Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the forthcoming book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind,” and of “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
How do you go back to normal when nothing is normal?
More than 120,000 Americans have died of Covid-19. That’s twice as many Americans as died in Vietnam. It’s 40 times the death toll of the September 11th attacks. And while our infections were steadily declining, they’re now ticking back up.
The United States is an outlier among nations, with more cases and more deaths than any nation in the world. Americans make up just over 4% of the world’s population, but about a quarter of global coronavirus deaths.
And yet we haven’t reckoned with this massive, unmitigated public health failure, not really. Our president refuses to wear a mask in public, claims our country’s high infection numbers are simply the result of better testing (something totally unsupported by public health experts), and said that he asked his “people” to slow testing down because the numbers were making him look bad. He’s so thoroughly politicized a pandemic that the public health experts trying to save us from ourselves are getting death threats and protesters, some reportedly armed, showing up at their homes. Several have resigned.
In the meantime, it seems no lessons have been learned by this president or members of his party. While many blue state governors were too slow to respond to coronavirus initially, as cases numbers escalated, they acted. Now months into the crisis, we see how deadly those delays were. But instead of absorbing that information and using it to make better decisions going forward, some Republican governors are charging ahead with allowing indoor group gatherings, risking their citizens’ lives. The president just held a dangerous indoor rally and knowingly put Americans at risk – attendees had to sign a waiver saying they wouldn’t sue if they contracted coronavirus. Luckily, the event was poorly attended, which might have saved some lives.
But even if they aren’t going to Trump rallies, Americans the nation over are being told by their president and some state leaders that it’s safe to go to church, to the casino, or out to a bar. Public health experts are clearly nervous, because this behavior is decidedly not safe – just ask the woman and her 15 friends (plus seven employees) who were infected with Covid-19 after a night out at a bar. Indoor spaces where you are in close contact with others, particularly if you’re all talking for an extended period of time and all touching things, seems to be the sweet spot for mass infection. Unsurprisingly, new cases are on the rise, mostly in the red states that reopened early – and that are hot and muggy in the summertime, pushing people indoors.
Yes, it is idiotic to head to the strip club or a church service when a deadly communicable disease remains rampant. But people are understandably tired of feeling like life is on hold. Social isolation comes with tremendous psychological costs, and Americans justifiably want life to be normal again. We are social animals who thrive on connection and touch. Asking us to socially distance was necessary. But given that we made the sacrifice, it was then up to our leaders to take the necessary steps to stem the infection tide. It’s up to those same leaders to share accurate information with the public.
They utterly failed, especially in the conservative states tinged with the know-nothingness of Trumpism. And the biggest failure of all is Trump himself.
It’s also up to our elected officials to create policies that work for the American people. The folks who flock to casinos, church services, and bars and risk coronavirus infection along the way aren’t all selfish ideologues who reject science in favor of a red hat slogan – although those people certainly indicate a deep rot at the heart of American culture, one that manifests as a rejection of science and an embrace of a dangerous dimestore interpretation of “give me liberty or give me death” (being asked to wear a mask is not quite as extreme an incursion as being under the thumb of an imperial ruler).
But many of the people who are going along with this national reopening are employees and business owners who risk financial ruin if they don’t go to work. Many are already behind on the mortgage or rent. Many don’t have enough money for food, as evidenced by the long lines at food banks and the surging numbers of Americans who say they’re going hungry. And many are making impossible decisions: How do you go back to work if you have children at home and no school, summer camp or childcare? How do you keep a roof over your children’s heads and food in their bellies if you can’t go back to work? What do you avoid more strenuously: Homelessness or disease? The 100% probability of hunger – or the unknown (but certainly lower) chance of coronavirus infection?
In one of the most prosperous nations on earth, no one should have to be making these decisions, because the government could alleviate these burdens. Heck, Arizona Sen. Martha McSally has introduced a bill that would give any American a $4,000 (and any couple $8,000 plus $500 per kid) tax credit to take an all-expenses-paid vacation within the United States, but at least 50 miles from your home. According to the bill’s proponents, the government can afford to pay people to travel – and to take a deadly disease with them – but won’t do the same to stave off homelessness or hunger.
This is a choice: The United States could absolutely ensure that no American would lose their home or go to bed hungry because of coronavirus shutdowns. But the Trump White House, the Republican-controlled Senate and conservative governors the nation over have chosen not to.
Instead, they’re telling us to go on returning to normal. “Normal,” though, is no longer possible.