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The Politics of covid-19 (and Basically Everything Else)


This Stuff isn't Easy

The question of how we should respond to covid-19 has always been a scientific question, not a political one. All along, we should have been making decisions based on the best current data available regarding how this disease was transmitted and which people faced the greatest risk. Reason and science, not emotion, needed to be our guide. A big problem, however, is that big decisions made to protect the public’s health also have economic ramifications. If the only goal was to stop the pandemic completely, then for as long as necessary, almost every potential public gathering place would have been shut down and a strict curfew imposed and enforced. But the economy would have taken an even bigger hit than it did, and the emotional impact of social isolation would have been even greater. And when you start talking about economics and human emotion, you have now moved into the realm of politics.

It was fascinating to see how quickly people’s views regarding covid-19 fell into line with their political ideologies. If you heard people arguing that covid-19 was some media driven hoax or saw them posting pictures on Facebook in which they were clearly living as if a pandemic wasn’t happening, odds are that they were conservatives. But if you saw people patting themselves on the back for staying at home almost all of the time or who would seemingly never take off a mask when they left their homes or came within 20 feet of people (even outdoors), then there was a good chance that they were liberals. What should have been a scientific discussion was simply added to a long list of divisive, partisan issues.

I see these differences in attitude toward covid-19 all the time if I am out walking on a hiking trail. As a general rule, I don’t wear a mask while hiking, partially because there is no real risk of transmission walking outdoors on a hiking trail and also because I like to smell the fresh air. Many others out in the trail clearly feel the same way as they trek along mask-free and walk right past me making no effort to maintain that magical six feet of distance. But at other times, I see people coming toward me with their masks, and long before I walk past, they prepare to avoid me like the plague. They turn their backs as I walk by or get as far away as possible without going off the trail and risking a nasty case of poison oak. Apparently, they think that a massive quantity of viral material will quickly hurl out of my mouth and latch on to them as they walk by. While I can understand being careful, there is a fine line between caution and paranoia, a paranoia largely driven by emotion and ignorance.

While it seems in the previous paragraph that I am picking on the “maskers,” I think that it is equally irrational to be hanging out “maskless” in poorly ventilated homes, bars, and restaurants or going around unnecessarily shaking people’s hands or touching things. Yes, I know that most people younger than 65 who do not have any major health conditions are going to survive this virus, but they also might unknowingly give the thing to people who are at greater risk. And since we know how this thing spreads, what the hell is the point of taking totally unnecessary risks? If you want to hang out with people, do it outside for god’s sake, and is it really all that difficult to wear a mask when going to the grocery store or picking up some takeout?

As a general rule, I don’t engage in conversations with people about covid-19 or about any politically controversial issues. After many years of trying to talk to people about this stuff, I have come to the conclusion that most people have little or nothing of value to say. There are, however, some exceptions, and it comes down to one simple thing. Making real-life decisions about covid-19 or any other politically divisive issues is very difficult, and if a person is either unwilling or unable to recognize the complexity of these issues, then I have no interest in talking to them. It is hard to minimize the damage of covid-19 while also preventing an economic collapse. It is hard to figure out how to provide access to health care for everyone in a way that is economically feasible. There is no easy way to provide the modern, industrial lifestyle that people want while also not doing excessive damage to the environment. While it is impractical to allow everyone in who wants to immigrate to the United States, it is equally impractical to deport the millions of people who are here illegally and playing a vitally important role in the economy. There are no perfect plans. All decisions involve painful sacrifices. So we need people willing to sit down and propose imperfect solutions that at best might make things a bit better.

Most humans, however, want a neat and tidy worldview in which they know what should be done. They don’t want to make difficult sacrifices or compromises. They don’t want to get bogged down with complex details or talk about grey areas. And the minority of people who do see the complexity of these issues tend to make far less noise than those who are sure of themselves. While I have spent much of my life playing devil’s advocate and feeling that I don’t fit in with the human race, I recognize the same irrational, tribal tendencies in myself that I see in everyone else. We humans, unfortunately, were not designed to deal with such a complex world. Biologically speaking, we are still supposed to be wandering from place to place in small hunting and gathering bands. But because our brains evolved to be too big, along with a few accidents of history, we have maybe created a world more complicated than we can handle. In historical terms, this modern industrial world is brand new, and it is far too early to predict how things will turn out. I just hope there are enough people out there in positions of power who are willing to sit down and have real conversations. Our ability to work together has made humans the dominant species on the planet, and it may be the only thing that can save us.

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