again, the unrest begins. Once again, peaceful protest reminds us both of the sanctity of the First Amendment as well as its fragility, as it comes under assault by those intent either on muzzling the message or on using it as an excuse to loot. Whether these protests continue will be a function of the determination and endurance of those fired up to march. As Arundhati Roy has stated, governments have learned to outwait crises. Because there is always another crisis that will come into play.
Even now, there are stories and counter-stories. The alt-left started things. Alt-right did. The videos in Minneapolis were fake. We’re being infiltrated. On and on. Misinformation everywhere.
The ray of hope is this. The protests do continue. They have spread around the world. One picture - the picture of injustice and inequality, of people fed up with not-having and not having opportunity to have, of people giving voice to this angry, anxious, depressed and despairing viewpoint that has driven some to opioids, others to gun suicides — this picture may be rising, demanding attention from those whose power and influence has heretofore successfully dictated not just what to see but how to see it.
Or maybe not.
There are multiple sides, after all.
Even this crisis will have its winners and losers.
So, 2020. A year I anticipated, because (for personal reasons) 2019 had had its tough moments. Moments which I now know to be trivial.
In 2019, I wrote a poem, “Crows.” You can find the essay attached to it here; the poem is reprinted below.
Perhaps those crows, gathered on the green lawn of a park, warned me more than I realized. Storm-crows they were. Crows of war. Crows of dark opportunity.
To me, 2020 now feels a bit like 1967 and 1968. In the 1967 Detroit riot (itself not new - after all, Watts had burned in 1965, and largely for the same reason), whole blocks burned. The Insurrection Act, whose use is debated in the 2020 situations, was invoked at the request of Michigan governor George Romney, and the 101st Airborne Division followed the National Guard in to restore order - although not before 2,000 buildings were burned and 43 people lost their lives.
The following winter, in 1968 and through 1969, a pandemic known as the Hong Kong Flu circled the world, killing between one million and four million people, one hundred thousand of them Americans, before running its course. Most deaths were of people over 65, numbers equivalent to 156,000 American lives lost today. We shut nothing down, but then, we also had residual immunity from exposure to a 1957 strain. Were we wiser then, or now?
Today, the media lurches from obsessive counting of cases and deaths, reckless behavior attending states’ reopening efforts, focusing now on the number of demonstrations, videos of looting, videos of police aggression, what our president threatens to do.
Above all, perhaps symbolic of the whole mess, is our president’s latest (but once again, not last) tear gas- and helicopter wingstorm-enabled photo-flop, clearing what is for him the rabble, so that he could take a walk in front of a wall laced with obscenities, to stand holding a bible (a book he never consults) in front of a church (a place he doesn’t understand and where he never goes).
One could almost pity the man for being so tragically out of touch with all that defines the rest of us as humans.
The rebukes pour in, but nothing really happens.
This is pathos, and this is America. We should not be surprised — what with for-profit everything, mortgaged health, declining life expectancy, and paralyzed politics -- that we were sitting ducks for any disease. That the pandemic is an identifiable disease should not mask the several underlying conditions that make any threat more potent. SARS-CoV-2 is successful insofar as we’ve left gates open. And in it comes.
Some weeks earlier, we were all about freedom. People, mostly white, congregated with their guns and their trucks to protest lockdowns as impacting their freedom. Never mind that many people, white or not, were equally affected by the lockdown and didn’t protest. It was all about the ability to “do what I want, when and where I want to do it.” As though this was the important issue of the day. But there are truths here as well. What we resented, it seems, was being “done to.” A lockdown forces us to do something we don’t want to do. Understandable, that this would be frustrating.
But aren’t the protests we now see around the world about the same issue? People tired of being “done to” by those whose interests are well-served by maintaining an unequal status quo?
To return to SARS-CoV-2. Is it frightening? Yes. Is it an opportunistic disease? Yes. Will it wipe us out? Probably not.
It’s in one sense a blessing - enough of a threat to scare us, packing enough tragedy to disrupt a system that, fundamentally, needed disrupting. Our “old normal” had us headed toward impossible inequality, compromised health, mass extinctions, and climate havoc, to name just a few.
Do we want to return to that?
So let’s see SARS-CoV-2 as merely the latest (and yet again, not the last) threat to our health. This virus forces us to see not only our overt symptoms (what it does to us individually) but also our covert symptoms (how we’ve lived collectively).
Health begins with us. If we want to discuss herd immunity, then we need to behave like a herd. That doesn’t mean everyone runs and jumps off the nearest cliff. The duty of a herd is simple. Its safety is in numbers, yes. But its resilience is in the understanding that each member of the herd has a role to play. What sets us apart as humans is that we will not decide to sacrifice the weakest members of our herd to something that can kill them. For that to work, though, we all must do our part.
We have to wash our hands, yes, and not touch our faces, yes, and stay away from people during cold and flu season. If we haven’t been doing this, then we’re likely to catch a cold or (perhaps less likely but certainly more memorably) catch the flu. And for this latest threat, we wear masks, not to protect our selves but to respect each other.
Even so, all this does is help keep SARS-CoV-2 out. We haven’t fixed the rest. Herd immunity is really one part of social resilience. Individually, that starts with choices about our personal health. What we eat. How we ensure we have enough of the building block vitamins and supplements.
It goes much further than that. Social resilience is a moral choice. We choose to be about others as much (if not more) than about ourselves. We gain strength in all our numbers, not just the numbers of our social class or our political tribe. We build schools and roads and hospitals because we need them, not just so that more goods and services can go back and forth to profit the few on the backs of the many, but so that all can live free of anxiety and despair. We insist on sound nutritional choices and grant paid time off for illness because we know that if individually we are strong and healthy, collectively we are as well. We choose these things because they benefit us all, not because they profit a few. We expand our economic borders beyond what it costs in labor and material to make something, to what it costs to the environment we all share if we make it — and we decide how much we’re willing to trade off.
We understand that chasing the bottom will land us at the bottom.
Returning at last to Richard Rumelt. Shall we frame the problem, understand what’s going on, in terms of a long, at times relentless crawl of social health decay? Do we see that the problem is expressed in symptoms: obesity, heart disease, poor food choices, factory farms, sugar in everything, poor pay for vital work, wealth transfer to the top, erosion of infrastructure, for-profit social systems, despair, a knee on a black man’s neck?
Is this what’s really going on?
If so - we have incredible, exhilarating and purposeful work ahead of us. Work we all can do. Color, religion, political persuasion – no matter. All of us have skin in this game, whatever color that skin may be. We all have work to do.
Now is the time to do it.
* “Spanish Flu” is more accurately named the 1918 H1N1 Pandemic - It is called “Spanish Flu” simply because at the time it erupted, nations fighting World War I did not want to reveal that an outbreak was occurring, lest “the enemy” use the information to advantage. Spain, being neutral, began to report the outbreak, which was labeled the Spanish Flu. And so the name stuck…
World War I killed at least 20 million
Influenza killed at least 50 million
World War II killed at least 100 million
It was a season of crows.
First a few dark
Wrinkles in the sky
Sometimes merely one
Tiny blot against the blue.
On our green fields
We discovered them
Strutting and bouncing
Mysterious and watchful.
Eyes bright black, their
Bills sturdy wedges
Better to pry their prey.
We should have known:
Rolling back the years
We might have recognized
Our role as their intended.
We were first amused
We would rush them
Mock their irritated flight
While they landed further in.
Their population grew
An abundance of feathers
A gathering of caws.
First in our fields
And hidden in our trees
Then scarring our skies
Until their black dominated.
They unfolded in waves
Storms of savage wings
Incessant raucous noise.
Looking back, this 2020 year
Our perfect vision year
We should have seen and known
And knowing, repossessed our world.
The truths we chose to keep
Obscured our sight;
Like well-beaten dogs, our
Tails still wagged for hate.
We widened our divisions
Kept our guns and grudges;
Pressing back-to-back we faced
Our confidential crows.
We could not see for noise:
Sightless horses, we
Planted stubborn hooves
Awaiting some salvation.
We could have stopped them.
Minds yet our own, we
Might have cleaned our ears
Lubricated our eyes
Shattered their brittle iron.
They were but crows.
Their squabbles rend silence
Wings touch wings in flight
And no light penetrates.
Our cataracted vision
Loses ground for figure:
Black erases blue
Ebony tramples green.
Alone in darkened rooms
We sift opioided terrors,
Taut despairs and fears
Rattling our gilded cages.
Our world’s colors
Moan sore like doves
Lamenting our stolen vision.
That’s false, we know.
We used their voices
Let their eyes be ours
Their smudged sight substituting
While we chased distractions.
Masters now, these smokelings
Scratch and rasp and laugh,
Their caverned ancient darkness
All that’s left to us.
This, our 2020 year
This, our visionary year
This, the year we sold
Our children to the crows.