COVID-19 Controversies and Communitarianism

by | Aug 3, 2020

COVID-19 Controversies and Communitarianism

by | Aug 3, 2020

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The ongoing controversies swirling about COVID-19 continue to confound me. Not the fact that questions have been posed and “conspiracies” rejected but, rather, that many parties on both sides of every COVID-19 divide—regarding lockdowns, masks, vaccines, whether children should go to school and healthy people should go to work, etc.—appear to be thoroughly convinced that the truth is on their side and that those who disagree with them are “nut cases.” Of course, the same is true about most any dispute on social media today, but when it comes to COVID-19, the adherents to various “self-evident tenets” have achieved a new and more vicious degree of smug sanctimoniousness.

On the one hand, we have people who seem truly to be convinced that those who don masks are Jesus-like characters who engage in “radical acts of kindness,” as one person on my Facebook timeline characterized them, including, apparently, herself. On the other hand, we have people who guffaw at the sight of face-masked persons sunbathing on a vast expanse of sandy beach or while driving all alone in their cars, windows rolled up. Surely there are facts, grounded in science, to consider, but proponents of masks are so convinced that The ScienceTM is on their side that they facilely (and fallaciously) slide between interpretations according to which those who refuse to wear masks are evil, selfish, stupid and/or ignorant. Common sense would certainly seem to dictate that illnesses can be transmitted through saliva—is that not in fact why restaurants sterilize glassware and eating utensils? But the COVID-19 mask controversy was considerably exacerbated by the government’s own mixed messages on the topic. Even pandemic guru Anthony Fauci appeared in an early 2020 YouTube clip in which he stated that masks were unnecessary and mainly for show, serving to make people feel better psychologically. Later, after the video had already gone viral, Fauci’s claim was clarified as an attempt to mitigate a PPE shortage among health professionals.

I am less interested in questions such as whether masks diminish the incidence of disease (obviously surgeons wear “surgical masks” to prevent sepsis in the persons into whom they slice), or whether molecules do in fact disperse and diffuse rapidly in open volumes of air (see: Chemistry 101), than in why people are so vehement in their disagreement over whether and where masks should be required by law. From the beginning, the characterization of COVID-19 as a “pandemic” seems to have conjured in many people’s minds images of wheelbarrows rolling through the neighborhood to collect corpses. (I suspect that to this day some people continue to check their bodies for oozing boils.) Nothing of the sort has of course occurred, and the risk of death to anyone under fifty years of age is lower than the risk of death associated with all sorts of activities in which we regularly engage. No wonder young people are not worried. They are not being reckless at all when they go out with friends. Are they being selfish, as the mask brigade maintains?

At one point I attempted to reason with some people on Facebook who were denouncing as “evil” (in a refrain reminiscent of ancient Greek tragedy) those who do not wear masks. Among other things, I observed that, in fact, contrary to the apparent beliefs of the pro-mask chorus, not everyone who does not wear a mask lives in the United States and worships Donald Trump, who famously “opted” not to wear a mask for months. This was met with a flurry of denunciatory responses, until I revealed that I myself had in fact been wearing a mask, at which point I became “evil, stupid, ignorant, and/or selfish” for entertaining the possibility that other people might hold slightly different beliefs. RIP civil discourse in the twenty-first century world of social media. Alas, as virtual and physical reality converge, fueled by an amorphous blob of pseudo-information, fake news, propaganda memes, omissive charts, incommensurable data and, above all, emotive outbursts, the verbal violence has been acted upon by some. Mask shaming in the states now takes the form of people attacking people who call out the unmasked and, for their part, mask wearers joining forces to shout people out of stores who dare to enter without what are regarded as appropriate prophylactic coverings.

I was in Austria for more than half of 2020, at the height of the Coronapocalypse, where the incidence of the virus has been quite low and the death toll still hovers just under 700. I know, I know: 700 dead people who need not have died, if only… (If only what? If all men were not mortal, perhaps?) Why was the situation so much less dire in Austria than in Italy, Spain, or France? My best guess is that the powers that be effectively locked down their elderly care facilities and did not, as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo did, send persons infected with COVID-19 into nursing homes to convalesce, thereby directly causing thousands of excess deaths. No one intended to kill those people, of course, but given the precedents in Italy and Spain, where healthcare workers proved to be the primary transmitters of the disease, having not been tested unless they exhibited symptoms, it seems not unreasonable to characterize Cuomo’s action as negligent, at best.

Cuomo is not alone in having imposed government measures which will end by increasing the rate of death of some of the persons supposedly being protected. When for months hospitals refused to admit or treat any patients who did not exhibit acute COVID-19 symptoms, they were turning away thousands of persons with heart problems, minor strokes, and developing cancer whose lives will end earlier than they might have, had they received medical treatment in a timely way. In other words, not all of the excess deaths recorded will be due to COVID-19 itself; some will have been caused by government policies implemented in response to the disease. Small wonder that the latest U.S. stimulus bill will contain broad immunity clauses preventing lawsuits regarding COVID-19.

In Austria, the situation seemed to be largely under control by June, at which point the mask requirement in indoor places was lifted, allowing me to travel happily about the country as a tourist without having to deal with the usual summer mobs, as places of business were open, while the borders remained closed. Masks continued to be required on public transport, but it was plain to see by mid-June that many people in Vienna were not at all concerned about COVID-19, for they often stepped onto trains and trams with no mask anywhere near their face. They might take five minutes fumbling around finding their mask in their bag, then fumble around some more while getting their mask on. In some cases, they would then proceed to remove the mask, in order to eat a piece of pizza or some other snack. They talked and laughed and sometimes coughed with their friends as they entered the closed space (and while munching), with no apparent recognition that the whole purpose of the mask requirement was to prevent their saliva from infecting fellow passengers with the dreaded disease. I must say that I find it somewhat amusing that there were three simple ways legally to evade the mask requirement in Austria while avoiding the risk of a 50 euro fine: always be eating; always be drinking; or, oddly enough, always be smoking. So a non-smoker could always get around the mask requirement by spending time in a smoking area. I’ll leave that one for you to parse.

I also noticed that in the markets, museums, and shopping centers, almost no one actually observed the government’s ongoing recommendation to adhere to social distancing or “Abstand,” despite the brightly colored circles glued on the floor nearly everywhere to indicate how far people were supposed to be staying away from one another. (Does anyone have any idea where and how all of those circular floor stickers were produced and applied, apparently all over the world, during the lockdowns? Just curious.) I noticed the lack of adherence to social distancing guidelines especially on escalators, which are probably the easiest place to gauge whether anyone is making any attempt whatsoever to keep their distance, given that it is so straightforward to do in that case. I tend to mount an escalator two or three steps behind the person in front of me anyway, because I find it rude to breathe down someone’s neck, but in the midst of the “global pandemic” said to necessitate the closure of all European borders, both internal and external, people were there, right behind me on the escalator, unmasked and breathing down my neck. The idea that such persons might be evil, stupid, ignorant and/or selfish never crossed my mind. They simply did not believe that they were in any real danger, nor that they were endangering anyone else.

Even more strident than the “I am Jesus” mask wearers are those agitating for universal vaccination. This is another source of ongoing perplexity to me, as many of those who sing the praises of vaccines as the only solution to the crisis also vociferously maintain, sometimes in the very same breath (filtered through a mask), that herd immunity is not possible with COVID-19, because of its mutating quality. This is conclusively demonstrated, they say, by cases in South Korea where recovered patients became ill again with COVID-19 later on down the line. So let me get this straight: herd immunity is not possible, but the bars in Massachusetts will remain closed until such time as an effective vaccine exists? (Is this some sort of sly backdoor route to reinstating Prohibition, I have to wonder?) In pointing out that vaccines are in effect a fast-track to herd immunity, and so, if the latter is not possible, then the former is a pipe dream, I appear to have upset some people on Twitter, one of whom abruptly announced that he would no longer be continuing our discussion because he disagreed with my view on vaccines. What? Who knew that I had “a view” about vaccines? Is it really all or nothing? May I not express a modicum of skepticism about the prospects for a COVID-19 vaccine while simultaneously affirming that I am indeed glad that I got the yellow fever vaccine before going to Ghana (even though I was quite ill for about five days), because then once in Africa I knew I was safe from that disease? No, apparently a person who raises questions about the feasibility of an experimental vaccine for dealing with a virus for which some claim herd immunity cannot be achieved must be categorically denounced as an anti-vax “nut case.” My aim was not to denounce universally the very idea of vaccines, but to make a much more modest, purely logical, claim: not (p & not-p). Either herd immunity is possible, in which case the surge in cases across the United States suggests that we are well on our way to achieving it, or it is impossible, in which case the prospects for an effective vaccine seem quite dim, no matter how many dozens (hundreds?) of companies may be aggressively recruiting volunteers for experimental trials of what they hope to be the miracle eradicator of the dreaded disease.

In several contexts, I have heard seniors lashing out against “selfish” young people for congregating together in public places—at concerts, on beaches, in clubs and parks, and … at work!—which naturally raises yet another quandary in my skeptical mind. Who is being selfish here, really? My impression is that elderly persons, who are quite right to stay home in order to protect themselves, appear to misunderstand the nature of the world which they have created and are leaving behind for young people. What could be more selfish than to destroy the livelihood of millennials who have been eking out their existence in what has become a piecemeal gig economy—with no house or pension anywhere in sight, and short-term contracts to earn just enough money to survive while whittling slowly away at their quasi-eternal student debt? If all of the people attempting to go back to work had neither rent payments nor student debt, then it might be reasonable to ask them to take even more time off. But when financial insecurity reaches the point where even having a roof over one’s head becomes tentative, when the tent industry becomes a hot stock option, then that is where it seems time to draw the line.

To reiterate: those who are at a substantial risk of death from COVID-19 should, by all means, stay at home (which many of them do in fact own). They can freely decide for themselves whether visiting with young family members is worth the risk of being infected by the disease, given its specific targeting of advanced seniors. But how does preventing young people from living their lives offer any extra protection to those who are already in reclusion, terrified as they are (and in some cases rightly so) to step outside? Answer: it does not. If you are disinfecting everything which comes your way and refusing entry to anyone into your home, then why should you care whether other people go back to school and return to work?

Now it does sound as though I am taking sides. But what I have concluded after a great deal of reflection is that the extreme measures taken by governments the world over to protect a tiny portion of the population fly in the face of the more general ethos of modern-day Western society. For better or for worse, we have found ourselves in a world where people are held responsible for their failures and given credit for their success. We do not live in a communitarian society, where economic equality is imposed and maintained by the state or by mutual agreement of the group. In our liberal capitalist society, when the government itself prevents people from succeeding, by making their only possible source of gainful employment illegal, then those people are doomed to fail, not due to their own moral flaws but because they have been prohibited from doing what they would otherwise have done.

The untenable scenario in which young, healthy people have found themselves is what I take to be the best explanation for the magnitude and range of indiscriminately violent protests across the United States. People are not looting Chanel boutiques in search of bread or criminal justice. Rather, communities all across the United States are literally exploding under pressure. They have nothing to lose and so are striking out in outrage, not so much because of the murder of George Floyd (why did these riots not happen, to this extent, in response to the many African Americans killed by police officers before George Floyd?), but in an expression of frustration and anger and, above all, fear about their uncertain future. Millions of persons (hundreds of thousands in California alone) are at serious risk of being evicted from their homes. While some states have implemented measures which will allow rent and mortgage payments to be postponed, they will have to be paid eventually, which means that those who were only barely getting by will not be able to catch up.

Whose interests matter most, in the end? When the advanced seniors with empty vacation properties decide to share their resources (in “acts of radical kindness”) with the people being impoverished, and in some cases rendered homeless, as a result of government measures designed to protect those most vulnerable to COVID-19 at the expense of everyone else, then they will be practicing the communitarianism which they preach. I don’t see that happening in my lifetime.

About Laurie Calhoun

Laurie Calhoun is the author of We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, War and Delusion: A Critical Examination, You Can Leave, and Philosophy Unmasked: A Skeptic's Critique.

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