Disruption, denial and the urge to ignore the pandemic

How do we put this thing behind us?

Wisconsin reopen rally
(Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

The COVID-19 pandemic has been going on for way too long, and with case numbers going up again, it doesn’t look like it’s about to end any time soon.

So you can’t really blame people for getting impatient, even despairing, about getting back to work, school and life as it was. There is a powerful pull to deny the whole thing.

In a front-page story in The New York Times, Texans who were packing restaurant tables, maskless, even as COVID cases soar across their state, said simply, “We’re done with all that.”

Following President Donald Trump’s lead, a lot of people have decided that maybe the whole pandemic will just “disappear,” and have started taking a skeptical view of public-health warnings.

It’s not so much a political position — although people seem weirdly committed to viewing the effort to curb the virus as a Democratic plot against Republicans, the economy and “freedom.” It’s more of an impulse to stop worrying about something that seems beyond our control. 

Part of the reason we Americans are reacting that way is that taking the individualist approach, we have, collectively failed to flatten the curve. Unlike European countries where complete lockdowns (and heavy government subsidies for lost wages) lowered the number of positive cases and allowed safe reopening, in the U.S. the positive effects of all that time invested in staying home from work and school, not socializing and going stir crazy are slowly being eroded by too-hasty reopening. 

On a recent camping trip to central Wisconsin, I was the only person wearing a mask in the little store outside Buckhorn State Park — clearly marked as an outsider. As Dane County and Milwaukee County continue to keep the bars closed (and Milwaukee business leaders plead with city officials to implement a mandatory mask policy) in towns around the state, restaurants are packing in customers, and no one is social-distancing.

Even inside Dane County there are dramatically different approaches to dealing with the virus. The Shorewood pool has been drained dry, to the dismay of neighborhood residents who are making it through a hot summer with no swimming lessons, water play or day camp.

In Maple Bluff, the pool is open and the other night the familiar sounds of a swim meet — an announcer calling out heats over a loudspeaker and parents cheering — echoed through the neighborhood, just like any other summer. (The other team didn’t show up, a neighbor told me later, so the Maple Bluff kids raced against each other.)

This is not like any other summer, though. 

If you are lucky enough to be able to work from home, and if your kids are older and content to spend long, lazy days loafing, as mine are, it’s not so bad. But as fall approaches, anxiety about a locked-down Wisconsin winter is already building.

When the Madison Metropolitan School District announced its plan to have students attend in two groups, each for only two days a week, parents all over the city were incredulous. How are we supposed to work five days a week while our kids are only in school for two days? What happens during the other three days? (Online learning has been a terrible substitute for in-person instruction. Ask my middle-school-aged daughter, who confessed that maybe she should do her homework the other day, at which point I asked her if she was aware the school year had ended. Nope.)

And  how do we know that the two-day-a-week, social-distancing plan  will prevent the spread of COVID? The bottom line is we don’t. It’s understandable that people have the impulse to throw up their hands. As families try to piece together a patchwork of childcare on the other three days, there are bound to be major pressures to skip social distancing and expose the kids to germs. Half-measures don’t satisfy anyone.

There is no perfect answer. But the fact that we are living with imperfection does not mean it makes sense to give up.

If we are going to avoid the shortages of hospital beds, the grim, lonely isolation of people who get seriously ill and even the deaths of people we love who contract COVID, we are going to have to summon the energy to recommit to doing what we can to stop the spread.

It’s harder now that the state stay-at-home order has been overturned. Harder still as Republicans seek to overturn even county-level public health orders, as my colleague Henry Redman reports.

But here are some important facts to keep in mind: 

  • Masks work. They protect both the wearer and other people, according to the CDC, and they are the most effective measure we can take, besides staying away from others. 
  • Being outdoors makes a big difference. Young people crowding into bars are causing much of the upsurge in COVID cases. Just staying out of the bars could significantly slow the spread in Wisconsin.
  • It might not make sense to go back to school in the fall — even though that seems like the end of the world to some (including my college-aged daughter). UW faculty are expressing their dismay over the university’s Smart Restart reopening plan, which involves safety measures including masks and social distancing in lecture halls, but still brings them into contact with students, who are both less likely to get seriously ill from COVID and notoriously not careful.

That brings me back to the whole throw-up-your-hands problem. The reason UW faculty are worried about going back to class is it seems unlikely that college students will actually be careful enough to make the Smart Restart plan work. 

That’s why Dane Country imposed new limits on gatherings and restricted indoor dining and service at bars — including the Kollege Klub, with it’s long lines of young people eagerly packing into a small indoor space. That’s why Milwaukee business leaders are asking for a citywide mask policy.

We are going to have to stop throwing up our hands and figure out how to protect each other if we are going to get through this crisis. Because the individualist approach is a total bust when it comes to coronavirus. It’s only human to feel frustrated and helpless as one person confronting a global pandemic. Individually we are helpless. We have to work together. Just ask people in Germany, who are back at school, work and social life. The sooner we all do our part, the sooner we can put this thing behind us.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. She moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on All in with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. In 2011, she did award-winning coverage of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal.