May 25, 2020
by Lynda Hopkins, 5th District Supervisor - Sonoma County
COVID-19 does not give a damn about you. It does not care about your beliefs. It does not care whether you voted for Trump or Joe, Bernie or Hillary, Obama or McCain or whether you plan to write in Snoopy for President come November.
To the people who think that COVID-19 is a fabrication and there was no reason whatsoever to take drastic action to slow the spread of the disease: epidemiology disagrees.
To the people who think we should remain in our homes forever, with no lifting of restrictions: I respectfully disagree.
Considering business-as-usual vs. hermitage, neither extreme is feasible. Extreme viewpoints rarely are. So what do we do? We try to find the space that most of us live in every day: the space above zero risk, but below unacceptable risk. We reopen gradually, in phases, in order to monitor the impact of our decisions; we use real-time regional data as our guide; we acknowledge up front that we will need to adjust course as we go forward.
Humans have set sail into the unknown for millennia. And one of the most basic forms of wayfinding at sea is called “dead reckoning.” What this means is: you take your last known location, estimate the wind speed, estimate any countervailing currents, and plot your course on a map over time using basic geometry. (Spoiler alert: where you end up is rarely where you think you will.) Which is why, when you’re dead reckoning, you need to keep taking your bearings as often as you can. You chart the stars. You record the precise moment when the sun reaches its zenith in the sky. You triangulate your location each night based on fiery balls of gas trillions of miles away.
The entire planet is dead reckoning its way through the pandemic right now. We haven’t yet invented the equivalent of GPS for this thing, the magic technology that pinpoints exactly where we are and exactly where we should go. Our epidemiological modeling may be more sophisticated than basic geometry but at the end of the day, it’s the flow of real-time data, of realizing where we are right now, that matters the most.
The thought of our world dead reckoning its way through a pandemic may be tough to think about. Human beings have always been pretty wretched at dealing with uncertainty. And we have a hard time facing unfathomable forces — especially forces that operate in superhuman or inhuman ways. This is why there are myths to explain lightning, thunder, volcanoes, love. This is why history has had its fair share of witch hunts and exorcisms.
There has to be something that causes suffering, right? There has to be something we can fight, something we can blame, something we can fix. By nature, we are fixers, problem solvers.
We look always to the future, where we desire certainty, or at least hope. In the absence of a certain or hopeful future, we at least want a plan. (A plan, maybe, that could give us at least a little more certainty or hope.)
But there isn’t certainty right now. There isn’t even a precise plan. There are just a bunch of different overlapping levels of government (international, federal, state, local, schools, law enforcement) trying to figure out how to move us all forward, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, week by week. There is just the urgent overwhelming desire to preserve society, humanity, and the economy. There is just a coronavirus spreading through our species at a time in which both data and humans move faster than at any other point in our history. This microscopic virus with its little crown of spike proteins that bind to your cells and turn your body’s own building blocks into virus-producing factories has consequences we are just beginning to fathom. Consequences that range from new outbreaks of MIS-C in children; to the virtualization of work and education; the collapsing demand for commercial office space; the ravaging of sectors of our economy that rely on human-to-human interaction; the exposure of all of our safety net’s weaknesses; the re-exposure of decades of racial inequities; the deepening, if that were possible, of the partisan divide in our country.
So what do we do, faced with heavy consequences at every turn, as we stare down this invisible invader that remains beyond our complete comprehension?
We must stop the mythology. We must stop burning witches. We must listen to facts shared by established experts. We must not, should not, stop questioning anyone — not experts, not politicians, not acquaintances, friends, or family. But as we question and query, we can do so in a civil way. We can acknowledge expertise, and balance critique of that expertise with other expertise and thoughtful discourse — rather than with memes and one-liners and willful ignorance.
I have learned that in times of disasters individual human beings show who they really are. Faced with a crisis, we seem to become more of whoever we were before the crisis. Who are we? Now is the time to decide. COVID-19 may not give a damn, but individual people can.
On a ship in the middle of the ocean, charting an uncertain course, sometimes the most important person on the boat isn’t the captain. It’s the cook, the musician, the friend who holds your hair when you’re seasick over the leeward rail. Kindness matters; art matters; food matters. May we all take care of one another and cherish our common humanity in these uncertain times.
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