The ’Rona: It turns out community is good

It’s been just 18 days since I last wrote about the coronavirus. Since then, numbers have gone boom.

18 days ago, the US had just under 1000 cases. Today it’s 120,000. Deaths are at 2000.

The Financial Times has had the best charts on the spread. Here’s today’s:


Now, Lesson One is still it can be worse. Exponential growth will hit you in the ass like that. What if we have another 18 days at that rate?  Quick calculation: 14.4 million cases.

Lesson Two, however, is the cross-country comparison.  The US is way out on top in terms of cases and rate of growth. (USA NUMBER ONE!) The European nations (including the UK) are clustered together. The East Asian countries in cyan have already flattened the curve.

The FT helpfully captions these: “South Korea: huge test-and-trace programme”, “Japan: strong social norms around civil obedience and mask-wearing”, “Singapore: strict quarantine rules & contact tracing”.

Somehow these things work better than Republicans running around denying the virus, comparing it to the flu, gathering in groups, and suggesting that old people should die for the sake of the Dow Jones.

A case in point: Landon Spradlin, a musician/evangelist, posted two weeks ago about how the virus was “mass hysteria” designed to impugn Trump, and said the “Spirit of God” would protect against germs.

He died from the virus on Wednesday.

And this isn’t atypical. Republican governors in the South are countermanding cities’ stay-at-home orders; Sen. Rand Paul, who has the virus, was until his test results came back socializing with other senators and swimming in the Senate pool. (Which is still open, because surely the virus wouldn’t dare infect a Congressman? Five so far are infected.)

I’ve been writing for years about US rightism, and each crisis we go through shows what they don’t believe and what they do. The Reagan era (and every GOP presidency since) showed that they don’t actually care about the deficit, only about low taxes. The Bush era showed that they couldn’t competently run a government. Trump’s election showed the continuing dominance of overt white supremacy. And Covid-19 has shown them happily courting death for themselves and their own constituents.

At the end of my “last century” piece, I predicted “collectivism will come back in a big way… but not for another generation.” That was 20 years ago, and right on time, laissez-faire individualism is imploding and the kids are clamoring for socialism.

I’m not promising that the GOP will collapse.  Far from it: outraged, scared authoritarians are capable of even more sociopathy than usual. But there is nothing magic about Trump’s GOP. It’s been unpopular almost since the inauguration. And more broadly, right-wing states always go too far, indulging themselves till they engineer broad social revulsion. The Depression discredited plutocracy for nearly fifty years. Bush II presided over Katrina and two recessions, and got himself and his party solidly kicked out of power. When things go badly wrong, people don’t descend into Lord of the Flies; they suddenly value community, helping one another, making things work.  A party that has spent the last forty years mocking those things suddenly looks very bad.

(Possible counter-argument: the threat of nuclear war, or climate change, doesn’t seem to do this. Yes, because until they happen they’re abstract and far in the future. People aren’t good at abstract threats.  They respond, however, to direct hardship that affects themselves and their communities.)

Trump has been exceedingly lucky: despite his narcissism and incompetence, the economy has continued growing and he stopped short of going to war. He was never going to perform well in a real crisis, and now we have one and he won’t or can’t.

For a few days Trump seemed to take the virus seriously; and then he made a series of noises about “re-opening the economy” by Easter. Dutifully, the right-wing media amplified this into a new litany. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick suggested that old people should die off to protect the economy.  He phrased it as if it was a personal choice and somehow noble, but jesus, people, throwing your old people into the ICU ward to die is not noble, it’s genocidal. Suicidal, too, since those are his party’s key voters.

Less apocalyptically, people have worried about how the crisis ends… we can’t keep cooped up at home for months on end, can we?  Well, the direct answer is, yes we can— we just passed a $2 trillion bill to keep people and more importantly corporations going, and as Matt Yglesias likes to say, we can make the money machine go brr. But it can be useful to go over once again why we’re at home.

  • To slow the spread of the virus. If you’re at home, you’re not catching it or passing it on. (The really insidious thing about Covid-19 is that it can be spread for days by asymptomatic people.)
  • To keep the health care system from imploding. We don’t have enough ICU beds, enough ventilators, enough frigging face masks. Doctors and nurses are worn ragged in Lombardy and Seattle and New York. And when the ICU is filled up with Covid-19 patients, that can be fatal to anyone coming in with a regular old heart attack.
  • To buy us time. We need tests in huge quantities. We need a contagion tracing regime. We need to build up health care capacity. We need to look at possible cures.

I distrust any piece of punditry that ends “…and therefore we must suffer a few million deaths.”  Just don’t go there, even if you’re really concerned about the Dow Jones. And even more so, don’t go there just because you can’t see an alternative.

The alternative is staring us in the face, in that chart above: control the freaking virus, as South Korea has, using South Korea’s methods.

The Financial Times has stumbled on something that doesn’t just explain a few data points, but the crises and opportunities of the next decades: that little point about “strong social norms.” Ultra-individualism and predatory capitalism aren’t working out so well. Maybe we should try some of those strong social norms.

Those norms might prove useful in other areas, you know, like climate change. Slate has an article that points out that the virus is making people do away with a lot of bullshit: being unable to carry 12 oz. bottles of things on planes; jailing people for minor offenses; using the police for evictions; turning off the water for hardship; throttling the Internet to motivate tiered pay plans. If it turns out that bullshit isn’t necessary in a crisis… why was it ever necessary?

There’s a million things to say, but I’ll just add one more.  People work hard to avoid a repeat of a disaster they themselves experienced. So, world wars were avoided for a century after Napoleon; plutocracy was discredited for 50 years after Hoover; Naziism was universally condemned for 50 years after Hitler. As soon as the people who experienced a disaster are dead (or in nursing homes), however, people are ready to repeat the errors.

We had a global pandemic— a century ago. The influenza epidemic ended up killing 50 to 100 million people, far more than World War I did directly. A lot of the same measures were used, such as school closures and prohibitions on large gatherings. And a lot of the same mistakes were made: many cities lifted the prohibitions, only to see a huge spike in deaths.

So: the basic situation isn’t new, it’s just forgotten. And a lot of people are misreacting because they just don’t have a framework for this. Some people think we need to defy the virus, go out and mingle, because that’s what we were supposed to do after 9/11. The virus isn’t 9/11; it’s not a terrorist who wants to cause fear and disruption. It doesn’t care about your fear or defiance. What it wants is large gatherings of victims; don’t indulge it.

Anyway… stay safe, stay sane, take walks, good luck when you have to go out. If you’re wondering what to do with yourself, may I suggest creating a conlang?