I was sitting at home, like many of us have been since the novel coronavirus shattered our world, when someone knocked on the front door. I could see through the window that it was someone with bags in his hand. Probably just a delivery. I’ll wait.
After a minute, the dog is still barking his head off, so I get closer to the window.
Now I see that it’s someone I know from church. I wave, thinking he’ll put the packages down and leave. That’s what we do nowadays, either leave the packages or step six feet back so we can talk without inadvertently sharing air space with a potential carrier.
He waves back. And stays there. Right in front of the door.
Okay, now I’m confused. I know I should social distance, but I don’t want to be rude. He will probably just step back when I open the door, right?
Wrong. As soon as the latch turns, he’s within two feet of me. I haven’t been this close to another human being (other than my carefully cloistered wife, kids, and caregivers) for at least 45 days. I freak out.
“Dude! Six feet!” I yell and pull back on the joystick of my chair. I fly backwards a little too far, smashing into the dining room table.
He laughs playfully and offers to set the bags by the front door. “I gotta be careful,” I say, a little embarrassed, still trying to figure out what is going on.
What is he thinking!? Did we not just experience a pandemic? Mass graves. Bodies stored in ice rinks because the morgues were too full. Empty cities. Massive layoffs.
He’s not even wearing a mask. Did the threat of COVID-19 magically evaporate overnight? I know, some states have lightened restrictions, but we are still supposed to avoid getting within spitting distance of each other, right? Does he not know the governor extended the stay-at-home order two more weeks? Am I crazy or is he?
He tells me he just got back from a trip to St. George, Utah, where, he says, all restrictions have been lifted. “Yeah, people are hanging out together, swimming in the pool at the hotel, no masks,” he says. “Everything is back to normal.”
He probably notices the look of terror spreading across my face.
“I should probably be more careful,” he admits. Then, referring to his victory over cancer, he says, “But it’s been five years, and I feel good.”
It’s a Community Thing
After he leaves, I find myself still there, backed up against the table, more than six feet from the closed door, thinking, “Why do I feel so frustrated?”
Part of it is that I am an exceptionally gifted worrier, and I have had more than a month to hone my skills as the tremor of deaths spread through the news. We have been taking every precaution to avoid catching the disease that seems specifically designed to wipe out old quads with weak lungs. I’d like to believe it’s over, but until someone who knows about infectious diseases (i.e., not a politician) confirms that we’re out of the woods, I don’t want to breach the safety zones that have kept us alive so far. From what I have read, the experts say the COVID-19 threat is growing, not shrinking. (And by the way, vacationers, Utah still has mandatory social distancing. Or at least the governor thinks they do.)
But what really bugs me about the conversation at the front door is the notion that some people need to be more careful than others. It’s the same frustration I feel when I see photos of beaches packed with people and only a few wearing masks. After everything we’ve seen in this pandemic, I don’t understand how so many people can still think health is a personal choice based on individual risk. People decide they don’t need to take precautions but that I do — as if their acts have no effect on the dangerousness of the world we both share.
This individualistic thinking is exactly what turned COVID-19 into a pandemic. The virus spreads because people who do not feel sick and have no symptoms carry it to others.
Why, for example, did the CDC recommend that everyone wear a mask, even if they had to make it themselves? It’s not because a homemade mask will protect you from getting the virus. Most masks won’t. The purpose of a mask is to make so the person wearing the mask — who may have the virus but not know it yet — is less likely to spread it to others. Social distancing and staying home are also intended to slow the spread, regardless of how invincible an individual may feel.
Did anyone else watch the Global Citizen “Together at Home” broadcast? (OK, some of the performances were a little meh, but then they had the Stones, Billie Eilish, and that Italian opera guy.) The whole point was to remind people that we are interconnected. If a stranger decides to gamble with his own health during an outbreak, peels off his mask, and goes to the beach to meet people irl, that decision increases the likelihood that I will die from COVID-19. To use an old metaphor, you can’t pee in your end of the pool and say it doesn’t matter to swimmers on my end.
I had hoped that we would emerge from this crisis with a more enlightened perspective on the danger of treating systemic threats as if they were isolated incidents. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote about injustice is equally compelling when applied to the recent pandemic: “[A health crisis] anywhere is a threat to [public health] everywhere.”
Like injustice, health risks are not evenly distributed, so they will never be adequately addressed if only the people under direct threat take action. And so those of us most vulnerable to COVID-19 are out in a life boat without a paddle, waiting to see if the rest of society remembers us when America sets sail for the return to normal. I hope that the worst is behind us and that there are not multiple waves of infections. But if people don’t learn to look at health as a community issue, the next crisis will cut through society just as unforgivingly, sacrificing more lives to the false god of individual determinism.