We’ve learned a lot about the coronavirus these past few months – how it spreads, who it hits hardest, and, thankfully, how to treat the disease a bit to at least slow its inexorable death toll.
But the rueful main lesson so far is: It just loves America.
Fractious, belligerent, effectively leaderless on a national scale – it turns out we, among all nations, are the prime Petri dish for this pandemic.
Consider as a minor case study what happened this past week when Washington state’s top health official, in concert with the governor, ordered the wearing of masks statewide, mostly in public indoor settings.
Masks are a last-gasp effort to keep the virus in check here, in hopes we don’t have a major outbreak like Arizona, Texas or Florida. The latest science seems to support it, with the University of Washington global health team estimating this past week that mask-wearing could save 33,000 lives nationwide by October.
More crucially, there’s nothing else left in the epidemiological kit. It’s either give masks a try or potentially retreat back to March and shut down the economy all over again. So the humble mask isn’t just a health tool, it’s re-opening’s best friend.
But listen to how the top Republican candidates in this August’s gubernatorial primary reacted to it.
“I will not comply,” vowed Loren Culp, the police chief from Republic, Ferry County, doing his best toddler impersonation. “You can take your mask and do you-know-what with it.”
Echoed state Sen. Phil Fortunato: “I don’t intend to wear a mask out in public. I’m willing to go to jail over this.”
Tim Eyman topped them all, calling for statewide “mask disobedience.”
“Do not wear a mask” when you’re out walking around in places like Bellevue, Eyman counseled. “It’s the dumbest thing you could ever do.”
In the interests of focusing on the topic at hand, let’s set aside whether a guy caught on video stealing a chair wearing his own campaign T-shirt should be making a “dumbest things you could ever do” list. The point here is that if I were a coronavirus microbe, my bristles would be positively quivering at the thought of humans so freedom-enamored they would rather go to jail than wear a thin fabric barrier on their faces.
I wrote about this phenomenon last month: About how America has become the pandemic’s biggest loser in part because of our cultural DNA. We did a decent job in March and April of “flattening the infection curve.” But we didn’t blunt it enough to control it, as some countries have done, and government was too dysfunctional or distracted to test, trace and isolate. So instead now we’re spiking back past the April peak, with the virus ripping through the South and parts of the West.
My theory in that past column was that Americans are too rebellious, as contrasted with rule-following Canada. But hundreds of readers wrote in to correct me.
“Rebelliousness isn’t correct,” wrote Seattle’s L.R. Thorne. “It’s arrogance, selfishness, and stupidity — a form of trickle down coming from the top.”
Suggested reader Jonathan King: “I think it might be better attributed to a good old American lack of collective responsibility.”
“I don’t know if it’s a companion to rebelliousness, or a separate cultural trait, but we also prioritize action over patience,” observed Gretchen Meade. Unfortunately the virus seems to feast on the former.
The fault lies much deeper, wrote reader Ralph Levin, in culturally steeped “anti-science beliefs.” He cited the age-old battle between creationism and evolution. It’s “like so many of the problems that plague modern America — if it were only a matter of restraint versus rebelliousness, we could as Americans talk about this and other situations like climate change.”
Whatever it is, the reality denial coming down from the top right now almost defies belief. The federal government seems to have totally given up. In his latest rally, in a mega-church in Arizona, President Trump didn’t once mention the 120,000 who have died from COVID-19 — though he did belabor how he likes to call it “Kung Flu,” and how he still isn’t sure what the “19” stands for.
One reader, Ken Olson, was blunt: “COVID-19 proves this nation is doomed.” That seemed overwrought, but then news came from New York, where coronavirus has ebbed, that three states there banded together like a separate nation to restrict travel from various highly infected hot spots.
I found myself wondering: Maybe we’ll try restricting travel into Seattle from, say, Houston or Phoenix or L.A., now that our case numbers are a tiny fraction of theirs. With such a complete void of federal leadership, it’s easy to imagine this type of every-state-for-itself Balkanization escalating as the virus surges. It’s as if the whole premise of the United States is starting to fray.
Rebelliousness, selfishness, anti-scientific know-nothingness — whatever it is, the coronavirus is proving as it moves about the country that it’s sure got us figured out.