Sunday, December 20, 2020

COVID and Society: As 2020 Ends, Cracks Widen in the Ground

Looking back from this late-December vantage point at the wreckage of the past year, I am much troubled and filled with sorrow. Many of my "troubles" are personal and/or pathological (indeed, I have been suffering from a strong bout of depression for the past month), so I generally avoid trying to draw corollaries between my "moods" and the specific problems of our times. I do have some broad observations drawn from the obviously increasing degenerative condition of our technologically hyper-developed society, with its misshapen and haphazardly scattered engines of material power that we grasp more desperately even as our ignorance (our lack of wisdom) grows greater.

Some things are simply puzzling. Certainly, the answer to the larger question "Where do we go from here?" is something we will probably only learn as we stumble through it (and even then only if we're paying attention). But there are plenty of particular puzzles too, in this year when the strangeness of life has inescapably confronted even our ordinary routines.

The resurgence of COVID in these recent weeks and months has hardly been a surprise to anyone. (Did we really even get a “break” since March?) Serious illness continues to burden victims and hospitals everywhere. Meanwhile there seem to be more people in our local region coming down with “mild cases” identified by positive tests or by some of the more peculiar symptoms of the virus. Now, several different versions of the COVID vaccine are beginning to be administered, according to where the need is greatest.

As Christmas approaches and the year nears its end, we are still wondering how this whole global phenomenon will play itself out. In the U.S.A., the situation remains "complicated." Infections are still on the rise of a disease that, for a great many if not most people, manifests itself as a flu-like illness that resolves itself in a couple of weeks, along with some odd, lingering effects like temporary loss of taste and smell.

In the proximate environment in which I live, COVID doesn’t seem to strike people as anything unusually or horribly dangerous, and they and their immediate circle of relatives and friends seem to weather it pretty well.

Thank God for that.

In any given locality, COVID does not look like that big of a problem... UNTIL IT IS!!! Add to your “immediate circle” just one person who is susceptible to grave infection and he or she can become life-threateningly sick. And while age and predisposing conditions have been identified as more likely to bring on the more dangerous forms of COVID, it has also landed serious and even fatal hits on young and otherwise healthy people.

Recommended precautions by public health authorities require some measure of sacrifice, but people are increasingly worn out by all these months of vigilance. Frequently they are not careful, which is like playing Russian roulette with the disease. Just because many people “dodge the bullet” doesn’t mean they are behaving in a responsible way.

Overall, I hope that what I have seen in my own country during this past year is not an example of how we plan to respond habitually to future national emergencies. 

Those in the hospital, along with medical personnel and healthcare workers, have a vivid sense of what is (and will continue to be) at stake in grappling with an unprecedented public health crisis. And it is a crisis, if for no other reason than the fact that we are dealing with the sudden appearance of a new, globally transmitted disease that health experts are still trying to understand. It's the kind of phenomenon where civil action needs to be taken: people who have responsibility for the common good must exercise their authority. We immediately think of legislators and public officials, but a healthy society also has established social institutions that need to serve as reference points in a time when unified action is needed.

Our community has commonly accepted processes whereby experts in medical science are verified, and there are associations that oversee the quality of their work. It's a deeply flawed process, and may well not always produce an "academy" of ideal competence, but in a time of emergency their established social position must be given a measure of credit. Unless they recommend that we do evil in order to obtain a good result, it is entirely reasonable to accept and implement their "guidelines" (individual circumstances allow for prudence and flexibility here, but the common good needs to remain in focus for everyone). 

For many ordinary U.S. citizens during this pandemic, however, maximizing certain recommended practices of self-restraint and minimizing the risk of spreading infection have not been perceived very clearly as civic responsibilities. Instead, there has been a tendency for both “sides” of this nation’s chronically over-politicized and acutely dysfunctional civic culture to interpret adherence to health precautions as a partisan action, a demonstration of allegiance to or rebellion against "government intervention." It has often seemed, too, that public officials have been too ready to hijack the story of the pandemic (from different angles) in support of their own demagoguery.

All of this is very disturbing for someone like me, who experiences his own health as a particular area of vulnerability. I don't mean this in the sense of a personal fear of contracting the disease in a serious and dangerous form. I wouldn't want that to happen, of course, but the "vulnerability" I'm referring to here is broader in scope. To use an analogy, a person who has difficulty walking is more aware of their dependence on the solidity of the ground under their feet. They are more vulnerable to earthquakes. In battles, they are more likely to be "collateral damage."

So many things are troubling, beyond the impact of the COVID pandemic itself and the socioeconomic problems it has occasioned. The U.S.A.’s popular pandemic response has been too much burdened by a dialectic of hypocritical moralism versus individualistic revolt. In my opinion, the capricious and sometimes chaotic behavior of national political leadership has exacerbated the problem, as have those elements in the press and media that have engaged in relentless provocation and their own political grandstanding or pursuit of settling scores.

The U.S.A. has had difficulty in dealing with the pandemic as a unified civil society. What does this indicate? Certainly it would be easy enough to say that we are beginning to "reap the whirlwind," that we are on the threshold of seeing the cracks in our social order widen to the point where they themselves will begin to rupture the most mundane elements of our daily routines.

Ever since I can remember (over 50 years), ominous voices in our society have declared that we are falling apart, that chaos is just around the corner. It has often looked that way before. And yet much has endured, and new worthwhile possibilities have been realized. Even in this darkness, a wonder persists, and grows, and deepens — something greater is being engendered, something with a hidden but inexhaustible solidity.

No matter what, I am grateful for my life. If my perspective is dim at the moment, that doesn't mean I have forgotten what makes it worthwhile to get up every day, and set about living life with the expectation that truth and goodness will always make a way forward, even when the earth shakes and its noise drives people to folly, and everywhere they sharpen the weapons of war.

There are other forces at work in history, beyond our violence and stupidity.