COVID-19 versus the American Spirit

Watching through my apartment window as my beloved NYC has emptied and dimmed, I’ve had the creeping feeling that the whole city—and with it, the whole country—is running out of air. As if in sympathy with the staggering numbers of critically ill in our overwhelmed and under-equipped ICU’s, the rest of us, too, seem to have slowed our breathing and resigned to the helpless wait for a ventilator that may or may not come. 

I immigrated to the U.S. with my parents from the former USSR when I was 7 years old. I still have a vivid memory of the Statue of Liberty coming into view as our jumbo jet descended into JFK. “She’s welcoming us to America,” my dad explained. I remember my first experience walking through an automatic door; my first astonishing encounter with an American grocery store; my first day walking through the friendly, colorful halls of my new Indianapolis elementary school and being greeted by my smiling ESL teacher. I remember my lingering joy and relief at having entered a brighter, livelier, kinder world than the one we had fled. In retrospect, my love affair with NYC—and with the freedom, prosperity, and growth it represented—began with that first sighting of Lady Liberty some 27 years ago, and was consummated 2 years ago when I made this city my home. 

In these last few weeks, I’ve watched with acute heartache as NYC descends into an increasingly Soviet-esque mode of existence, complete with economic shutdown, medical supply shortages, tight rations on diagnostic testing, empty grocery store shelves, and vague, ever-changing political decrees. What disturbs me most is not that we are in this mode, which may well be necessary right now in our fight against COVID19. What scares and angers me most is that many New Yorkers—and Americans in general—seem to have resigned too easily to this indefinite suspension of their freedom, prosperity, and growth, which they’ve historically valued as much as life itself.

Indeed, many of my friends and colleagues seem to have embraced this state of affairs as the “new normal”, even suggesting that compliance with shelter-in-place orders is a no-brainer for anyone with a conscience (in the words of one popular meme: “Your grandparents were called to war. You are being called to sit on a couch! You can do this!”). In an effort to convince others to abide by this new status quo, many have even started to engage in “quarantine shaming” of anyone who leaves home for “non-essential” reasons. But such messaging seems blithely oblivious to the catastrophic costs that millions of people are already experiencing as a result of the “shelter-in-place” approach—including unemployment, social isolation, loss of cherished civil liberties, and increased risk for suicide, to name a few. In their panicked rush to adopt this new blanket moral norm, highly educated and well-meaning Americans have begun to sound like the dogmatic authoritarian rulers they normally disdain.

My goal here is not to question whether mass shutdown is the correct and necessary course of action for us to take now, given the unchecked spread of the virus to date and how utterly we failed to prepare for it. But it’s crucial to remember that it didn’t have to be this way; it was human folly that forced us into this horrific tradeoff between lives or livelihoods. As leading epidemiologist Amesh Adalja recounts, infectious disease experts like himself have been warning policymakers for decades to prepare for just this sort of pandemic, and their warnings have gone largely unheeded. Then, when the novel coronavirus began its exponential spread and the imminent threat posed to the U.S. became evident, that threat was flagrantly denied and dismissed by the Trump administration for months despite multiple admonitions from public health experts, while a tangle of regulatory red tape led to unconscionable delays in the availability of widespread diagnostic testing. Had the leaders of the world’s richest nation taken responsibility for mobilizing or even just getting out of the way of the scientists and innovators eager to implement large-scale diagnostic screening back in January and February, we might have successfully flattened the curve without ever needing to put our economy on hold (as attested by South Korea’s example, among others).

As a result of these accumulated failures to get ahead of the virus through widespread testing and strategic isolation, we must now resort to the blunt-instrument measure of mass social distancing while public officials and health providers scramble to make up for lost time. But the moralistic tone with which this “shelter-in-place” measure is now being promoted risks papering over the tremendous costs of doing so and the negligence that has made it necessary.

One could argue that now is not the time to worry about how we got into this catastrophic mess, since we need to focus all of our efforts on getting out of it. But there is a version of this rhetoric that has served dictators and power-hungry opportunists throughout history. If we want to get out of this pandemic having spared not only as many lives as possible, but also as much of the American way of life as possible, we need to be vigilant against the loss of both. 

Besides, it is precisely our love of freedom, prosperity, and growth that is needed to help us defeat this virus. It is not sheltering at home that will ultimately save us, but work. This includes the scientific work of developing new vaccines, treatments, and diagnostic tests, the design of new technologies to mass-produce personal protective equipment, and the removal of bureaucratic restrictions on the freedom of those trying to fund, distribute, and use these innovations. It also includes the work that we all do, that adds up to an economy of wealth and comfort, where we have the luxury to devote resources to predicting and preempting far-off black swan events. And it includes the distinctly American insistence upon giving a damn about one’s work, about finding in it virtue and meaning, such that when we are threatened our response is to double down on being industrious, rather than resign to panicked passivity.

My friend Doug Peltz (known by his wider audience as Mystery Doug) recently shared a reflection on Facebook that aptly illustrates the resignation I’ve observed, and goes on to model an alternative perspective more befitting of the American spirit I know and love:

My daughter chipped a tooth badly yesterday and—thank god—our local pediatric dentist was able to see her and repair it.

He’s closed for business otherwise, seeing 2 or 3 emergencies each week, even then, hesitantly. I told him how grateful we are, and asked nervously: how will your business fare if this goes on for two or three months? He said it’s likely his business, and nearly 80% of other dental offices, will be out of business.

My father was a dentist. Dentists aren’t scientists, but I know that many of them have a scientific, medical bent. With this in mind I felt a ray of hope and said: “Based on clearer knowledge of how this virus spreads, surely there could be some way to keep business open, like if there were widespread testing, stricter protocols around bleach wiping all surfaces, spacing patients out using scheduling so that they aren’t in a waiting room at the same time, etc.?”

He shrugged his shoulders, looked down and said “No, I’m afraid not. That won’t work. I’ll have to close the business.”

I was shocked at how resigned he seemed to a damning fate, the destruction of everything he’d worked for, the complete lack of curiosity about a way out of this. This is not punishment from some deity. It’s a smutty, grubby little microscopic entity that can’t even survive ultraviolet light.

[T]his restauranteur takes the same view on his business that our daughter’s dentist seems to take, and it is clear he is coming from a place of deep caring and empathy. But I pose the question: are his actions coming from a place of clear thinking and knowledge? I really fear that this man’s resignation, like that of the pediatric dentist I spoke to yesterday, is horribly misplaced. If this way of thinking is widespread, it’s going to destroy a lot of livelihoods, all while having–perhaps–zero effect on the spread of the virus itself.

We need infectious disease experts to speak up quickly, for surely there must be some way for us to adjust our lives and keep in business more of those who cannot work remotely. At the very least, we should not jump quickly to the awful conclusion that livelihoods must be sacrificed in order to slow the exponential spread of this microbe.

This isn’t about money, this is about lives. This is about science, about knowledge being power. This is about not resigning ourselves to a choice between slowing the spread of this microbe and destroying livelihoods. There is a door #3. But like all door #3s in life, we will only find it if we look for it and believe that it’s possible.”

Granted, there is only so much creative planning and problem-solving that private individuals can do amid continued uncertainty about when or how the forced cessation of their productive activity will be relaxed or lifted. But what we all can do is vocally refuse to accept this as the “status quo”. This may mean insisting on clearer answers and more proactive, strategic solutions by those with the power to implement them, or speaking out on behalf of whatever freedom-, prosperity-, and growth-promoting solutions we encounter, or simply celebrating and calling attention to the value of such solutions. Indeed, such advocacy appears to be having some positive effect already, as it puts pressure on policymakers from Trump on down to shift toward offering more specific, reality-based proposals for getting us out of this mess.

So thank you to all those who, like Doug, are not resigning to passive or preconceived solutions in the fight to keep my beloved city—and all that it stands for—alive.

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