Despite the passage of many months of investigation and observation, the most remarkable thing about the COVID-19 virus is how little anyone truly knows about it. Unless of course, you consider how much certain segments of the population think they do know about it.
There is nothing historically unique about recognized “experts” finding themselves befuddled and divided over novel phenomena, nor is there anything unusual about other groups of citizens thinking they have a better handle on things.
What is weird, though, is how impervious to reason and common sense both groups are becoming. There is an extremist element among certain civil authorities, along with many scientific and medical experts, who are doubling down on the need for ever-increasing government restrictions and social control. At the other end, there is an extremist civil libertarian element that is doubling down on their demands for freedom from any precautions at all.
The expert/authoritarian extremists have taken to arguing that this pandemic can (and perhaps should) alter human civilization forever, before we all go extinct, or something close to it. The layman/libertarian extremists counter that we have to throw off the yoke of public health busybodies and opportunistic tyrants through pointed defiance before we’re all serfs, slaves and lab animals permanently existing at the pleasure of power-mad technocrats.
There ought to be a middle ground, and I suspect there is. It appears the majority of Americans (and the majority of the human race) are concerned, but not terrified; cautious, but not obsessed. We’ve all been through influenza epidemics before, and this one doesn’t seem much worse than some of those. Common sense dictates that COVID-19 casualty rates are comparable to other strains we have experienced – not in spite of unusually stringent mass precautions, but because of them.
It has become apparent in places such as China, Iran and Brazil, where large segments of the population were either oblivious or unconvinced of the danger of business-as-usual living, that this virus has proven far deadlier and more virulent than the average seasonal flu. But in much of the rest of the world, the simple regimens of masking, sanitizing and social distancing have demonstrably kept casualties to levels capably handled by medical systems.
But the extremists seem unimpressed. The expert/authoritarian types maintain these precautions are the only thing holding the lid on, and they have to be redoubled and extended indefinitely to prevent global human catastrophe. The layman/libertarian types either think the threat has passed or was a hoax all along, and that things must go back to normal immediately or they never will again.
In the face of these alternatives, we can only hope most people can intellectually locate some middle way in which to continue going on about their lives. Yes, the expert/authoritarians have a point in that the virus could come roaring back if it is suddenly ignored, and an even better point that it could mutate over time and worsen this autumn and beyond. These are very plausible scenarios.
But the layman/libertarians also have a point in that technocratic elites and civil authorities do not rule by divine right, and if they can’t bring themselves to trust the majority of our species to make their own basic survival decisions, then life for the masses is hardly worth living (or certainly worth risking in a return to normalcy, or even revolution, for the cause of freedom.)
But if history proves anything, it’s that neither group of extremists is likely to be rewarded by future events with clear vindication. The human race will probably survive, as will earthly pockets of American-styled self-determination and liberty – at least so long as neither minority of extremists gets the upper hand.
Meanwhile, the rest of us would do well to keep an open mind and remain adaptable to changing circumstances. This virus could soon subside like all of the others, drag on for another season or mutate into something different. And if the Chinese communists allowed it to spread on purpose, there’s always the possibility they’ve got something even worse in the works. We must be ready to change, but not precipitously.
It is the human condition to perpetually live with calculations of “acceptable risk.” (Usually at the subconscious level.) For example, about as many Americans died in driving accidents last year as in the entire Korean War. Yes, we could cut this in half by driving slower, or to zero by giving up motor vehicles entirely. But how many of us would seriously consider such measures? Those casualties are not only known and predictable, but a tacitly acceptable risk (and cost) of having and driving our vehicles as we are accustomed.
Public health crises are much the same. So long as the casualty numbers, tragic though they are, remain near normal levels, and we can continue to have meaningful lives, we may conclude we’re thinking and behaving reasonably. Even if an extremist minority of chicken-littles and free spirits around us refuse.