Monday, March 16, 2020

Updates From Europe

The self-imposed quarantine started Saturday. Beginning tomorrow Berlin will shut down the city. Bars, theaters, restaurants, mosques, churches and all non-essential places of commerce will be closed. Germany has boarded up its borders. People are panic purchasing whatever they can find on the shelves; toilet paper, canned goods, hand-sanitizer and meat. In Italy the death toll seems to double every few days. Hospitals there are overwhelmed. Anyone in urgent need of medical attention now risks losing their life as doctors, nurses, and hospital beds become alarmingly scarce, perennially exhausted. Other countries, like South Korea, or Japan, managed to act quickly and early, preventing more lethal outcomes. Currently it is the elderly or already infirm who are at serious risk. The virus dispenses with them, handily. Most of Europe have moved to contain the virus, especially after watching Italy and Iran fall into complete disarray. In the United States however, family and friends are still going out as if nothing were happening, as though we are not in the midst of a global pandemic. The president, just weeks ago, declared the virus a Democratic hoax. As the number of infections began to steadily rise he softened his stance and described it as something unserious, as dangerous as the flu. Instead of reacting, instead of taking proper precautions and putting curfews and closures into effect, people there are debating whether or not they even need to react. Tests are not available to those who need them. Millions of workers have been denied sick leave. Of those who need tests, many find themselves unable to pay for tests or the requisite treatment. The United States government just injected 1.5 trillion dollars into a crashing stock market while its citizens lack the surplus savings to pay for a $400 unplanned medical expense.

America is woefully underprepared for a health emergency on this scale. Not just because in 2018 president Trump disbanded the White House pandemic response team and bragged on national television about the decision, chalking it up to his incredible business acumen, but because there's a larger, more pressing problem in the United States. It's the unhealthy preoccupation with liberty over all else; including the justice and for all bits. And no, this isn't something that's uniquely American, of course not. But it is fundamentally American. Some describe this as American exceptionalism, but it goes deeper than that. America isn't just the best country in the world, it's the only country. Land of the free. The line of thinking goes something like this:

Medical professionals and epidemiologists begin encouraging people to stay at home, maintain social distancing, to suspend unnecessary movement in order to halt continued spread of the disease. The message is recapitulated by news media organizations and ripples out through social media. In response, instead of thinking as a collective and trying to minimize harm, the suggestion is seen as an insolent command that infringes on freedom - an assault on American values. No one has the right to tell me to stay home. I do what I want, when I want - this is America. So people begin lining up at bars and nightclubs, taking photographs and posting them to Instagram and Facebook to show how liberated and strong they are. Meanwhile misinformation abounds and the less educated and uninformed begin to suspect that the threat isn't as bad as everyone else believes it to be. Their habits remain unchanged and they act as carriers for the virus, an invaluable asset and unexpected ally. The actions of the few have grave consequences for the many.

A minor sacrifice; a temporary inconvenience; it's too much for the American psyche to bear. It's all or bust, baby! This, in conjunction with an inhumane, immoral, predatory health care system, a criminally inept president, and an undereducated population spells doom for any chance of containment. Unfortunately things are likely to get much worse before they get better.

I'm writing this from Poland, where things seem to be under control, at least for now. They acted swiftly by aggressively securing their borders and shutting down social centers. Poland managed to dodge the bubonic plague almost entirely, so it seemed like a safe bet to hunker down here for a while until things blow over. Plus, the population isn't as old here as in Germany, so hospital beds should be easier to come by should things head south.

Wherever you are, be safe. Protect those most vulnerable. Call your grandparents. Act as though you're already infected and work toward isolating yourself. Encourage others to do the same. There was a Tweet I read the other day that said something to the effect of: if these shutdowns turn out to be wildly effective it will seem in hindsight as though they were completely unnecessary overreactions. That's still a much more preferable outcome than the unnecessary and extremely preventable death of thousands of innocent at risk people. Spread the word.