I have a Facebook friend who posted a photo this week of two beers she had ordered, this week, in person, at a bar. She lives in a state that is "reopening" this week.
"We ain't scared anymore," she wrote in reply to someone's confused comment.
That sentiment is popping up a lot — the idea that the reason people are staying home right now boils down to simple fear. Critics of stay-home orders have been using the phrase "cowering in our homes" so much that I assume it's been popularized by Russian troll bots or emailed out with talking points.
Since this is an increasingly popular criticism, let's unpack it. Is it fair to say we're afraid?
First and foremost, while I obviously can't speak for anyone else, I'm going to go ahead and say that for me, personally, yes. I am a little bit scared of contracting COVID-19. And I think any reasonable person should be, now that data and first-person accounts have obliterated the popular conception from the early days (you know, two months ago) that only old people are negatively impacted. I know a woman my age who had it, and while she's recovered now, at one point she was so certain she was going to die that she wrote goodbye letters to her children. The first-person accounts from survivors and health care workers are stark and awful, and every time I read one, I'm more motivated to not get this disease.
I'm also afraid of airplanes, not that you would know it to look at my busy travel itinerary from the past couple of years. My emotional state on a normal flight ranges from "OK, this is not great but I can deal with it" to "sheer terror and only bothering to conceal it if I'm traveling with my children" at any given moment. But with the drastic reduction in berth availability on seafaring clippers over the past four centuries, there are some places that it's just not feasible to visit if you don't fly. And they're worth visiting. Have you been to Luke Skywalker's porg-infested island? Because I have, and it was amazing even before it was in a Star Wars movie. And I had to take like six planes in total to get to Ireland and back. WORTH IT.
One thing that helps me confront my flying anxiety (besides sedatives) is information. I like data about the rarity of commercial airliner crashes and videos about the science of lift and aerodynamics. I love that map that shows how many domestic flights are in the air at any given time (none of them crashing!). And a little human empathy helps as well — I find a tremendous amount of comfort in knowing that the pilots are exactly as interested in landing safely as I am.
OK, so with flying, the more information I have, the more secure I feel. With coronavirus, it's a little bit different, because the more I learn about it, the more concerned I get. Back in February, when we were really just looking at fatalities, I was minimally concerned. There were no fatalities among children and very few among adults my age, and those were among patients with underlying conditions. But as we've learned more about COVID-19, it's become clear that mortality is just one piece of the puzzle. Children do get it, and it can be serious or even fatal. People my age get it, and they can die, or it can just be truly awful like my friend's experience, or it can cause lung damage or a stroke.
I probably don't need to keep going down the COVID-is-scary path, do I? You subscribe to this newsletter, you know where I stand, and either you already take it seriously or this is your daily hate read, in which case YOU ARE WELCOME and I hope it's very cathartic for you.
Anyway, yes. COVID can be very serious, and my guess is that most people would prefer to not get it. I'd also guess that many of the people who are standing on street corners picketing for haircuts and proclaiming that grandparents would gladly sacrifice their lives for the economy (ask my dad how he feels about that; I'll wait) don't really think that they themselves will get it. This is called optimism bias — an illusion of personal invulnerability — and I have to think it's especially in play when people are out here suggesting it's OK for some Americans to die in service of the economy. You've got to think they're assuming that they won't personally be the people who are called upon to die, which, of course, is not something for which one can plan, just as no one leaves the house anticipating getting in a car accident or takes a bite with the intent of choking. What they're really saying, then, is that it's OK for other people to die so that the devastating economic collapse we're experiencing will ease up.
I suppose, then, that if you have convinced yourself that (a) death is the only variable to consider and (b) you yourself are not going to be the person who dies and (c) the choice comes down to "a few old, sick people who are not me die" vs "I personally suffer devastating economic consequences," it would make sense to accuse the people who are standing between you and your personal security as cowards who need to suck it up and get back to work.
This question — crush the pandemic or crush the economy — is what E.J. Dionne would call a "false choice," since it doesn't have to be a this-or-that situation (and it certainly shouldn't be a partisan issue). There certainly are ways to address the pandemic while mitigating the impact on Americans, although it would be nice to see lawmakers making some more meaningful progress on this front, wouldn't it?
Anyway, back to my personal fears, which are the only fears about which I can truly speak with any authority. I'm afraid of flying, but I still get on planes. I know that while there is some chance that my fear of dying on an airplane will be realized, the odds are much better that I'll land safely at my destination, because air travel is a long-standing, well-regulated industry backed by extensive research and science.
I can't say the same about COVID-19. Every new thing I learn about it makes me feel less sure and more concerned, especially as the parent of a child with a chronic medical condition. I know that I'm less likely than other people to get it, but I also realize that I could easily be an asymptomatic carrier, especially since it's now clear that the virus was in the U.S. earlier than was originally believed. And I'd prefer not to be the vector that passes the virus on to two other people, each of whom passes it on to two more, each of whom passes it on to two more, etc., etc., until I've killed someone because I couldn't suck it up and go without a brow service. I'd like to think I'm a better person than that.
So... is it fair to say that I'm afraid to leave my house? I guess you could stretch it that way if you were motivated to make me look hysterical. It's reasonable to say that fear for myself and my family is part of my motivation. Yes, I'm afraid of catching this disease or spreading it to someone I love.
But is it accurate to say that the entire stay-home movement is rooted in fear? That, I'd argue, is a gross mischaracterization, especially when we've got stacks on stacks on stacks of public health experts saying that the most important thing we can do to keep the virus at bay — and manage the load on our health care system until we have effective ways to treat and prevent it — is avoid being exposed to it.
I do think there's a reasonable discussion to be had (in fact, already being had by policymakers all over the country) about how, when, where, and why distancing rules are relaxed. My child with the health condition missed a doctor's appointment last month; I'd like to keep the rescheduled one. I'd like my friends' businesses to stay solvent. (I'd especially like my clients' businesses to stay solvent.) At this point, I'd honestly even like sports to come back. But that discussion screeches to a halt when we start dismissing legitimate (if extreme) public health measures as cowardice, especially when they're working.
Am I afraid of getting coronavirus? Yes. Am I living in fear? No. I'm living in caution and compassion, and there's a big difference.