Don’t wave the white flag

“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” —Charles Baudelaire

I want to express my gratitude to everyone who continues social distancing, wearing a face covering and washing your hands to protect the most vulnerable from the threat of COVID-19. In doing so, you are being thoughtful and intelligent. The sacrifices we’ve made represent an incredible public health achievement. The direction of the pandemic is in all of our hands, so let’s please keep washing those hands.

We’ve paid a heavy price. We’re exhausted, cranky, worried and we’ve been consumed by a great deal of uncertainty. Tomorrow marks a hundred days since Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey declared a public health emergency as the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) received its first positive test result for a case of COVID-19 in an Alabama resident.

Looking around, you might not even be able to tell that we are still in the midst of a global pandemic, even as 17 people in DeKalb County learned on Tuesday that they had been infected by the virus. More than 350 of our friends and neighbors have tested positive since March 26.

Coronavirus quarantine fatigue is a real thing. While it’s nice to spin this period as a blessing in disguise or a time of reflection and improvement, we know it’s not that simple. When the scientists say, “But wait, there’s more…” and reveal that we won’t be able to salvage any enjoyment out of 2020, the mind just revolts. We think, “Well, that’s just not going to work! This coronavirus is disrespecting my rights as an American to work and play!”

Unfortunately, COVID-19 doesn’t care about your social calendar. It’s not intimidated by insults or obliterated by our missiles and bombs. We can’t negotiate for it to surrender. Our only option is to starve the beast of fresh bodies to infect until we have a vaccine and treatment developed to eradicate it like a flamethrower flushing an enemy out of the brush. But we can only be so successful because some refuse to participate in the effort and thus undermine all for which we have sacrificed.

COVID-19 is a silent, invisible killer that takes advantage of our lack of resolve. We know that some people don’t develop symptoms. To those most affected, it suffocates a person in his or her own fluids. At the rate it is spreading, soon we’ll all know someone who has had it and, sadly, some of us already know multiple people who’ve died from it.

What must we do to endure? Whatever it takes! Even if it is inconvenient, uncomfortable or totally messes up our totally rad summer vacation plans.

I understand this is depressing stuff. I’m tired of writing about it, thinking about it. It’s heartbreaking to see people disregard information that can potentially save their lives. I understand how someone can be confused and think it’s over when our governor essentially admits that some people are going to die so that others can go out to eat at Olive Garden.

We watched on the TV nightly as New York City overcame an epidemic that spread like wildfire, flattening that curve to delay onset of cases so that the availability of health care services is maintained and none of these services are overwhelmed by a sudden increase in the number of cases. We jumped at the chance to presume that NYC’s triumph meant victory and things here were safe enough to jump back into daily life and attend larger gatherings. But as the governor was fond of pointing out at the time, Alabama isn’t one of those large population centers, and decisions need to be made locally based on what is happening within the community regarding disease transmission. It took a while for COVID to sink its claws in here, but now case numbers suggest that DeKalb County is crawling with coronavirus infections. If they go up dramatically, more intensive mitigation efforts such as what were implemented in March may be needed again. I don’t see that happening in an election year, though. The thing is, we, collectively, will determine whether everything shuts down again tomorrow based on how responsibly we behave today.

The more closely you interact with others, the longer the interaction lasts and the greater the number of people involved in the interaction, the higher the risk of spread. You can avoid getting infected by social distancing as much as possible, maintaining a distance of at least six feet from other people, washing your hands or using an alcohol-based hand cleaner on a regular basis and wearing a face covering in public to protect those most vulnerable to severe disease.

I got into a lengthy discussion with a friend on Facebook this week (they should rename it “Arguebook”), discussing where personal freedoms end and responsibility to community begins. My friend insisted that it’s entirely her choice whether or not to wear a protective facemask in public. Her attitude was basically “I do what I want, to hell with everyone else.”

Call me a “snowflake” or whatever you want. I could care less. Not wearing a mask is denying the facts. The ugly reality of 2020 is that we are getting to see who doesn’t care about other people.

It’s not about you, it’s about the respect and rights of others, to include your own family, your friends, and the family of your friends, plus any person around you to include their rights to live. As my friend said, “It’s no more than when you get an inspection sticker for your car to make sure you don’t injure someone on the road from driving a faulty car that can cause an accident if not maintained properly. Do you have a license plate on your car? An inspection sticker? Do you wear a seat belt in your car? Or is it your right not to comply to all the above? If you can wear a seatbelt, if you expect others to not drink and drive, if you expect others to keep their mouths shut while you enjoy a movie, and the list goes on, why is it so hard, for the sake of others, to wear a mask when needed or required?”

Here’s the bottom line: Friends and family who I love must deal with the public on a daily basis. Some of those people are being thoughtless, hateful even. A man insulted me as “one of them people” for wearing a mask. He called me a sheep, but he is the one being guided toward the slaughterhouse.

Some conspiracy theorists argue that the coronavirus might have been bio-engineered in a lab in Wuhan, China. Our reaction to COVID-19 has made biological warfare seem like a more enticing option to nations that could never beat America on a conventional battlefield. Throw in some provocations triggering ethnic and class divisions and you witness riots in the streets of America. We should all be concerned that our enemies now have a template, a recipe, for mass disruption and death. Americans’ sense of entitlement is a weakness our enemies can exploit as a vulnerability. I mean, just look at us now, arguing amongst ourselves whether a virus that’s rapidly spreading is even real and attacking “the media” for stirring things up under the theory that our own government is somehow using the disorder to control us.

It doesn’t feel like this government is in control of much anything right now. We aren’t leading the world in attacking this disease like we have with past epidemics. We successfully contained Zika, Middle East respiratory syndrome and Ebola. Between April 2009 and April 2010, the H1N1 swine flu killed an estimated 12,469 Americans. That seems quaint as we approach 118,000 dead.

Don’t fall asleep at the wheel, Alabama. If anything, we must be over-prepared for what we might face as we move into the fall and winter months.

I know we’re all eager to return to normal activities. However, this situation is unprecedented and the pandemic has NOT ended. The very least we can do is to take some common sense precautions to reduce everyone’s risk as we reconnect with family and friends this summer.

Is that so much to ask?

— Steven Stiefel is a staff writer at the Times-Journal. His column appears in Saturday editions. Email: steven.stiefel@times-journal.com.

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