April 3, 2020
One of the great ironies of our present day is that the best way to embody public virtue is by committing to the discipline of privacy. That’s another way of saying how important “social distance” is. It’s also a hint at why it seems to be so hard here in the United States. We do not have a good track record when it comes to acting virtuously on behalf of the public good.
I see it in small ways and in big ways. Groups of people walking too closely to one another on paths in the woods. School kids who are yucking it up with one another in close contact as if nothing has changed in terms of keeping apart. Families out shopping together in grocery stores instead of one person buying for all of them. The ease with which some men out for golf still stand next to each other on the tee, or share golf carts together – which raises the issue of why courses are open at all.
Here’s another one, aired on a daily basis: Presidential news briefings where senior staffers (and, presumably, knowledgeable experts in epidemiology) are lined up shoulder-to-shoulder in a protean display of male bonding as if to demonstrate their invulnerability. It tends to weaken the message some of them are trying to convey. One comes away with the conviction that it’s actually part of the subliminal iconography – to convey that the administration is not fully committed to halting the pandemic because it really doesn’t believe there is a serious problem.
Beyond the imagery of presumed invulnerability there’s the widespread notion that asking people to stay home and keep their distance, keep away from crowds and direct contact with others is a major sacrifice, or somehow evidence of wimpyness and giving in to irrational fears.
To say the least, we are not getting good role model behavior from some of our political leaders. Earlier this week, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee imposed partial restrictions on business activity and travel, but withheld a full shelter-in-place decree because he said he was concerned about preserving “personal freedoms.” As if a society at all were even possible without some self-discipline and understanding of what it means to live with other people. That’s the whole point of risk-reduction measures like speed limits. Or laws.
Much of this, sadly, is to be expected from a country that has the lowest voter turnout of any industrial democracy – 56 percent of the voting-age eligible population in 2016. We also, not coincidentally, have the least developed system of national health care of all industrial democracies. When it comes to ensuring personal security, we rely upon privatized health insurance more than any country and on more guns per capita than any of our democratic cohorts. Small wonder that gun shops have been deemed “essential services” in state after state and we see long lines outside these stores as Americans prepare to for some last-ditch defense should things really turn desperate in the coming months.
None of which bodes well for the sensible measures required to ride out the coming storm. Something like 90 percent compliance would go a long way towards flattening the curve; compliance at 60 or 70 percent will have very little effect and keep us on a steady course to an overloaded hospital system and a death toll far exceeding all of the combined wars the U.S. has ever fought. There’s no way to estimate what our compliance rate is with social distancing. But it’s certainly not three-quarters effective. Besides, a dam that’s only 75-percent effective does not do a lot of good.
It’s obviously harder for some populations to adhere to the necessary norms because of unsteady, ill-paying employment and lack of adequate health care coverage. It takes the ability to stockpile food, for example and to rely upon delivery services rather than recurring trips to the grocery. That presumes a measure of cash reverses to be able to buy in bulk. It also presumes enough space at home for storing provisions, keeping kids occupied. Access to the internet is notoriously limited by virtue of economic class, for example. Without that there is no on-line learning. There’s a built-in class bias to being able to handle stay-at-home.
All the more reason that a measure of self-discipline be imparted and internalized. That requires appropriate modeling from our leaders. It also requires a larger public commitment to the ethos of public virtue over atomistic freedom. And beyond making moral demands, it also requires the availability of a basic net of social support services. Without that we are in serious trouble. That’s the complexity of the demands we face.