How Did We Get So Dark?

The State of COVID Is A Miserable Moral Lesson
Ed Zitron 8 min read
How Did We Get So Dark?

In a rare moment for Las Vegas, the weather is overcast and I am at about a fifth of my energy, on top of the fact that I feel like I woke up knocked off my axis, unable to quite focus on whatever it is I’m meant to be doing. I’m currently blaring this:

It’s days like today that make me reflect on what my actual job is, and how so much of it is based on some combination of luck and timing, catching people on good days with the right thing said in the right way, and hoping that the subsequent conversation with my client gets them to write a story. Public Relations is a fundamentally insane job to have, one that I’m good at but at the same time constantly fear I’ll magically become bad at, as if one day I’ll simply fail to have that magic combination of happenstance and name recognition and the right numbers to get my job done.

This is definitely not the job I thought I’d have considering my relatively cynical and extremely anxious personality.

And the repeated thing I keep writing about days feeling repetitive has really begun to exhaust me. Usually I’d be doing trips to SF or NYC, seeing reporters, getting a few hours with them and understanding what exactly they care about. I think, maybe, I’m experiencing a very specific kind of burnout that I don’t really have the tools to mitigate, and surviving mostly on instinct and the fact that most people are experiencing the same kind of burnout. I don’t think any of us are meant to sit here and do the same repeated movements between three rooms, and all the work that comes out of the computer.

I realize I’m a scratched record here - I know everyone feels like this, and I’m a big whiner.

Either way, I only recently heard this Foo Fighters song for the first time, and it may be the first song I’ve really liked by them since The Colour and The Shape.

Is It Safe?

So, I’m not the governor of California, but this seems like a bad idea:

Now, based on Google, it really looks like California has not remotely flattened the curve, with 21,000 cases reported on January 24. But they’re lifting the stay at home order, meaning that the state can now return to the tier-based system that I would argue significantly contributed to the confusion and issues with California’s cases. So, depending on your county, and I should be clear how confusing that is based on the fact that we as human beings generally do not see counties, but see towns that we go to and do stuff in, and counties can sometimes be right next to each other.

Frustratingly, despite a seven day moving average of 504 deaths, it seems they’re taking a victory lap:

"California is slowly starting to emerge from the most dangerous surge of this pandemic yet, which is the light at the end of the tunnel we've been hoping for," said California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly.

"Seven weeks ago, our hospitals and front line medical workers were stretched to their limits, but Californians heard the urgent message to stay home when possible and our surge after the December holidays did not overwhelm the health care system to the degree we had feared."

This isn’t just a California problem, though. This is the United States writ small - inconsistent, confusing and insufficient measures taken partly because of the lack of a social safety net, and partly, in my opinion, because of the American Spirit in some people that makes them believe that these lockdowns are some sort of infringement on their freedoms. It is insane to me that we are acting as if we’re better than where we were in March or April - we’re worse! We are statistically, obviously worse! And we keep relaxing restrictions way before we’re even close to in a good place!

I have seen people I previously called friends and now just call “people I have to follow because actually ending the friendship would be more difficult than ignoring the problem” who are a day out of a negative COVID test going out and eating at restaurants, taking unmasked pictures too (fuck you, Arizona!), I see people crowding “outdoor areas” that are basically sheds with no door, I see people genuinely arguing with me that it’s fine to go out “as long as you follow the rules,” which is their way of saying “I stand six feet from someone and that’s magically gonna stop the virus.”

It’s almost as if the government is just like “fuck it, people are gonna die anyway, we’ll vaccinate those who live.” The vaccination rates in California are a joke - 47th (just 44.8% of vaccines administered) in the nation - and it’s not like Nevada is much more impressive at 29th (53%). And I’d wager that California’s issue with getting vaccinations out is the same problem they’re having with the virus itself - California is too big and there’s either poor or confusing guidance (or both).

One of the most insidious results is that the worst people alive use this failure as a way to explain that actually lockdowns are bad, and that we should not have them, and go for “herd immunity.” Their natural assumption is that any government reach is overreach, versus a massive under-reach. The assumption is that the government is “forcing” us to do something, when so many people are still allowed out, are still allowed to go places and still eat outside, yelling that it’s totally safe and outdoor transmission was proven to be unlikely. Deep down, I think that people know for a fact they’ll never actually get in trouble and thus go out and do shit - and yes, I believe that even if it is 100% safe to do outdoor activities that they should not take place because every single time someone is outside of the house for no reason they’re encouraging people to do the same, as it’s “safe.”

I keep going to write about how I don’t think harsh monetary penalties are a good idea for breaking quarantine (though they are effective), only to realize that we haven’t actually had a quarantine in the US. A quarantine would suggest that there is some external force to keep you inside and quarantine you, either through social or legal pressure, a means that would truly keep you from going out, and keep others from going out.

Usually this is backed by some sort of governmental force that would support you in staying home, and keep businesses that have to stay closed funded to stop them from dying, and an eradication of rent or mortgages to stop people from having to worry about being homeless.

In reality, “lockdowns” have been a fundamental test of the social contract between Americans, one that has laid bare exactly how much Americans truly care about other Americans. The same Americans that clutched their pearls at the sight of the Capitol Building being invaded, saying it was “not patriotic” are the same ones that used the coronavirus “restrictions” (no penalty for breaking them!) as a way to justify certain actions in certain ways.

You can - and absolutely should - blame the government for most of this problem. Inconsistent messaging and precisely zero punishment for breaking any rules led to a complete mess of responsibility - nobody actually gets punished for not doing what’s right. But the other side is that nobody takes responsibility for their own actions - oh, I was socially distanced, and that’s fine, and hey, look, I was outside, so that’s fine, and you know what, it was outdoor dining, which is allowed.

It’s a human thing to do - you want to abide by the rules you’re given, either through a moral imperative (doing this is bad) or a fiscal/societal one (if I do this I’ll get in trouble). And I do not believe that people are sufficiently motivated (this isn’t just an American problem) by the idea that their actions could endanger themselves and others around them because they don’t necessarily believe that their responsibility is to look after others. And the guidelines that are given and the statements that are made about how it’s safe if you social distance and if you are outside or if you wash your hands or whatever allow them to fill in big equations in their brain that end up spitting out “I’m doing the right thing, because I’m following the rules.”

And things are going to get worse as a result.

I’d say it was a uniquely American trait to find loopholes, but I’m seeing the same thing in England. It’s half-assed policy making that’s built to be manipulated - strictures that aren’t really strictures that have clear ways you can get around them, which disseminates bad actions across millions of people. Because people know there’s no actual punishment for breaking the rules, they’re going to bend them as much as humanely possible with the full knowledge that the worst thing that will happen is they’ll get sick, and by now they know enough people who have survived that they assume they will too.

Now, I don’t know what the punishments could be. Monetary punishments - especially ones around basic freedoms - tend to be taken advantage of by the rich and used to punish and imprison the poor. I know people who would deliberately drive in the HOV lane in California because they knew they could pay the ticket, and I feel like a coronavirus punishment that was fiscal would just mean that rich assholes would stay out and poor people who have to work would get a $350 fine for going outside their door. And a lack of any social safety net means that people can’t just stay home and know they’ll be fine.

I’m just one guy with a brain filled with useless facts, trying to get people to write about stuff using my email account, so maybe people who do government have an answer here. But there needed - the horse is 43 miles away from the now-closed barn door - to be some way of saying to people stay home unless you are working or going to the grocery store or an approved activity (sigh), and if you don’t abide by the rules, there should be some sort of consequence - a fiscal penalty, a ticket, something that makes you think twice about an action.

Ultimately consequences are what are lacking here. People don’t have the moral impetus to do the right thing, so they should be forced to. There was the insufferable argument at the beginning of the pandemic about how people don’t stop driving cars because of drunk driving accidents, but they do if they drunk drive, they are actually held very much accountable. People know not to run someone over with their car when they’re mad on a moral level because it’s obvious, but those who might not morally care are held in place by the law that says hey, man, don’t run over a person with a car.

But there are no consequences for spreading the coronavirus. On one hand, there is a fairness issue there - how do I 100%, for sure, know how I got it? But on the other, there are The Things You Agree To Do to stop the spread, kind of like abiding by speed limits. You were gunning it at 95 miles an hour on an empty highway, and didn’t hit anyone when you were pulled over - but someone could have been hit, and abiding by those rules is how we don’t have an uncontrolled spread of 95 mile an hour collisions.

Perhaps the virus just isn’t obviously deadly enough to people that they think it cares. But we’re at this point because there’s really no consequence, and never has been, for irresponsibility, compounded by increasingly confusing rules, politicization and human nature.

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