One truth is irrefutable, amid all the fevered and absurdly polarized debate about lockdowns and returns to normalcy, the social-media shaming, the absurd assumption that you have to pick a side between public health policy and individual liberty and then defend it not with nuance but to the death. With a perfect, exception-free lockdown and all humans isolated from each other, the scourge of COVID-19 would be wiped from the globe in a few short weeks. We then could open our doors and go about our business as usual.
Such a lockdown, of course, is beyond our capability. If there’s one thing we all have learned these last few weeks, it is that we can’t stop doing what we do. Given how we have designed our society, it is impossible to pause.
Sure, we can and do stop individually. We go away, reflect, plan, spend time with family, chill out, deepen, think, plan for the rest of our lives. People have health crises and need to convalesce; the privileged take vacations or sabbaticals or take a year off to backpack around the world. We can stop for a while by ourselves, especially when young.
But we cannot pause collectively, even though this crisis actually would have been solved by figuring out how to stop together even for a few weeks. (This just in: We failed.)
This inability flies in the face of evolved common sense. Would it not be better for all colleges to close for a year rather than offer diminished experiences on Zoom? Why don’t restaurants just take a year off rather than keep making and scrapping plans for restarting with plastic barriers between tables? Why all of this effort to get Major League Baseball back up and running, even without the presence of the very fans who are the reason for its existence?
You know the answer. America is just not set up to go dark, even for a while. Universities need tuition or their campuses fall apart. Businesses need revenue or they go bankrupt. Planes are built to stay in the air nonstop, otherwise they run into maintenance trouble. Broadway needs eight shows a week or the industry is dead in the water. Kaput. Our economic models all are based on nonstop action.
The economics of the cruise industry requires ships to dock and set sail again in a matter of hours. That’s why Carnival or Norwegian desperately want to restart cruises before most of us would be comfortable going on one. They want to survive. That is the only way they know how. Shaming cruise lines (and a lot of people are shaming cruise lines) merely misunderstands that they are in an existential crisis and, like you, disinclined to lay down and die. Which does not make them good for our collective health.
If you did not know about our inability to take a break before, you do now.
We are all getting a dizzying crash course in just how small are the cash reserves that even the most profitable businesses maintain. Up until March, most people thought that a hotel chain could mothball itself for six months, keep most of its employees and be fine. Not true. A few months of no revenue and you disappear. To close, even for a few months, means to risk destruction.
And that’s why this moment is not marked by an increased feeling of togetherness but howling, polarized dissent. People scream at each other about wearing masks without understanding that neither side is really admitting the real problem. One side argues for extending lockdowns without fully comprehending the level of destruction that creates; the other side argues for jumping back into life while inevitably downplaying the risk to human life and infuriating their fellow Americans. We all stop talking about death rates when our mother is at risk.
What’s needed here is good old critical thinking, weighing and balancing. We need values-driven debate and we need it fast. Along with the civic reopening plans and charts created by management consultants, we need open conversation. We must be willing to talk about the paradox of a country built on the glorious concept of individual freedoms and the pursuit of happiness trying to weigh what that means when we’re confronted with a highly infectious disease that strikes at that core like a venomous viper. Check your favorite news source or social-media feed. Few people are dealing with that; they’re just boosting one side or the other.
Yet there will not be an agreed upon moment of safety (even after a vaccine) and to assume that one is coming our way is naive. How we proceed from here will be determinant on our individual tolerance for risk and our decision on how to weigh our own fate in concert with the impact of our actions on others.
Enough with the media-induced shocks and binaries. Where are the speeches from smart folks on these tough and paradoxical topics? We need ethicists as badly as we need epidemiologists right now.
Anyone paying attention is rapidly becoming aware that the great story of COVID-19 most likely won’t be the time of human reflection, heroism and idealism it might have been, especially had the government been helping individuals more than institutions. Instead, it will be a scrambling of the existing power structure that will create its own winners and losers. And that means you can’t even stop individually, lest you find yourself on a furlough that turns out to be permanent.
For most people, the need to keep churning out product is turning into a kind of 21st-century tyranny. Or maybe this is just the latest messy crucible for the All-American brilliance at crisis-based reinvention.
Either way, it’s the world we have made for ourselves. That doesn’t seem to be changing.
Chris Jones is chief theater critic and culture columnist for the Chicago Tribune.