As the death count from the novel coronavirus tolls ever higher in the United States week by week, in stunning and devastating contrast, America’s theme parks are re-opening across the country, confirming a nuance of American culture that is literally sickening: our need for entertainment. And perhaps that’s one of the major ways in which we went wrong in our response – there wasn’t enough of that wow-factor.
In the countries around the world where the COVID-19 response has been most effective, there is a generally implicit respect for science, and by default for the doctors and researchers who advised the public health experts’ leadership; trust in their recommendations was the keystone that made their countries’ recoveries possible. In the United States, a disconcerting number of people eagerly dismiss science in an almost cartoonishly medieval rejection of anything that they cannot see with their own eyes or reason through with their own untrained minds. The flagrant rejection of facts by so many might be comedic if it weren’t tragically correlated to so many deaths from this virus that still has no vaccine or cure.
So how can a country whose people largely scoff at objective reality, under the presidency of a carnival ringleader, effectively respond to a virus of such harrowing magnitude? Obviously, relying on the people of the country to respect themselves and others enough to stay inside and wear masks if they have to go out was never a viable strategy from the start. While there are plenty of people who do believe in the science of it all and therefore follow these life-saving recommendations, there are enough people who don’t believe in it to make this an ultimately failing strategy.
But there is one thing that Americans excel at more than any other country in the world – SPECTACLE! Let’s face it, we are all about that razzle dazzle: atomic bombs, Times Square, Hollywood, landing on the moon, the Super Bowl… if it’s not fun to watch, count us out!
And that’s why we are failing with our current response to coronavirus – it’s just not that fun to watch. It wasn’t apocalyptic enough… no zombies, no smoldering landscapes and abandoned buildings, no tribal warfare between post-fallout districts, no hand-pumping fuel from old gas stations into our motorcycles so that we can dodge broken down cars and tumbleweed as we lone ranger our way down defunct highways. The lights never flickered.
What we have seen with COVID-19 in this country is an apocalypse kind of event without any of the Tinseltown tropes. We have become so convinced that a true catastrophe must be accompanied by Biblical plagues that anything less than rivers of blood and swarms of locusts just doesn’t seem that serious. And that’s serious.
People have risked their lives in factories and farms to keep our shelves stocked; medical workers have pushed themselves to the point of exhaustion, infection, and too often death to try to temper the deadliness of this invisible killer; exacerbated restaurants have done their best to transition to takeout-only models; masked teens have staffed the cash registers behind acrylic screens at grocery stores so that we can still make banana bread because we’re bored at home… just enough elements of “normal” society remained operational to make us think that the health officials’ recommendations were maybe just a bit exaggerated.
So when we hear that there have been over three million cases resulting in over 130,000 deaths (so far), it’s easy to shrug it off as long as it hasn’t affected us personally. Unfortunately, if we really wanted Americans to believe in this thing, we needed to make a production of it – There should have been curfews. Highways should have been closed. Rations should have been mandated. Streetlights should have been turned off. Shipping should have been suspended. The whole nine yards. Drastic times call for drastic measures. It’s not so much that curfews and rationing would have mitigated the risk, but it might have helped convince the doubters that this disease was more than just something the “media” was hyperbolizing. We just didn’t go big enough.
I hope that a vaccine is developed and distributed soon, but even if it is miraculously released tomorrow and everyone is inoculated the following day, this crisis has revealed an embarrassing side of the United States to the rest of the world. Any countries that still did look to the U.S. as a role model surely do so no longer. For years we as a country have been dancing blissfully unaware on an increasingly slippery slope. As of 2020, we slipped.