TRAVELING ON AMERICA’S DANGEROUS PATH
As America plunges toward its own version of an election demolition derby, a choice is very clear to just about everybody. The problem is that there are two choices, no consensus, and a lot of angry right-wingers with guns who fervently support the choice that is almost certain to be rejected by the majority. There is rightly a sense of dread that voter intimidation and armed resistance to the otherwise likely outcome will create enough chaos and institutional failure to undermine the nation’s normally routine transfer of power.
I have just recently been on the road a couple of times in the US. First, for ten days, trying to dodge covid droplets in three deeply-divided states – Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. My car radio provided the backdrop for the journey, filled with right-wing radio, Christian radio (often the same thing), oldies, and some country music. I stayed in motels, carried some of my own food, ate in some restaurants, and did some take-out.
The second trip was to western Maryland, a red zone in a blue state. This trip included some time in the outdoors on popular hiking trails, one of which was a microcosm of everything wrong with America’s response to the pandemic.* On a beautiful fall day, hundreds of people clogged a one and a quarter mile path along a stream and river with four distinct waterfalls. At least two thirds of those on the trail carried on as if they and their families were immune from covid-19. No masks, no effort at protective distancing, and no concern about the vulnerable people in their midst, often including small children and aging parents.
On the road, I did find one motel that actually seemed to do everything I could think of to protect me, their staff and their other customers. Otherwise, it was a very mixed bag. Almost no motel cleaning staff wore masks – they are going into the rooms of strangers right after they have left to gather up bedding, towels and trash. They breathe it in and then just to make sure that everything that can go wrong will go wrong, they breathe it right back out while sanitizing. Great idea.
Bartenders with masks perched just below their noses was another common feature. I never saw a single owner, manager or employee of any establishment ever tell a customer to put on a mask or leave. Every place I went into had a big sign on the door requiring masks inside – no mask, no entry. I saw a guy with a gun on his hip but no mask on his face taking a leak at an Interstate rest stop – no mask, no entry. I left that rest stop quickly for a whole bunch of reasons.
These trips provided ample evidence of just how sick the American body politic is. Words like “choice” and “freedom” permeate conversations from those resisting government measures to control the coronavirus. These words have been perverted to create a space for some of the most alarming elements of the national divide. It is but a small leap to fighting “tyranny” for those willing to angrily confront their own government.
It should not be news to anyone that America is in the midst of a pandemic that is taking close to 1000 lives a day and now infecting more than 50,000 Americans every day and getting worse.** Wearing a mask in these pandemic times is a really good idea, according to every public health professional in the world. Every single one of them. No exceptions. Yet, here in America, the mask message is still not taking hold. Among some segments of the populace, a Halloween mask is good, but a cloth mask to protect yourself and the health of your family, friends, and a bunch of strangers is somehow bad.
The key concept at play here is “choice,” as an easily recognized variant of “freedom.” This is OK if you are choosing between milk chocolate and dark chocolate, coffee or tea, Nationals or Dodgers, and the like. It is pathetic as a response to a public health crisis – your choice, wear a mask or sneeze directly into my soup. It obviously isn't as simple as this, but it should be a lot easier than it appears to be.
I am telling you this because there will be no end to the pandemic in America until the vector segment of America either dies off or can be corralled and enclosed in one or more of the vector states. There is just too much stupidity and willful ignorance to be overcome by anything short of enforced mandatory masking, lockdowns, and serious contact tracing. None of the above is on the menu yet, mask or no mask.
Some of this would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. For example, many people who identify as “pro-life” turn out to be “pro-choice” when it comes to masks, and often choose the path that leads to more death. On the other hand, as absurd as it sounds, it seems that “zoom” meetings have actually increased human face time for those whose lives are defined by the latest ping on their supposedly “smart” phone.
But let’s not be fooled. Large swaths of America and the world are living restricted lives circumscribed by disease, while losing ground socially and economically. A nation in need of some measure of collective conscience finds itself sinking ever deeper into a world in which delusion substitutes for judgment and care for others is no longer part of the equation, if it ever was. Sadly, those who seem to have benefitted most from prosperity and privilege are often those whose contempt for community puts those less prosperous and without privilege at even greater risk.
Too many of those with the opportunity to enjoy that waterfall trail seemed so unable to even consider a different way, a safer way. As long as callous people continue to wander dangerously in public places, it is hard to see how enough of these people will allow themselves to be organized to accept the type of vaccination mobilization program that will be necessary to finally end the pandemic.
To better understand the challenge, it is essential to recognize that wearing a mask in public has become a political symbol in America, and nowhere else. Parents choose to ignore the safety of their own children and children ignore the safety of their own parents to proclaim their “freedom” from government oppression and their support for a president who has abandoned them to disease. These people are choosing to endanger others. (Unbuckle those seat belts and watch the bodies fly.)
As the US presidential election approaches and the pandemic worsens, each of us has a clear choice to make. Side with the candidate whose venal face can be seen in full or the other candidate who wisely hides part of his face and shows all of his heart. This should not be hard.
* The Canyon Trail, Swallow Falls State Park, near Oakland, MD - https://dnr.maryland.gov/publiclands/Pages/western/SwallowFalls/Hiking-SwallowFalls.aspx