2020 Notes: Survival of…

On Friday, a few days after the CDC recommended that people avoid Thanksgiving travel, someone tweeted a video clip of a crowded terminal at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix. Other tweets have confirmed that this is unfolding in many airports.

On the plus side, everyone was wearing a mask. The ceilings were high and there may well have been good ventilation. One man was using hand sanitizer. I’m sure some had purchased non-refundable tickets even before the current coronavirus spike. Most had probably done so before the CDC announcement. But the virus doesn’t care, and many of these travelers were going to be crowded together in terminals and airplanes for hours.

It struck me that this is truly in an evolutionary moment. As in, survival of the fittest. But what is fitness now, in this situation?

Surviving the first wave had much to do with luck – or karma if you wish. We did ok if we weren’t in a nursing home or on a cruise ship. If we weren’t a New York City bus driver. It helped if we were young and healthy, were not homeless, and didn’t have to work in a meat packing plant. It helped to be distant from the first epicenters while scientists worked out aerosol transmission and our current distance and mask protocols.

But now, a year after the first appearance of the virus, when everyone knows the guidelines, what attributes give us the greatest chance of survival? I’m thinking just of western nations for now, for I don’t know much about the cultural dynamics of places like China or Korea. What are the attributes that will keep us alive?

The first thing that comes to mind is compassion, a concern for others, born, at a minimum, of an understanding that we are all in this together – that no one survives by themselves. We wear  a mask, not just for ourselves but for the grocery worker who stocks the shelves with toilet paper. It’s the opposite of the adolescent, “You’re not the boss of me,” concept of freedom which lies close to the core of the dismal failure of the US effort to contain the virus.

In addition to an open heart, it helps to have an open mind, open to evidence and not locked into concepts, blind beliefs, or dogma. A South Dakota nurse recently lamented that some of her patients have died proclaiming that covid is a hoax.

And finally, despite the teachings of “positive psychology,” there seem to be times when pessimism is an asset. A few years ago, I heard a discussion on NPR, of research, including a study by the American Psychological Association, that pessimists may live longer – if we are worried about our health, we may guard it more carefully. “Two of our hunter-gatherer ancestors are caught in a violent storm, but see a dry cave on a ledge above them,” said the narrator. “One of them says, ‘Oh look, a dry cave!’ The other hunter says, ‘I don’t know…there might be a bear inside.’ Which hunter is more likely to live long enough to pass on his genes?”

I find it interesting that two of the western nations that have best contained covid-19, New Zealand and Iceland, are islands, while Hawaii has consistently been at the top of American states in that regard. According to today’s (Nov. 22) New York Times update, they have again been at the lowest level, of 10 or fewer daily infections per 100,000 people over the last week. There’s no way to prove it, but my hunch is that residents of an island know that they’re all in this together more viscerally than we on the mainland can.

Meanwhile, on the mainland, as the pandemic rages out of control and even our best prepared hospitals are likely to be overwhelmed, our public response is irresponsible travel and hoarding toilet paper. Our mythic, “American Exceptionalism” has come to mean exceptionally stupid. I am reminded of the challenge back in the ’60’s as the Vietnam war raged: “America – love it, or leave it.”

It’s easy now to think that leaving, if and when other nations would even have us, is a reasonable survival strategy. And yet that part of me with roots deep in this land, that grew up feeling pride in this nation, can only offer the same response we gave in the ’60’s: “America – change it or lose it.”

7 thoughts on “2020 Notes: Survival of…

  1. Good post. I’ve been seeing the same news (including the woman who died by Covid 19, still denying its existence), and I have to wonder what people are thinking. I get that, being selfish, they may not be thinking of the other passengers or the workers in airports, etc. But what about the loved ones they are joining for the holiday? Don’t they realize they could kill people they love within the next 14 days? That people they love might be unwitting carriers and kill them? I know risk-takers take risks with a sort of Russian Roulette mentality, but does the US really have that many risk takers? And can so many truly disbelieve that Covid 19 exists? It seems I am always shaking my head at the news these days. I liked the conclusion of your article — although I wouldn’t rule out completely “love it AND leave it” if things continue to get worse.

    Liked by 2 people

    • There is much I cannot even begin to understand. One factor in covid denial has to be living in alternate realities based on sticking to radically different news sources. Remember when someone sued Tucker Carlson for liable, and the suit was dismissed with the argument that his show was entertainment, since no rational person would consider it news? Of course many do. And I do know one ex-pat who was very glad to be out of the country when the pandemic took off…

      Liked by 2 people

  2. We live in interesting times, but I could use a little less interesting right now. I can’t imagine what drives people to so soundly ignore science and put themselves and others in harm’s way. I have a lot of friends from high school who are on the other side of the political spectrum and rail against mask mandates. Shaking my head here. Thanks for a well-written, well-thought-out post.


    • One thing you brought to mind was how, in our last major crisis, 9/11, we wanted a leader to tell us things were going to be alright, and Bush stepped into that role. He was at ground zero, telling us we could get through it if we pulled together, and because of that, no one ever complained that taking off their shoes at the airport violated their freedom. Soon enough he squandered national and international goodwill by invading Iraq, but initially he had it. If Trump had done something similar, empaneled a body of experts, listened to them, and modeled their advice, he would have easily won re-election because we would not be in the straits we’re in, but he is totally lacking in the co-operation gene.

      Interestingly, I happened upon an article from Psychology Today, “Are Americans Just Stupid?” that was posted on Oct. 4, soon after the first Presidential “debate?” The answer was no, one can be smart and clueless. Factors given were economic, educational, and the anti-intellectual bias of fundamentalist religion. Interesting but I still don’t think the article went far enough.

      Authoritarian regimes are on the rise worldwide. The world is changing. I think we all know that for good or ill, “the old days” are never coming back. People without a center of gravity look outside for someone to tell them what to make of it and what to do. I think it’s not stupidity but real fear that leads people to cling to a skillful snake oil salesman, like Jim Jones or Donald Trump. This is the place for an H.L. Mencken quote, but that would be too depressing…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The UK government has encouraged a similar belief, British exceptionalism, by its pursuit of the Brexit chimaera and appeal to wartime spirit — and despite being an island we have not capitalised on its advantages the way NZ and Hawaii have. Despite the best efforts of pessimists and realists here too many are also infected by the same misinformation that you have been. It’s dispiriting.


    • Thanks for your perspective. Just this past week, on our Public Broadcasting Network, there was a piece about Scottish separatists. I wonder if those kind of divisions are part of the issue?

      At the same time, one of the commentators on the same show said she had imagined it would take a “real crisis” to heal our divisions, but now that we have one, it still hasn’t accomplished much healing. I fear things may have to get a lot worse first…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Scottish nationalism has been around for at least 300 years, ever since the Act of Union in 1707, or even 1603 Treaty of Union. The actions of Parliaments in Westminster, dominated by England, have increasingly amplified the demand not just for devolution (which Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland nominally have had for a quarter of a century) but for full-blown independence. And it is English nationalism that has largely pushed for Brexit, not the other constituent nations which would see the EU as ‘a good thing’ if it were not for this government’s corrosive propaganda.

        And the Covid crisis that may have healed divisions — because we may have agreed we were ‘all in this together’ — was mismanaged from the start by ideology, corruption, cronyism and every demonstration that in reality we weren’t all in this together, that some were more equal than others…

        But then, all these kinds of blatant nonsense and demagoguery come as no surprise where your own last four years are concerned. At least you may see a possible end to it; we don’t have that hope.


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