Is Despair the Hidden American Superspreader?

by Keaton Weiss

As coronavirus cases surge throughout the country and the death toll climbs by thousands per day, it seems, as widely predicted, that Americans are staring down what will likely be the darkest and deadliest winter of our lifetimes. If we stand any chance of mitigating the suffering that awaits us, we must all take it upon ourselves to take necessary safety precautions and stop the spread. Social distancing, mask wearing, and minimizing in-person contact are all tried and true methods of accomplishing this – so why aren’t more of us doing it?

By now, we’ve all heard of the COVIDIOT: the stereotypical right-wing, Gadsen flag-waving Trumpster who refuses to wear a mask because he finds being asked to do so an infringement upon his individual freedoms. Sure, these people exist, and yes, they’re a large factor in America’s failure to contain this virus. But they’re not the only factor. They can’t be; there aren’t enough of them to make them solely responsible for the staggering case numbers we’re experiencing. According to a recent HealthDay/Harris Poll cited by WebMD, over 90% of Americans say they sometimes, often, or always wear a mask when they leave their homes and cannot properly social distance, with 72% of them answering always.

So if masking up is as effective as the science suggests (and we have no reason to believe it isn’t), and an overwhelming majority of Americans say they always wear masks in accordance with safety guidelines, then why is this virus still raging out of control? Perhaps many Americans who say they wear masks all the time, actually don’t. And perhaps these people aren’t lying when they say do. Perhaps, when they consciously perceive the threat of contracting and/or spreading the virus to be real, they pull their masks up from their chins or out of their coat pockets. Perhaps, though, they don’t experience this conscious fear of Covid very often, and so they actually wear masks far less consistently than they say they do, unwittingly contributing to the spread of the disease.

To many of us, it’s unfathomable that such large swaths of the population can walk around relatively unmoved by, and unconscious of, the chance they might become infected with the coronavirus. No event in modern history has disrupted American life more dramatically, and so, at first, it seems ludicrous to suggest that millions of Americans simply don’t pay it much attention.

But the more you think about it, the less outrageous this theory becomes. Don’t forget, the working class was never really in lockdown. Many of them are essential workers: grocers, truck drivers, warehouse employees, gas station attendants, etc. Many who aren’t essential workers either remained employed in limited capacity throughout the duration of the crisis, or returned to work once their places of business (restaurants, hair salons, etc.) reopened. They never got to hunker down and work from home off of their laptops, order delivery on GrubHub and UberEats, and consume the unending barrage of media that tells them how worried they ought to be and how diligently they must protect themselves from becoming infected. They did what most workers do everyday, pandemic or no pandemic: they get up, they go to work, they come home, have dinner, play with the kids or watch a little TV, and go to sleep.

To much of America, Covid is just another thing that’s out there in the world somewhere. Maybe near, maybe far, maybe in the house next door. But it’s somewhere out there. Out there in a world they can’t control; a world they have no say in; a world that doesn’t care about them, and never has, and never will. And so, yes, they’ll wear the mask when they have to. Sometimes they’ll wear it properly so it covers their nose and mouth. Sometimes they’ll wear it around their chin and forget about it until they’ve been reminded by someone to pull it back up over their face. And sometimes they’ll forget about it altogether, because none of what’s going on right now means as much to them as we think it ought to.

And so while it’s true that America’s failure to contain the virus has much to do with our society’s emphasis on “rugged individualism” and our lack of investment in each other’s well being, the larger problem might just be the widening gap between how we as Americans value our own lives.

Remember, deaths of despair had been on the rise for 20 years before this pandemic struck. Suicides, opioid overdoses, and alcohol-related illnesses have been sharply increasing these past two decades, particularly among those without a college degree. Mental illness is growing in occurrence and severity among those without a higher education, and chronic pain is now more widely reported among the middle-aged than the elderly.

A Pew Research study in March of 2019 found majorities of Americans feeling their country was declining in all sorts of ways. 73% said that income inequality was likely to worsen in the coming years. 59% predicted environmental deterioration. Over 80% believed that by the time they retire, Social Security will pay out reduced benefits or none at all. 37% predicted their jobs will be automated out of existence, including 47% of those without a college education. 62% believed the lower class would increase in size. 44% believed the average American family’s standard of living would worsen in the years to come, vs. only 20% who believed it would improve.

Now suppose that survey were conducted one year later, at the start of the pandemic. Where would attitudes on Covid fall in the study? The answer: somewhere. It would just be one more problem on the minds of a population so exhausted, so beaten down, and so devoid of hope and purpose, that 74 million of them would vote to re-elect the president who proved his total indifference to the immense suffering this virus has already inflicted upon the people he took an oath to protect.

The professional class liberal who went to college, got that great job they always wanted, and now earns six figures in his pajamas and has his groceries dropped at his doorstep, is as baffled by Trump’s vote total as he is by how so many people can be so carefree about Covid. This is because he lives in a completely different world than those for whom he harbors this contempt. He lives in a world where being alive means something; where we all have a stake in the outcome of this crisis; where “Build Back Better” is a mission statement, not a laugh line. He lives in a world where it’s safe to assume that everyone has some investment in their future. And so to him, this is an emergency that requires extreme, round-the-clock vigilance. We must defeat this virus now so that we can get back to our lives that have been placed on hold these past nine months.

To millions of his fellow countrymen, though, these ideas mean nothing. The existential dread that’s fallen upon the comfortable classes now that their lives’ trajectories are a tad more precarious than than they were in February is the same feeling their working class counterparts have grown accustomed to over the past 40 years, only under worse (and worsening) material conditions. Those nagging thoughts of theirs, like What if this never ends? What if this never gets better? What if my life just stops? Well, the 63% of Americans who couldn’t afford a $500 emergency before the pandemic have gotten so used to wrestling with those questions that they hardly think about them anymore.

And so their failure to wear their masks, and maintain social distancing, and sing the Happy Birthday song to themselves every time they wash their hands, is not an act of defiance or malice, but of despair. They just don’t think to do it, because it just doesn’t matter all that much to them.

And before you lecture them about why it should, and why they’re selfish for not considering the effects of their behavior, you should stop and ask yourselves if you can honestly blame them for feeling this way, or if perhaps you’re the selfish ones for insisting they take more care. After all, is it not selfish of you to perpetuate a system that renders majorities of its population so hopeless as to condemn themselves and their fellow citizens to such a bleak prognosis? Is it not selfish to try and rally this same population behind empty phrases like “we’re all in this together” when your Thai food is being brought to your door by a single mother who hasn’t slept in 20 hours and whose daughter is riding with her in the back seat while she makes her deliveries? Is it not selfish to demand the rest of the country lock itself down without any universal basic income or healthcare coverage while your livelihood remains intact via Slack and Zoom and Gmail? Is this whole societal arrangement that has so clearly benefited the few at the many’s expense not modeled on selfishness?

And so, however emotionally gratifying it may be to blame the spread of the coronavirus on those we deem inferior (the selfish, the COVIDIOTS, the anti-vaxxers, etc.), we ought to consider that despair, exhaustion, and existential malaise may be just as culpable as anything else, and that those who have fallen victim to these ills are not our inferiors, but our equals. And if we want their help in pulling us through this crisis, we must commit to them our recognition of them as such, both now, and long after this pandemic is over.

Photo: Alberto Giuliani

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