Shelter in Place, Pt. I: COVID-19 and the Failure of American Empathy

Post-apocalyptic fiction rarely focuses on the fall. There’s the initial outbreak, the surprising interaction between man and beast or man and nature that introduces some mutagenic pathogen to first one individual and then, rapidly, countless others. Then comes the smash cut to a hollowed out world of ghost towns and ragged survivors, a bombed out landscape where heroes fight for resources and struggle to rebuild what once was.

We are living neither in nor on the edge of end times, though those stories seem the most apt parallel for this bizarre period of public health announcements and quarantines. COVID-19 is contagious, deadly and disastrous but it is not apocalyptic. At some point in the relatively near future, the virus will be hemmed in or burned out or sufficiently vaccinated and, for most people, a metaphorical tomorrow will come that looks much like the recent, pre-coronavirus past. But not everyone will see that day. And the needless volume of that latter number is what’s frightening about COVID-19.

This broad and gradual time of transition, rapid though it seems, does not make for compelling fiction. The bureaucracy of healthcare funding, travel restrictions and economic stimulus packages is not the stuff of blockbusters. But this is a time when, tragically, lives will be lost, many that might have been saved with better preparedness, precautions and infrastructure. When the importance of competent and compassionate leadership is magnified by its absence. When our collective ability to experience, articulate and effectuate empathy will be put to the test.

I fear that, before we knew the exact parameters of that test, we as Americans may have already failed it. And lives will be lost because of it. Because we celebrate narcissism rather than selflessness in our leaders, because we have come to believe that facts are a matter of opinion and that science should be subordinate to instinct. Because we have chosen bravado over intellect and self-interest over community. And the grim and deadly effects that will continue to spread across the country are the proof that we were wrong.

That’s what’s frightening about COVID-19.

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