Like everyone else I am having trouble thinking about anything other than the coronavirus pandemic and the shockwaves it has sent, and will continue to send, through the system. As it began to unfold I found myself thinking, talking, and posting about it fairly constantly. In an effort to try to keep it confined to a given time and place, both physically and psychologically, I am keeping a diary of it all.
May 23: Today was graduation for my kids’ high school. Anna and Carlo are just finishing up sophomore and freshman year, respectively, so they have a while to go yet, but they each knew some people graduating, as did I. The school handled things part virtually, part via distancing, and all-in-all it seems like they did a pretty good job with it.
The virtual part was the ceremony, which was filmed this morning. A small subset of the band played the National Anthem and a small subset of the choir sang a song. The principal, superintendent, and valedictorians gave video speeches. At some point recently every graduating senior got their photo taken in their cap and gown in front of the school which they put in a montage, alphabetically, over music, announcing graduates:
As for the handing out of diplomas, they mapped out a route — festooned with flags in school colors — from one end of the school property to the other. The route snaked by the football stadium and out the other end with a middle station at which the kid got out and got the old sheepskin from the principal. The means of handing out the diploma was hard for me to make out from the photos my friend posted of his son getting his — are they sliding it down a pole? — but it worked:
High school seniors got a raw deal this year. No spring break. No final performance, game, match, meet, play, or conference for whatever activity they’re involved in. No prom, no proper graduation, and none of the other frankly far more important stuff that just sort of happens as you finish up school and start thinking about your future. People keep saying, “well, at least their senior year will be memorable!” but I don’t think anyone really thinks that makes up for anything.
I will say, though: as someone who skipped his college and law school graduation ceremonies and as someone who just remembers sweating and wanting to be elsewhere during his high school graduation, I probably would’ve preferred this kind of ceremony to a conventional one. Too bad it took a goddamn pandemic for people to think differently about how these things can go.
A lot of you reached out to me after my entry about Anna the other day. For those concerned, know that Anna’s period of physical isolation ended today. One of her friend’s parents decided that their daughter, like mine, needed some human contact and asked if Anna and a third friend could come over. They live on a bit of property on the rural edge of town and have a big yard where the kids could hang out safely so we made it happen.
As I was driving Anna over I joked with her that, given how this was all arranged and a parental drop-off was required, this was not unlike the play dates I used to take her to when she was little. She was not as taken with the comparison as I was. That said, my case was bolstered when I picked her up a couple of hours later and she had a juice box in her hand.
“Play dates. Juice boxes. Yep, it’s like kindergarten all over again,” I said.
“Shut up. Juice boxes slap,” she replied.
She had a little instrument case with her when she got in the car too. It was a ukulele. He friend has a couple and Anna is borrowing one because she wants to learn how to play it. That should make continued isolation entertaining.
A couple of stories about irresponsible behavior and potential outbreak made the rounds today.
First it was reported that a hairstylist at a Great Clips in Springfield, Missouri went to work for serval days between May 12 and May 20 despite having COVID-19. The local health authorities issued an alert to anyone who saw the stylist during that time.
The second story hit this evening just as I was getting read for bed. This is from Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri:
— Scott Pasmore (@scottpasmoretv) May 24, 2020
And no, this does not seem to be one of those out-of-context videos which distort things. News stories from earlier in the day said that hotels in the area were booked up like any other Memorial Day weekend.
The hair stylist was getting a proper dragging online yesterday. The people in this video will be widely mocked and criticized today. And not for no good reason, mind you, as it seems incredibly irresponsible to be doing anything like this right now. There will, inevitably, be a ton of new COVID-19 cases among the stylist’s customers and the people with whom he or she came in contact. The people in that pool in Missouri will bring the virus back to Kansas City, St. Louis. Chicago, Memphis, Little Rock or wherever people who like to vacation in Lake of the Ozarks come from. Exponents are powerful, so there will be a lot of suffering visited upon people who didn’t go to that Great Clips or who couldn’t pick out Lake of the Ozarks on a map.
At the same time, I can’t help but consider these people only secondarily responsible for whatever happens. And I almost feel like piling on them is misguided and even counterproductive.
As I wrote a few years ago, our culture, more than any other time in history, is focused on the individual. Individual identity, individual agency, and individual freedom. The primary mode of news dissemination is based on telling one person’s story as a proxy for any given event or trend. Cultural dynamics such as racism and sexism tend to be discussed not as a broad societal forces that they are but, rather, only in reference to notable individual acts, typically captured on video. Political dynamics are reduced to anecdotes of individuals rather than larger systems which affect millions of people. We’ll hear a lot about Bob Smith, at the local diner, talking about how an immigrant took his nephew’s job, but far less about the drivers of immigration or unemployment. We’ll get stories about individual archetypes — the Soccer Mom, the Home Depot Dad, etc. — on whose vote the next election will allegedly turn, but far fewer about more illuminating or relevant demographic analysis.
On some level this is understandable. The scale of the matters facing the world is vast and talking about the macro level is fraught with daunting abstraction. It certainly isn’t the most accessible thing for a lot of people. But this focus on the individual has caused us to overlook the fact that people are, for the most part, living in large systems which they cannot control on anything approaching an individual level. And, as such, it causes us to focus on the wrong targets when discussing policies and assessing blame.
I think about climate change a lot. If you study the matter even a little bit, it quickly becomes apparent that the only means of effectively addressing climate change is to focus on the actions of large-scale actors and large scale creators of greenhouse emissions. Countries. Armies. Massive international energy companies. Entire business sectors like meat production and agriculture. Everything else is a drop in the bucket. Yet even people who care about climate change tend to spend far more time judging their neighbor who purchased a big truck, the person in line at the store in front of them who didn’t bring reusable bags, or the fast food place that still gives out plastic straws. They’ll then go home and feel pretty good about themselves as they walk across their bamboo floor to set their smart thermostat to a sensible temperature.
Buying a big gas-guzzling truck or using a ton of plastic are not environmentally sound choices and people should not make unsound environmental choices. Yes, buying sustainably-produced products, using a smart thermostat and minding one’s personal habits are good things that should absolutely be encouraged. But attention paid solely to those kinds of individual choices, good and bad, is utterly meaningless if nothing is being done on the macro level. You, me, and all of our friends can reduce our carbon footprint to zero and it wouldn’t make a goddamn difference as long as China, the U.S. Army, Exxon, and massive cattle feed lots continue to operate like they always have. Despite everything our culture teaches us about how much each of us matter and how special we are, individuals simply do not have that kind of power.
This applies to the pandemic too.
Our leaders encouraged this to happen. They, for the most part, did not act quickly enough to combat the pandemic, to the extent the did act they did not act sufficiently, and they then backed off their insufficient acts, all while people like Trump and other political figures cast the resumption of normal activity in cultural and political terms which all but demanded an extreme backlash. Those acts and omissions set the stage for this.
Our leaders’ failure to recognize the danger the pandemic posed earlier created thousands if not millions more infection vectors. Their failure to provide an effective social and financial safety net until the outbreak could be contained made people financially desperate and put them in the position of either working or starving. That desperation and the premature reopening of the economy forced that hair-stylist to go into work despite being sick because he or she had, really, no other choice. Our leaders’ cavalier attitude and irresponsible cultural posturing cast partying in a packed pool on Memorial Day weekend as an act of freedom — even patriotism — and a declaration of victory. That, inevitably, not only gave those people permission to pack that pool, but it actively encouraged it.
That stylist shouldn’t have gone to work. Those people shouldn’t be partying like that. But a country of more than 300 million people has basically been either encouraged or forced into irresponsibility that is not terribly unlike that, rendering the acts of whatever people make the news on a given day for doing something dumb rather meaningless. Fighting the pandemic required macro-level action enacted by people with the power to affect macro-level systems and they simply refused to do it.
Because that did not happen, individual action might make the person who engages in distancing and other responsible acts incrementally safer — you and I may still avoid crowds and be better off for it — but doing so will be almost meaningless on a national level. The war has already been lost. All we can do now is to try to avoid the fallout as best we can. Individually.