The question mark in my title was well and thoroughly considered. I actually have no idea which was the first of the constantly rising number of casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic. But I am aware of many.
And no, my title does not refer to the death of the first anonymous but notorious person who died from exposure to the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China, nor to an elderly man in Padua, Italy, nor even to a patient in a nursing home in King County, Washington. Nor does it refer to any among the constantly updated statistics of human victims around the world, enumerated so matter-of-factly and with such precision by worldometer: “32,164 people have died so far from the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak as of March 29, 2020, 14:51 GMT.” I can’t possibly keep up, nor can worldometer–nor can the World Heath Organization nor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ay, there’s the rub.
So I guess I’ll start there in this litany of what we have lost in the worldwide frenzy to deal with a disease–a word whose medieval roots certainly apply to our situation today: des- + aise or without ease. Speaking of etymology, that of casualty is also instructive: 15th c. meaning chance, accident, especially of untoward events or misfortunes. I am especially interested in the rôle of chance, which relates directly to most of my dis-ease over the current chain of events.
But I digress. Let’s get back to truth. I chose this as my first point merely in deference to the well-known maxim variously attributed to sages ranging from Aeschylus to Hiram W. Johnson: “The first casualty when war comes is truth.” Truth is clearly one of the casualties of this war against a virus–as amply illustrated by the statistic I cited earlier (already out of date a mere two paragraphs later; now 33,523). We are so enamored of what we think of as facts that numbers seem to be especially consoling to those who scrounge through the news day by day and moment by moment. It was ridiculously easy for me to find information about the first COVID-19 death in China, Italy, and the United States with a Google search. I can likewise locate moment by moment the number of cases and/or coronavirus deaths in Johnston County, North Carolina, the United States, the Earth . . . the Universe, the Mind of God (apologies to Thornton Wilder). But the comfort of these numbers is a lie. It is impossible to know when the virus, harmless in bats, infected the first human, when the first person got sick or died, or how many victims have been claimed as of this moment, 17:46 GMT on March 29. People have been infected without ever knowing it, others have died of mysterious causes, and still others to come will have dry coughs and shortness of breath and never be tested or COVID-19. So there is certainly no truth in numbers.
Nor has truth about the coronavirus fared well in political or journalistic circles. But neither is this particular casualty unique in the current era of “fake news” and “alternative facts” from both sides of the aisle/the media/the social media. Truth as casualty has become so ho-hum that it’s hardly worth mentioning. It’s just amazing to me that anyone believes or even reads the latest factoid to pop up at the bottom of the TV screen. As I posted on Facebook on March 19: Really??? This is not exactly where I would go for medical information: “Questions about the coronavirus? PolitiFact has answers” (advertisement from the WRAL website).
Logic and/or common sense
A more serious deficit in logic has become most apparent to me through the hysteria with which progressively more restrictive–and completely arbitrary–decrees are made for the supposed well-being of the populace. I agree that some restriction of public gatherings seems wise, but many of the fiats issued by state and local governments go far beyond restricting person-to-person contact and, in the process, defy logic. I’ll list just a few of the most absurd:
On March 10, the CDC posted on its very own dot-gov website the following reassuring information for those of us who were mermaids in a past life: “There is no evidence that COVID-19 can be spread to humans through the use of pools and hot tubs. Proper operation, maintenance, and disinfection (e.g., with chlorine and bromine) of pools and hot tubs should remove or inactivate the virus that causes COVID-19.” I was delighted to discover this calm and reasoned official assessment on March 15, but then I learned that the pool where I have swum 1,000 yards or more almost every day since last July announced its closing on March 16. Two days later, in solidarity with the few who had not yet succumbed to hysteria, I managed to swim 20 laps at the YMCA near the college where I worked–when I wasn’t working from home 60 miles away, that is. Sadly, since the edict from our administration that we teach all classes online and not even visit our offices on campus, I haven’t been back to Fayetteville to swim at the Y–and as of March 25, that facility has closed as well. Coincidentally, Harvard’s Coronavirus Resource Center posted two days later, “Since the virus won’t survive in properly treated pool water, swimming should be okay as long as you avoid close contact with other people.”
The same abdication of logic is apparent in the decision of several North Carolina beach towns to close all public-access parking lots. In one county, New Hanover, which includes several beach destinations both popular and accessible to the Raleigh area because of their location at the eastern terminus of Interstate 40, all beaches were closed as of March 20. By some logical leap to which I am not privy, this edict superseded the statewide policy issued a few days earlier that state parks would remain open except for campgrounds. Folks, these places are outdoors! North Carolina has 322 miles of ocean shoreline. Exactly how much distance do our new social rules require that we maintain from one another? Six feet has been touted as the magical distance within which we are safe from infection. By my calculation, 283,360 people could stand at that distance from one another on 322 miles of shoreline. (That’s a joke, son!) And what could be more restorative for what ails us physically and mentally than a quiet moonlit walk on the beach, a quick dip in the cold saltwater, or a seat under an umbrella with a good book in one hand and a libation of choice in the other?
- Campgrounds deserve their own bullet point. I cannot imagine any activity more likely to allow us to be on our own, isolated from social contact, than camping in a tent or in hammocks in one of the many state parks. Like beach-going for those of the aquatic persuasion, camping provides the opportunity to rest and heal body and soul–while watching the sun rise and set, sitting around a campfire, hiking in the woods, and generally indulging in whatever pleasures isolation offers. At first, the state closed only the campgrounds, but all bathrooms and trails remained open. As of this morning’s news, while some state parks remain open, bathrooms are now closed (someone might steal the toilet paper or hand sanitizer?), and 25 parks are completely off limits for any activity whatsoever.
- Utter defiance of logic reigns supreme in some of the government decrees issued in the last few days. I am pretty sure that North Carolina is nowhere near the bottom of the common-sense ladder. but our current situation is absurd enough for me. Also as of this morning, the entire state is under a stay-at-home order issued by governor Roy Cooper on Friday. Some of the provisions of this order allow travel “to and from a place of worship” (§1.3.vi), but they cannot worship when they get there because gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited (§3.A.1). However, even though they cannot pray, sing, and listen to a sermon with family and close friends, they can congregate with impunity at “airports, bus and train stations, . . . [and] shopping malls and centers” (§3.A.2). In the best of times, I would be wary of what I might catch from the crowds at bus and train stations! But the governor evinces compassion for human dignity (dead humans, that is) and allows funeral gatherings of 50 (§3.A.3). At least he is realistic (or has a great sense of humor). Listed among “Additional COVID-19 Essential Retail Businesses” are “beer, wine, and liquor stores” (§2.C.30). So far as I am aware, Gov. Cooper’s order made no mention of the sales of guns and ammunition, which were included in today document issued by the Department of Homeland Security entitled “Guidance on the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce.” Under its provisions, critical infrastructure workers include “workers supporting the operation of firearm or ammunition product manufacturers, retailers, importers, distributors, and shooting ranges.” Of course, grocery store are truly essential businesses–and just on Saturday, my husband went to a small market in a nearby town in which most aisles were crammed with people.
I have been hearing and bemoaning for many years the passing bells faintly announcing the impending death of freedom in the land of the free. I would attribute this insidious trend to at least three circumstances: the rise of multiculturalism (“political correctness” as maligned on the right) in the late 1980s, the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and most recently, the #meToo movement and the rise of identity politics. These trends have chipped away at our right to say and teach what we believe and made us comfortable with encroachments on our freedom from unreasonable search and seizure–to name just a few of the rights we have ceded in exchange for a feeling of safety (and the right never to be offended or challenged). But with the restrictions increasingly in place to combat the coronavirus pandemic, I am afraid the death knell of freedom has begun to toll slowly but inexorably as Americans become accustomed to obeying arbitrary and unreasonable orders and believing they have no recourse.
In my view, the First Amendment is the protector of all our other civil liberties, so it is the one whose limitations frighten me the most. FIRE, the watchdog Foundation for Individual rights in Education, reported on March 27 that the University of California System–a pubic entity bound by the Constitution–has issued a “guidance document” (“Equity and Inclusion during COVID-19”) describing what members of the university community may SAY during the current state of emergency. Included are the following:
Do not use terms such as “Chinese Virus” or other terms which cast either intentional or unintentional projections of hatred toward Asian communities, and do not allow the use of these terms by others. Refer to the virus as either “COVID-19” or “coronavirus” in both oral and written communications.
Do not resort or revert to unkind discussions about people, individuals or groups who may not be in your immediate social circle.
Of course, the First Amendment protects the freedom of religion as well. I have a great deal to say about the decisions of churches to stop holding public worship services, but I will save that for another post. I will simply include what I consider two egregious examples of government interference with that sacred right. Of course, the Bill of Rights refers to what Congress may or may not do, while most of the recent declarations have come in the form of executive orders. However, the Court has historically used “Congress” as synecdoche for the government in its decision-making, and the language is clear and precise that “prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]” is unconstitutional. Both the use of hallucinogenic drugs and the sacrifice of animals have received judicial protection as religious practices. But now gathering to worship is prohibited. A Florida pastor, Rodney Howard-Brown, was arrested on Monday after holding church services on Sunday and charged with “reckless disregard for human life.” Tony Spell, leader of a megachurch in Baton Rouge, continues to defy orders not to hold gatherings of more than 50 people, but there have been petitions for his arrest, and he has become the target vilification nationwide.
I will end my diatribe with reference to a freedom certainly not constitutionally protected, but one that Americans have simply taken for granted for as long as we recognized the value of our wide-open spaces (which, like all pastorals, happened just about at the time they started disappearing). Neighborhood parks, places of community, have now been closed. On Sunday, the park pictured to the left, on the other side of Selma’s famous railroad tracks, was teeming with children enjoying the slides and swings, climbing on the monkey bars, and playing catch with a miniature football. The sight was so refreshing that I wanted to take a photo, but I refrained because I didn’t want their parents to think I was going to report them to the authorities. On Monday, by government decree, the park was empty and will so remain.
Finally, among the strict new guidelines for using the trails remaining open in the North Carolina system of state parks is the following howler: Do not take group pictures that violate social distancing guidelines.
Or it would be a howler if it didn’t presage a time in our history when we have forgotten entirely what it once meant to be free.