Fear Itself, Covid Edition
I took a friend of a friend and his wife on a tour of Chinatown the other day. She arrived double-masked and immediately asked if I was vaccinated (I am.) She didn’t say much or eat anything, her husband was the one clearly interested in new foods. The wife, maybe 28 or so, then had a full-on panic attack.
We were inside one of the wet markets when the woman shouted “Covid, I have to get out.” She turned pale and broke out in sweat. She pushed her way through the crowd to get outside, full fight-or-flight mode. Outside, gasping for air, she said she suddenly felt she was going to “get Covid and die” in the market. I suggested sips of water but she said she would not remove her mask. The husband apologized. They were educated. No signs they were Fauci fans, QAnon shamen, or addicted to one biased network or another. What I guess we once called regular people.
I felt genuinely sorry. This is what appeared to be an otherwise healthy woman who had lost her mind over an exaggerated fear of Covid. I see people like this, albeit usually with less physical signs of panic, often. They truly are convinced they will die soon. They are shelter dogs seeking to form coalitions of grievance. No safety measures, including the vaccine, can be sufficient when fear transitions into irrational phobia. I’ve talked more than a few friends off virtual Covid ledges. At best both sides of any sub-argument (say, masks) think the other is kidding.
Meanwhile a new neighbor greets me every morning with the latest local case count and policy rumors, the way finance bros reel off the S&P numbers to each other before saying good morning. He has become a Covid enthusiast. The rest of us, we now snap at one another over petty Covid rule infringements — been on a plane recently? The lashing out is then justified by fear, because that means we don’t have any obligation toward self-examination.
A year and a half ago I never would have believed I’d still be writing about Covid. I now have to wonder if ten years from now will people look back at this all the way we remember a particularly rough winter, or will this truly be something that changes us forever. Even at this point our lives have been altered. If you want to blame one politician or another, take that argument outside. It all matters less and less as the events become not politics but our history. Even with so much road still ahead we can say clearly our economy has been devastated. “Cashing a stimulus check” seems to be one of the Top Ten new careers in America, followed closely by “Collecting Unemployment.” Many people depend on free rent aka the eviction moratoriums, paused student loan payments, and the range of food aid. No one seems to know what happens when those programs sunset.
Education has effectively disappeared for large numbers of kids and despair grows menacingly. A statistic which should set off alarm bells across the nation barely made the scientific journals as suicide attempts by teen girls increased 26 percent during summer 2020 and 50 percent during winter of 2021. We have forgotten the critical role in-person school plays in children and teens’ emotional development. All that rough and tumble adolescent socialization is there for a reason, along with sports and extracurriculars. They make kids normal and when you take them away from already fragile developing minds, kids want to destroy themselves. But we still do not ask if shutdowns actually deter Covid and we never ask what the secondary effects are.
Economic inequality grows. The power of government exploded to reshape how we live, shop, work, and eat, all handed on-the-fly to a near-endless range of actors, from the president to store clerks. None of this was voted on, challenged, reviewed, studied, or even discussed. For people who spent the last four years finding totalitarianism under every rock, they seemed to miss it when it became obvious — a sense of things being out of control is what every wanna-be authoritarian lives to exploit. Americans cleaved into those who welcomed the nannyism as unfortunate but warmly necessary and those who did not. Things went topsy-turvy: once upon a time in a free society the burden of proof was on those who would restrict freedom and not on those who resist such restrictions.
In the face of new dependence on government to eat and to keep a roof over one’s head, and with a core element of growing up stripped away from kids, and with the constant death harping from the media, how can we expect anyone to snap back? As with the pandemic of PTSD-driven soldier suicides after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have little to look forward to but the same thing coming for the rest of us.
It sounds over-dramatic to claim some sort of national-level PTSD is metastasizing among us, but if you understand PTSD as a psycho-physical reaction to a perceived life-threatening event it makes some sense. In the early days of Covid, The New York Times set the tone, calling this a “land of denial and death.” Many of us are now convinced our vote is a literal life-or-death decision because the wrong party will kill us through their flawed Covid policies. We are convinced our unmasked neighbor is trying to kill us. We are convinced our government is trying to kill us with an untested vaccine. We are convinced the schools are trying to kill our kids. We are convinced the same teachers we are ready to trust with our children are lazy, lying bastards who don’t care enough about education to go back into the classroom. Who wouldn’t have PTSD faced with this onslaught?
Anyone trying to think this through drowns in cognitive dissonance. One concert is a superspreader event while another is not depending on whether the bands are mostly country or hip hop. One protest is a superspreader event but another larger one is not. Disney is OK but Sturgis is not. The vaccine is safe but a significant number of medical professionals won’t get it. The vaccine works but vaccinated people still experience breakthrough cases. The vaccine works but vaccinated people still need to social distance. The disease is airborne but you have to prep gym surfaces like you will do surgery on them. European tourists are too dangerous to welcome to the U.S. but Guatemalans on the border are OK.
It is unsafe to gather in parks but OK to gather on airplanes. It is safe to be unmasked eating at a table but unsafe to stand unmasked at the bar. A two foot plexi shield protects us from an airborne disease riding warm currents to the ceiling of the room before descending. It is necessary for nearly everyone to get vaccinated but leaders won’t mandate that. Masks and school and travel can be mandated but not vaccines. Vaccines for smallpox, polio, and hepatitis can be mandated but not Covid. Crossing an invisible state line changes all the rules. There are states with layers of restrictions and states with none at all but everyone isn’t dead in either one.
We know it all can’t be true but in one place it is true, while next door it is untrue. Alice herself could not make sense of it no matter how many mushrooms she ate.
How can anyone retain their mind when the narrative for the last 18 months has been a largely false series of proclaimed death wishes: we aren’t doing enough testing so we’re gonna die, we don’t have enough ICU space so we’re gonna die, we don’t have enough ventilators so we’re gonna die, we don’t have enough masks so we’re gonna die, we don’t have enough nurses so we’re gonna die, we aren’t locked down enough so we’re gonna die, we don’t have enough vaccines so we’re gonna die, people won’t take the vaccine so we’re gonna die, there’s now a new stronger form of Covid coming so we’re gonna die. How do we keep faith when life is a video game where every time we surmount a challenge we are told something new has arisen to kill us?
No other nation on earth is fighting two wars, one against the virus and the other against itself. Other countries have Covid. But they don’t seem to have lost their collective minds to where they can no longer tell the real dangers from the shadows, or judge the right amount of caution from a panic that levies the consequences of living higher than those of dying.
At this point my question about the woman in the Chinese wet market having a panic attack has to change. The real question is not why she lost it, it is why the rest of us haven’t yet. I honestly do not know how this all ends.