Signs of the Times:
> a crowded Colorado restaurant on Mother’s’ Day.
> Jam-packed taverns in Wisconsin.
> Dr. Fauci sidelined in the White House, as pundits speculate on when he’ll be fired.
Upshot: the lockdown season is ending, not with a bang, but a whimper— many whimpers, if anyone will still listen to those who are now to die needlessly.
Leana Wen, an ER doc and public health prof, told it like it is in the Washington Post today:
Unfortunately, due to a late start, inconsistent state actions and a lack of federal direction, most states have yet to see a consistent decline in cases, much less reduced them to low enough levels for [the lockdown] to work.
No state has achieved sufficient testing and contact tracing.
Reopening under these circumstances means we are giving up on containing covid-19.
“No state” includes my own, North Carolina.
On May 1, the total cases in NC were just over 10,000. This morning, news reports put it at over 16600, a 66% increase in less than two weeks, with 637 deaths. Wednesday saw 691 new cases, the highest one-day jump so far. State officials are still stonewalling on the case numbers at NC’s many meat packing plants, which include the world’s largest hog slaughterhouse. Nevertheless, “re-opening” has begun here, and pressures for more continue.
Further, business lobbies are pushing hard for Congress to grant them exemption from liability for virus damages and deaths that follow “re-opening”. If they succeed, and if college football /tailgate season opens in a liability-free zone, I predict the lockdown interlude will be but a memory for most by Halloween.
What does these shifts mean? A Stanford public health expert, Keith Humphreys, put it pungently:
. . . in a mobile nation, you can’t build a “no peeing” section in the swimming pool.
Dr. Wen added,
. . . this seems to me where we are with covid-19: We’re no longer trying to eliminate the virus. Instead, we are accepting that Americans will have to live with it.
Or, pardon the expression, die with it.
Wen: If that’s the case, then our efforts should pivot from justifying why reopening is a good idea to figuring out how best to reduce the harm it is certain to cause.
What’s next, then? The administration has yet to use these words, but it appears that we’re adopting a strategy that I recognize from other aspects of public health: harm reduction.
Harm reduction was initially developed as a public health approach to reduce the negative consequences of drug use. It recognizes that while stopping drug use is the desired outcome, many people won’t be able to do that. . . .
. . . Of course, there is also a fundamental difference between this new iteration of societal harm reduction and what I know as the standard public health practice of individual harm reduction — this disease risk is being forced upon the many Americans who would not have chosen it for themselves and their loved ones. That’s a real tragedy.
“Forced upon the many.” That is, our public “pool” will be taking on an increasingly yellow tint.
And, a “tragedy”? Sounds more like a scandal to me, one that could be much bigger than Obamagate (and a lot more real).
Wen offers several promising ideas for such government “harm reduction” policies. But I want to turn from government action or inaction to consider this next phase as one oversized minnow stuck in this amber puddle. Where am I, and my brother/sister minnows, supposed to turn?
What comes to mind is that we turn to what and whoever supports us in sticking to as close an approximation of the lockdown as we can. Which likely means to each other, and our key local communities. For some that will be close family. For others, a group, like a church. Or your bowling league; knitting circle; whatever works.
With my family largely scattered across the continent, I turn, in thought at least, to religion. I belong to the Quakers, or Friends; and conveniently enough, we have a tradition that may come in very handy in this exigency.
We used to call it “plainness,” and one can still see an image of it on the Quaker Oats box. “Plainness” covered a number of things, but uniform outmoded dress was one; also some antique terms, “thee” and “thou” among them.
Yet the goal of all this folderol was not preciousness, but something quite serious. Early Quakers were at first persecuted, and had to struggle for toleration. And then, when some got rich and the group came to be regarded as eccentric or even, occasionally, “cute,” they were subject to infiltration and cooptation.
Outward plainness was intended as a safeguard to what leading Friends believed was the special measure of religious truth that had been shown them. It was part of the Quaker Torah. Or, as an early handbook said, it was
” . . . an exterior hedge of preservation to us, against the many temptations and dangers, to which our situation in this world exposes us . . .
That is, it was like wearing a mask outside, frequently washing one’s hands, and walking/sitting six feet apart. It was a separateness intended to be protective, and to help ward off the numerous social viruses that swarmed about our odd-looking ranks.
Most Quakers today have long since shed these peculiarities as obsolete, or even worse, uncool (though if one listens hard enough, one can occasionally hear someone say “thee” unselfconsciously among us).
But now the states dither and haggle. The feds are consumed by politicking and electioneering. Meantime the bodies keep piling up at a thousand or more per day. So maybe it would be timely for Quakers, and others with a communal/mutual aid history, to pluck this tradition from the back shelf of its closet, and brush the dust off the relics. Then we can ponder what a 2020 version of “an exterior hedge of preservation” formerly warding off temptation, now meant to repel the virus, might properly look like. Also, how to launch it among our circles, and perhaps share it with others. Or maybe learn from proups who have their own version: Amish, some ultra Orthodox Jews, Mormons, observant female Muslims, and more.
This reclamation may not be a solely individual matter. I have already overhead part of a Zoom-committee session for a nearby Quaker meeting, in which the question was raised of how to adapt and even renovate their meetinghouse for use in a long stretch of careful, socially distant worship and other activities.
It was raised, but not yet answered; this can be figured out, I expect, but it will take some ingenuity, and time. And it appears that time for rejiggering and renewing the witness of being visibly, protectively different may be, alas, the most plentiful element in the mix.
I wish the United States had taken a different path, Dr. Wen concludes. We could have contained the virus earlier, and we still had a chance to do it until we reopened against the guidance of public health experts . . . . But now that we are where we are, we should at least be honest and call our new strategy what it is. It’s our best hope left for saving lives.
And much of that best hope will come from what we do for ourselves and for those closest to us.
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