In February 2020, I was chatting with some people about the recent outbreak of a new virus, and someone raised the question of whether we might be freaking out a little too much. Having been a teenager in the 1980s, my perspective was, “Maybe people are going a little overboard, but I think it’s good that it’s being taken seriously. HIV was not taken seriously enough when it hit the U.S. and, as a result, it got way worse than it needed to be.”
I figured the latest virus would be a bit like the outbreaks of Bird Flu and Swine Flu in the scope of its damage: it would be a serious and life-threatening disease if contracted, but incidents would be relatively rare.
I knew someone that almost died from Bird Flu—a supply vendor for a tech company I worked for in 2005. She was great to work with, very conscientious, but suddenly stopped calling or dropping by and became unreachable. About a month later, after I’d given up and was shopping around for a new vendor, she called me. It turns out that she was hit so hard that she became non-functional and passed out, and only survived because her five-year-old daughter called 911. Fortunately, she returned to good health after being hospitalized, and we continued to work together.
So, I knew these things could be serious and potentially fatal, but they also seemed relatively rare and didn’t threaten the functioning of our entire society.
Around March 2020, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey implemented some lockdown restrictions that limited gatherings in restaurants, and that affected my writers workshop group. We had been meeting at a local restaurant that served affordable yet gourmet sandwiches and damn good draft beers, but our meetings of anywhere from five to fifteen people got shut down.
Ducey, an often useless Republican whose claim to fame was running a chain of ice-cream shops, at least did a few things right to try to stem the tide of disease in those early months. But I still saw the viral outbreak as something we didn’t need to freak out about, because just keeping level heads and taking precautions would see us through in a short time. When I sent out a message to my entire workshop group about the change, I jokingly referred to the situation as “the zombie apocalypse”. I was completely in favor of the restrictions, but I just didn’t have any sense of worry about what I saw as a temporary measure to stop the contagion.
I still went to the grocery store without a mask, even when the staff started masking, because let’s face it: I was at a super low risk of getting a contagious disease. I worked from home, I took my university classes online from home, I was single and not dating, and my only social life was my workshop meetings. I hadn’t had so much as a cold in years due to my low level of in-person contact.
Then Ducey issued a state-wide mask mandate. I bought a pack of fifty cheap surgical-style masks and started masking for my trips to the store for food and beer. I wasn’t really worried about myself, but it was easy enough to comply with a sensible measure to protect public health and keep other people from getting sick.
I used to wear way more intense masks when I painted houses for a living. My crew would spend all day in a newly constructed house spraying primer and then two coats of paint on all the drywall. We’d spend hours in these full-face, two-filter masks in 98-degree temperatures in an empty building with no air conditioning. And yes, that did truly suck, but it also gave me an awareness of just how simple and easy it was to wear a little cloth mask to the store for ten minutes or half an hour.
My first inkling that something had gone horribly wrong was when I went to the store and learned that earlier that day, a group of people had barged into the store without any masks to stage an anti-mask protest. That was when I first began to worry—not so much about the virus, but about my fellow Arizonans and countrymen being capable of such a wildly stupid, irrational, shit-for-brains response to simple public-health measures. People were getting sick, yet here was a group of malevolent, dangerously delusional assholes throwing a tantrum about an easy way for us all, as a society, to look out for each other and try to keep things moving along as best as we can.
After that, I never made another “zombie apocalypse” joke or downplayed the outbreak and its spread. My initial attitude of “Maybe we are taking this a little too seriously” changed to “We will be royally fucked if people don’t take this more seriously.”
Around the same time, I learned that one of my workshoppers’ coworkers had died from COVID-19. I have since learned that another had a family member who died. And I have heard rumors that even within my own family, some people might be buying into the anti-vaccine nonsense. I have also seen a friend who I think of as rather smart start posting crap about Ivermectin and the ineffectiveness of masks.
I even had an old friend I considered one of the smarter and more progressive persons I have ever known call me to tell me that all we need to do is take some vitamins and listen to good music, because enjoying music boosts the immune system, and that we just need to carry on like nothing is wrong. That way, a bunch of people will die, and the survivors will be the ones who have healthy immune systems.
This approach might sound appealing at first to the simpleminded, but it completely ignores the strain such a plan puts on the nation’s hospitals and healthcare workers. It ignores the reality of running out of places to put the dead bodies quickly enough. It ignores the massive toll this wave of illness and death would extract from our country and its ability to function. But I still see and hear this kind of idiocy all the time.
And I think to myself, “What in the actual hell is happening?” These are people I have liked, loved, and respected, and that’s a damn short list of people. It’s like the stressful enormity of the situation has driven even typically sane, rational people into some sort of mental illness, some state of extreme denial about the whole thing where they concoct these fantasies to make themselves feel better, or tell themselves they are smarter than a bundle of viral DNA that doesn’t care what they believe, just so long as it can invade their cells and use them to make more copies of itself.
Viruses don’t care about your political or religious affiliation, who you vote for, or what biased news media you get your information from. They don’t care about how smart or dumb you are. They don’t care if you are scared of needles. They don’t care if this prolonged national and global epidemic stresses you out, and they don’t give one single damn about how much you wish it wasn’t happening.
Viruses are incapable of caring about anything. To them, you and I are nothing but warm meat full of living cells that can be conquered and forced to churn out even more viruses until the meat is dead or has infected other meat—or both. Even that much anthropomorphizing of a virus is too much; they are tiny machines made from proteins whose only inherent function is to make more of themselves—and to use your body as an unwilling slave to do it.
The fact that attempts to stop the wave of infection have become tangled up in arguments influenced by political and religious identities is nothing short of madness. It is a traumatic mental illness in the U.S. that is nearly as tragic and worrisome as the death toll approaching one million Americans in two years.
A public-health emergency like this should be something that unites us around a common cause: a concern for the wellbeing of all our countrymen that motivates us to do what we can to help each other and protect each other. Instead, it has become ridiculously divisive, to the point where the doctors and nurses dealing with it every day are being labeled “murderers” in “death camps” and being assaulted by dangerously ignorant jack-asses. From local school-board meetings to state governments and our national Congress, too many people are seeking to undermine or outright obstruct any efforts to curtail the spread of this virus.
That’s what really worries me. We are two years into this, and more and more of my friends are being directly affected by either being infected or losing people they love. And despite that, a public-health problem continues to be politicized and treated like a “wedge issue” that divides rather than unites us.
I want this to be over as much as anyone. But wishful, magical, misinformed thinking is not getting us any closer to that eventuality. In fact, that’s making it worse and only prolonging the agony. The virus does not give a damn about any of us. But we’d get a lot a farther if we all realized what sort of implacable foe we are up against and started giving a damn about each other.
That’s where I am after two years of COVID-19, and I hope that despite the massive amounts of misinformation, mental stress, and mis-management, that we as a nation can pull our heads out of our collective ass and find it in our hearts to do what it takes to keep everyone as healthy as possible. We have an opportunity to pull together and beat this thing. Let’s not waste it.