In the wake of a growing concern about a mysterious disease, when will a gnawing worry evolve into fear? What incident will cause fear to mushroom into terror, breeding deep suspicion of anyone outside our immediate circle? At what point will we begin to shun our friends and neighbors and, finally, ourselves?
Perhaps that grotesque evolution will not occur. Conceivably, we will come to realize the the environment giving birth to panic must transform into an atmosphere of levelheaded, rational behavior. Yet I’ve already seen evidence of dangerous herd mentality targeting individuals who do not subscribe to group-think. The evidence has been online, where people tend to be more likely to openly attack others than they would in a face-to-face setting. But online bullying of those whose opinions differ from one’s own can morph into physical behavior. Will it?
Less than three weeks ago, I wrote that preparing for the potential pandemic (involving the COVID-19 virus that the Centers for Disease Control suggested was on its way) was probably in our best interests. Several days later, I saw some evidence that people were taking heed. But there was no frenzy.
Yesterday, I witnessed frenzy. When I went to the grocery store to buy a few items on our regular and “just-in-case” grocery lists, I saw evidence of panic hoarding. The parking lots of two nearby grocery stores were full to overflowing. Inside the store I visited, the aisles were jammed with shoppers, their carts piled high. As I wheeled my cart toward the canned good aisles, an employee thrust a 6-roll package of toilet paper in my direction, saying “You want the last roll of toilet paper in the store? This is it. We’re out!” Toilet paper wasn’t on my list, so I declined; a man right behind me said to her, “I’ll take it!”
Entire sections of shelves were empty. There was almost no dry rice left. Dry beans were gone. Long sections of shelving dedicated to canned tomatoes were empty; fortunately, canned tomatoes were not on my list. I had planned on buying a 5-pound bag of rice to replenish our dwindling supply; I bought one of the only remaining 2-pound boxes. I had planned on buying dry pinto beans; there were none to be bought, nor were there any canned beans left on the shelves. The queue for the pharmacy spilled out into the main aisle; apparently, people were trying to make sure their prescription medications would last for…awhile.
Yesterday and again this morning, I saw evidence online that some of the “medical experts” residing in the Village were in attack mode. Posts on Nextdoor, many laced with misinformation and, in some cases outright lies, dripped with acerbic comments directed both at people who “hoard” and those who do not take the pandemic seriously enough to prepare. Everyone, it seems, is at fault for disagreeing with someone’s opinion, regardless of whether the opinion is based on facts or dim-witted fictions fed by an orange-haired idiot. I wonder whether the posts I read this morning will spill into the physical world in the form of flying fists and spraying bullets? I hope not. But I’m not confident that peace will prevail.
Yet not all of the responses to the pandemic are “shoot from the hip” reactions fueled by rage and blind fear. Some reactions have been measured, though bold. The board for my church, for example, decided yesterday morning to close the doors for services and other meetings until further notice. Some schools are closing in nearby communities. Events are being cancelled. In short, the advice of the CDC is being heeded. (Though, I have to wonder whether the CDC is the best source of advice, given some of its recent failings. But I don’t know a better alternative.) Will these very adult reactions to an emergency unlike any we have faced before lead us safely back to stability?
We’re very early into this unprecedented experience, I think. We may have to alter our behaviors for many weeks, perhaps several months (or longer), before the threats of the pandemic have subsided enough to return to “normal.” If, indeed, “normal” is possible after what we’re about to go through. We may discover that the discords and divisions sown by and in response to the current administration are so deep that we can never come together as a nation again. We may come to realize, sooner rather than later, that even the most powerful country on Earth cannot survive going to war with itself over a deadly disease for which it was woefully unprepared. Perhaps we are witnessing an event that will bring about the end of an empire.
How long can the people at the bottom of the economic ladder survive? What does a person who works in a stadium concession stand do when the venue is closed to customers? When patrons stop going to the restaurant where she works, where will the server find enough money to pay her rent? And what will her employer do to pay the restaurant’s rent? When people stop riding buses, will the bus driver be laid off and left to fend for himself? The answer, I think, is yes. Will the rest of us watch as our retirement nest eggs are eaten by traders scrambling to hold on to a scrap of their once-vast fortunes?
There was a time when the opposing political parties would have come together in a national emergency and would have jointly crafted a rational plan to deal with the crisis. I doubt we’ll see that this time. Instead, they will bicker and throw knives at one another, hoping their opponents’ loss of blood will sufficiently weaken them to take them out of the game. The game. That’s what it is to them, I think. Every citizen is simply a pawn in their game.
I’m not feeling particularly hopeful this morning, am I? No, but that could change. I may see glimmers of hope as I witness local and regional and state responses to a growing and very troubling situation. We shall see. In the meantime, while we watch our “leaders” engage in political responses to a medical and its consequential financial emergency, what will we do? In the wake of our growing concern about a mysterious disease, will our gnawing worry evolve into fear? Will our fear mushroom into terror, creating deep suspicions about anyone outside our immediate circles? Will we shun our friends and neighbors and, finally, ourselves?
I am at once deeply pessimistic and cautiously hopeful, spinning from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other with such speed that it’s dizzying. I try not to worry, because worry does not good, but it’s hard. And I try not to be a Pollyanna about the situation, thinking without justification that “everything will turn out all right…because it always does.” I’m stuck somewhere in the middle. I feel like I’m confronting two enemies: a potentially deadly disease and an ill-prepared population hell-bent on survival at the expense of the opponents’ demise. Last night’s post, wherein I wrote one side of an imaginary (and more than a little bizarre) conversation about a boundless, all-encompassing love, was an attempt to get unstuck. It didn’t work. Maybe a breakfast of avocado toast and bacon will do what fiction could not.