The global pandemic we currently find ourselves in is, without a doubt, not a war. It is not. Analogizing it to one is both incorrect, and irresponsible.
Let’s walk through this.
Donald Trump Is Not A War Time President
Early on, after finally admitting that the virus causing COVID-19 infections and deaths around the world was actually a problem (and not just a hoax brought on by the fake news and Democratic party), Donald Trump switched gears and decided this was “the unseen enemy.” He was to be our honorable Commander in Battle.
While it is tempting to label this virus an enemy, as we do with a lot of medical maladies, really it’s just a talking point. A talking point for the victims who fall ill with it to feel empowered; a talking point for those who swoop in with remedies to claim victory.
But Donald Trump is not a war time president, and this is not a war. It’s is a global pandemic of a highly communicable virus, that in rare instances causes mortality. Unfortunately, at the present, enough instances are proving to occur on the whole that the mortality rate is quite high for us, in a healthcare system that was taxed going in.
Allowing Donald Trump to overshadow the egregious and flagrant wrong-doings in the prior days, weeks, months, and years of his Presidency – including, but certainly not limited to, the fact that only months ago he, a sitting President, was Impeached on counts of Abuse of Power and Obstruction of Congress – to overshadow all of that, and come out of this spinning the inevitable success of modern medical science into his position as a war hero (conveniently in time for the 2020 Presidential election) would make every person that ever likened this to a war complicit in the necessary election win that would come with that honor.
Donald Trump is not a war time President. This is not a war.
Frontline Workers Are Not Soldiers In Battle
This is probably my point that will flare the most feathers, but before jumping to conclusions, hear me out.
The sacrifices and risks associated with working in any quote-unquote essential line of work right now are, unmistakably, great. In particular, those that work in medicine, pharmacy, even janitors in the hospital setting; and especially in light of the on-again off-again relationship they have with adequate and complete personal protective equipment – well, those people are by and large in hot water from now until the time a vaccine is readily available.
So are the grocery workers, who have every cough, sniffle, and sneeze effectively sprayed all over them several times a day. So are a lot of people that continue to work to allow the rest of us to afford such luxuries as food, water, and electricity.
But they ain’t soldiers. We will not be erecting a monument to them that looks like doctors, nurses, and janitors Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. They may receive additional compensation and pay for risk assessment and to incentivize them to work, but it is not hazard pay.
This isn’t a measure to disrespect or discredit the work they are doing, and the sacrifices they are making. Do not mistake me: they are heroes.
Infectious diseases happen, and while COVID-19 is new and a lot about it is unknown, it is a part of the job. It is a part of the call to duty that came well before that person in the wet market in China even thought about eating the undercooked bat. Every time you step foot in a medical facility, there is always the element of the unknown. Sure, this time it is higher of a probability that you could catch it. But even I wonder to myself whenever I’ve had to take my kids to the emergency room for a sports injury or high fever: you know, I wonder if the person in the room next to us has bacterial meningitis and here I am exposed to it. Because it is a very real possibility, and that possibility is always there.
And there are two things most dangerous about likening the “frontliners” as we now like to call them with warriors in the trenches of something like WWI, or possibly worse: it sets a dangerous precedent for their own personal actions that could, in effect, result in even more death.
For one, in continues on this dangerous “take one for the team” mantra we Americans like to espouse. Arguably, this mantra is one of the things that got us here in the first place. We don’t feel well. We have chills, body aches, maybe a cough. But your [insert workplace] needs you. You are so essential that if you call in sick, the ship will go down. So you go to work, and infect several more people, putting more stress on the system than what would have come of you just staying home for a few days until you got the all clear from your immune system.
A more dangerous one:
Early on in the worst of Italy’s days, a nurse committed suicide because she started feeling a little punky, and decided to swab herself. She tested positive for COVID-19, and rather than just recover as 98% of other people do, she committed suicide to prevent spreading the disease to anyone else. Dangerous does not even begin to describe the precedent that we set when we then venerate this poor, clearly unwell, woman as something like a kamikaze doing the right thing by her country.
Tangential to this as well is the fact that the vast majority of people working in these essential jobs deserve a recognition of their own. Like the firefighters and many police after 9/11, or actual soldiers that have fought and won wars for centuries, their position in this is unique and should be treated accordingly. (Perhaps a monument would be appropriate, somewhere and at some point… but to replicate Iwo Jima would be a discredit to both today’s and yesterday’s heroes.)
The Messaging Is Blinding Us With Fear
In World War II, the messaging and propaganda was so profound, particularly in European countries in opposition to the allies (mainly, Germany) that people were so blinded by fear of the war, that they largely did not see what was going on right in front of their faces. The same went for Americans: blinded by the fear of another costly and deadly battle, Americans resisted involving themselves in the war – in spite of the humanitarian crisis that had unfolded in the Jewish and “undesirable” communities in Europe.
This is what happens in a war: diplomatic and political messaging is so critical for the community to get on board with whatever the agenda of the leadership of the time happens to be. Everyone does it. Now, in treating this like a war, our community leaders and politicians are doing it again.
Every week seems to have some sort of a theme to it. The first was all about the exponential growth charts, and statistical analyses, and the Johns Hopkins interactive website. The second were 45 paragraph letters from Emergency Room physicians who are really so busy they aren’t sleeping much, but also have the time to write lengthy explanations of exactly why we should be concerned about COVID-19. The third week was the rash of viral posts from Italy. Warnings to Americans. Rising death tolls. And that horrible video of the woman leafing through the obituary pages that went on and on and on, as if we weren’t sad enough about this already. The fourth week started the stay at home campaign, which continues today; coupled with a lot of mixed messaging coming from all sides of the political spectrum. Take the hydrochloroquine, but don’t. It works, but Trump touted it so probably skip it. Listen to your doctor, question him. Bill Gates is a hero, I don’t trust what he says. Open the economy, no don’t. Go for a walk to get exercise, just kidding that’s a bad idea. Dip your groceries in bleach, wait just kidding soap and water is fine bleach will kill you.
It is exhausting just listening to all of this: the analysis and the arguing and the incessant viral postings about what this politician did wrong and what that politician said, and who is complicit in this and who is a hero, and PPE and bats and … and … and …
This is the point of propaganda, and while I’m not likening what Trump, his “task force,” and more local governments are doing right now to what the Germans did in WWII, there is definite messaging going on here. If there weren’t, we wouldn’t have new buzz phrases, like “in these unprecedented times,” and “we are navigating through unchartered waters,” and – my newest favorite, “we are here to meet this moment.” You also wouldn’t have gotten probably 600 emails from every place you have ever shopped or spent money at, in an effort to let you know what increased measures they were doing to keep things safe and clean – all the same copy and pasted letter full of buzz words and messaging that was meant to calm your nerves, but only – instead – piqued your fears.
What happens when we are afraid in times of war and stress is we act irrationally. We fight with our community members, we shutter our hearts to those in need. A nursing home in my community got flack a week ago for telling a patient he could not return because he had suffered from COVID-19, even though he had recovered and tested negative two subsequent times before being released from the hospital. A homeless man a town over was unable to get a propane bottle for his camping stove, that allows him to cook his food and keep himself warm, because it is now considered a “non-essential good.” One woman in a Mom’s Facebook group I am in locally sparred it out with me about this, when I commented on a post about it asking how we could help him. The defining moment of our argument was when she said that because we live in California – “no one is going to freeze to death!”
The Social Contract In Times Of War
Few people realize that what is going on right now in our own communities from a public policy perspective is a matter of the social contract that we all live in as American citizens. The basic premise of our structure in society and government is that in exchange for the protection of our overarching body of government and government leaders (and all the services that come with it, including public hospitals, police, and fire), we are willing to in effect sacrifice certain freedoms and liberties in exchange for that protection. The idea comes from the great political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, whose writings inspired our revolutionary forefathers when he said:
“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry… no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (see: The Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes)
It’s a bit wordy, so I’ll break it down for you: if left to our own devices at certain times in society, life would be unnecessarily awful and painful; and would end quickly, whether we liked it or not. Sometimes, let us help you. You just have to give up a little for us to be able to do that – in times of war, mainly. But pandemics are also times that it could be argued we have to retain less to be able to live more.
As soon as Trump started declaring National Emergencies, Major Natural Disasters, and referring to himself as a wartime president, the road was paved for every Tom, Dick, and Harry politician, from big time national leadership, all the way down to Mo, your local City Councilman who shows up for the council meeting drunk and in his swim trunks every week, the diplomatic and political power to chip away at those freedoms and liberties we hold so dear to us, in the name of the social contract and protection in times of turmoil.
Do I think that there are a lot of measures that do – absolutely – need to be taken to curb the spread of the novel virus that causes COVID-19? Absolutely. Shutting down bars, movie theaters, churches… that all makes sense. Social distancing and increased hygiene and safety measures – absolutely.
But locally, at least where I am, we have gone far afield from just shuttering non-essential businesses and asking people to stay home as much as possible. Now, here in California, cities are requiring by law that people wear face coverings, even when just driving down the street to get their mail. Alone. They’ve shut down sections of stores that disconnected and privileged city officials think can wait a while, like the clearance clothing racks at a local Wal Mart – in a community that houses thousands of migrant workers who are low income and do not have access to computers to simply order online.
Overreach doesn’t really describe what is going on here. And while I get it: we need to stay in, we need to physically distance, we also have to live our lives.
In recent days, I have talked to several seniors that are either family, or friends of family. They all sounded the same, exact resounding chord: they appreciate the community trying to protect them, the most vulnerable; but at this point, quality of life is an issue, and this is not a life worth living. One where you cannot go for a walk in the warm sun, or have the smallest of gatherings with less than 10 people seems cruel.
Perhaps the most striking thing told to me, which I then heard a physician – a medical doctor – echo on television about his own 87 year old mother’s sentiment: what if I die in isolation here, and I have never had the opportunity to hug my grandchildren one more time?
Certainly, the social contract is a necessary part of what keeps us alive. But only in war should it be evoked to such the degree that it is being evoked in communities through out America right now. And this is not a war.
It is tempting to liken this global pandemic to a battle. It requires strength, perseverance, and fight within all of us to get through whatever effects we feel from it – be they physical illness, economic hardship, or mental health belaboring as a result of the physical and social restrictions placed on us. But it is not a war. And we are not warriors.