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 4: For the second straight day I woke up at 3AM. Today it wasn’t because of the cat. It was just . . . because. I don’t know. I was fully alert and awake and my brain started working and I knew that there was no going back to sleep. Maybe that Sunday nap just screwed everything up after all.
I’ve always been an early riser — I’m sort of famous for it in a pathetic way among my readers and social media followers — but 3AM is extreme even for me. When I do wake up earlier than usual I generally use that time productively, but it’s an emotionally disorienting time all the same. All of that “darkest before the dawn” stuff is no joke. It’s amazing where your mind goes at 3:30 or 4AM. It’s amazing how, after the sun comes up, you look back at what you were thinking in those dark hours and realize how unnerving so much of it was. It’s bad enough in normal times. These days it’s even worse.
One good thing today: because of plummeting oil prices and because, since we don’t really eat out anymore, all of our money goes to a grocery store that also has a gas station which offers fuel discounts based on dollars spent on food, I filled up my car today at 95 cents a gallon:
It’s like being zapped back to 1998. Get me, I’m studying for the bar exam and the CD player in my Honda Civic is blasting “Hello Nasty.”
Trump spoke yesterday, scaling up his estimate for the number of expected dead from his past prediction of 65,000 to 100,000. Of course, given that we’ve basically met and are rocketing past his prior prediction it wasn’t worth spit. I don’t think his current one is either, even if it accidentally ends up being close to the mark. He’s not shown a shred of actual engagement with any of this or a shred of concern for Americans going through it. His predictions and insights into the scope of this pandemic are no more informed or useful than when they make an octopus predict which team will win the Super Bowl. Actually, they’re probably worse. The octopus isn’t a narcissistic sociopath and isn’t trying to deceive anyone.
In Trump’s defense, if those estimates are poor it’s only because the number of dead don’t seem to matter to him very much to begin with:
“As President Trump presses for states to reopen their economies, his administration is privately projecting a steady rise in the number of cases and deaths from coronavirus over the next several weeks, reaching about 3,000 daily deaths on June 1.”
Unlike most of what Trump does, however, I suspect there’s a method to this madness.
A national consensus, led by our president, is forming. A consensus rooted in the notion that we’re OK with people dying at alarming rates as long as there is a minimal disruption to the economy and minimal inconveniences in our daily lives. It’s a consensus that will, increasingly, be expressed via a political and corporate strategy that serves the interests of public relations rather than the interests of medical science and public health. One that, more than anything else, conditions and desensitizes the public to the concept of daily mass death.
Trump is now floating the idea of 3,000 deaths a day being the expectation despite the fact that around 2,000 has been where we top out most of the time now, in what was supposed to be the peak. He’s doing that to set the bogey. To set some new allegedly normal that, later, when we get there — thanks to the increasingly aggressive reopening strategy on the part of most states — he can say was totally within expectations.
To the extent that narrative gains even the slightest bit of purchase, governors will begin to parrot the idea that we’re into a new, expected normal despite the fact that deaths have spiked. If enough of them do it, the media will normalize it because that’s what the media does. And business and citizens will accept it because everyone is exhausted and we’re all just waiting for the OK from everyone else to quit sacrificing and to quit being inconvenienced. We’re looking for an excuse to not care anymore.
We’ve seen this pattern before. We saw it as the 2000s wore on and the reports of war dead in Iraq and Afghanistan were first pushed below the fold and then off the front page completely. We, as a country, began not to care that we had been fighting two wars for years and years and that, in many significant ways, we still are. Now we’re seeing it in service of cover for a premature reopening of society despite the fact that we have not yet done the necessary work to ride out this pandemic responsibly.
For all of the day-in-day out stuff that I talk about here or that any of us talk about in the real world, that will be and should be the lasting legacy of COVID-19 in America. How it ushered in the time when the longstanding subtext of American existence — money is more important than people’s lives — was stated plainly and loudly by our leaders and a shockingly large number of our people. A time when we willfully and openly set policies which we acknowledge will kill people in order to serve the interests of commerce and the personal comfort of those who cannot stand a moment’s discomfort.
“Of course, everybody wants to save every life they can — but the question is, towards what end, ultimately?” — Chris Christie, on CNN last night. Don’t bash him, though. He’s just saying out loud what most of our leaders are thinking and what, increasingly most people are beginning to think.
Perhaps the most prominent place we’re going to see this all play out is in my bailiwick: baseball.
For weeks now, Major League Baseball and its surrogates have been floating tentative plans for when and how the season can start. While most reporters and fans have been preoccupied with the “hows” of it all — how many games, how the schedule will be set up, whether there will be a universal designated hitter — the thing you should actually key on is the whens and the wheres of it all.
The logistics of these MLB/Players Union brainstorming sessions have changed five or six times, but each new idea that gets leaked has something in common: an early July start date. That date seems to be a function of pressure from politicians like Trump and Mitch McConnell, each of whom have been pushing baseball to return for symbolic and inspirational purposes and each of whom — along with many other political and business leaders — would love nothing more than to see the National Pastime debut on or around the Fourth of July so that they can declare the nation healed and normality restored.
That timing works for Major League Baseball too, in that it gives the league, basically, the entire month of May to see if the aggressive re-opening plans of various states blows up in their faces. I mean, I think it’s inevitable that deaths will spike, as Trump is conditioning us to expect, but the key here will be to look and see if there are moments of bad optics. Famous people getting sick. Vocal re-opening advocates being disgraced or embarrassed. Unrest of some kind. Yes, 3,000 a people a day may die, but if that death toll unfolds in mere statistical form for most people while a steady backdrop of cable news b-roll of healthy people enjoying lunch at outdoor cafes plays on our televisions each evening, it will be deemed a success by most involved. It will allow Major League Baseball to push for that July 4 reopening while being able to say “hey, we’re just following society’s lead.”
As for the where: early plans that were leaked involved players and team personnel being quarantined in Arizona or Florida or both. That went over terribly — the idea of players being away from their families did not sit well with most folks — and those ideas have been all but scrapped. Now the leaked plans focus on a setup in which teams play in their home parks and players and team personnel sleep in their own beds at night. Again, this serves the interests of optics.
Statistically speaking, there is a very good chance that someone who plays for a team or works for a team is going to get sick and, possibly, die. If that were to happen during an Arizona quarantine scenario it would look horrible. A sports quarantine like they described would be like having a couple of thousand people on a cruise ship. The league would basically have to cease functioning because the purpose of the quarantine would have been defeated.
If they stay and play at home, however, a person getting sick or dying is, really, not all that different than any other person getting sick or dying. No guarantees will ever have been made and, if it happens, it will get woven into the tapestry of normality everyone is working so hard to create. “Hey, that’s part of life now. It could’ve happened at the grocery store or at one of these now-open restaurants.” As with the rest of us, the responsibility for the health of ballplayers and the people who work in baseball will be transferred from those in charge and placed back in the hands of individuals. Individuals, I’ll note, who are particularly well-suited to be blank canvasses onto which television producers and P.R. people can paint inspirational human interest stories about overcoming obstacles that are bigger than the game.
Which is to say: the game is going to go on. It’s going to go on, driven by inspirational, symbolic and financial imperatives, not because June is going to be any safer than May or because July will be any safer than June. It’s going to go on and, if people die, their deaths will be part of a normalization of it all we’re seeing to begin in society at large. Part of a mass agreement to accept mass death.
Baseball, as they like to say, is a reflection of society. What they tend to leave out, however, is that it reflects society’s worst aspects just as much as it reflects its best ones.