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Your Brain is Wrong: The Pandemic is Getting Worse

We fucked up. In just about every conceivable domain, we fucked up our response to the coronavirus. “We” here meaning “Americans”, of course; if you live in New Zealand or Japan or one of many countries in Western Europe, this doesn’t apply to you. You’ve done a good job. If you come from a poorer country with significantly limited access to necessary resources compared to the United States, rest assured, you’re probably doing better comparatively. The US is in this alone.

The biggest difference between three months ago and now is the mood change that permeates every corner of our stupid cultural zeitgeist. Our question is “is the coronavirus still a problem?” and the verdict is in: we don’t give a shit. 

Some of us might contest that; the good ones among us might be quick to stipulate that we’ve been wearing masks and washing our hands, but even among us penetrates deep the problem of compromise. Since the initial days of warning, when we were able to accurately predict that the virus would arrive and that we would need to deal with it, we’ve been doing our best to compromise.

Scientists and world health officials have given us the to-do list necessary to follow to do away with the virus. It’s comprehensive, but still, we pick and choose. We’re told to wear masks when we’re around people, but surely we don’t need to wear them every time we go out around people; this is a short grocery trip, and these are my good friends – they can’t be sick. And we’re told to limit gatherings, but I heard being around a small cluster of quarantined friends is okay – having a few clusters of quarantined friends who all have a few clusters of quarantined friends can’t be that big of a deal.

The air of compromise is pervasive. The Governor says it’s safe to reopen, as long as we wear masks and socially distance. The virus is declining and may continue to do so provided we follow the rules. But we don’t really need to follow them. If restaurants are open again, they must not be dangerous. If people are out, the situation must be fine.

But it’s not fine. It’s the worst it’s been. Not since the first curve, but ever. Data from the New York Times suggests that, not only are cases rising, but that our current level of daily infections is higher than the peak of the curve we sought to flatten in the first case.

The virus’s presence is a more significant problem now than it’s ever been. Some states have responded by returning to (or threatening to return to) a state of lockdown. We might have to go backwards reimposing restrictions to combat the virus. But is that really an option anymore? 

The threat we face is invisible. That’s always the tricky bit with disease evasion. But the more dangerous piece of the puzzle is the way we conceptualize that threat internally. The number of daily cases in the United States is rising. In some states, it’s soaring. But our outward response doesn’t match the trends we see with the data. We were most fearful of the virus before it hit. When it failed to infect everyone we know immediately, we allowed ourselves to calm down. We started to feel like it wasn’t that big of a deal. Then, when governments started to open back up, we took that as license to put our cares aside.

We are not equipped to deal with an invisible enemy. Our brains are tools of intuitive rationalization; we want to go back to normal, and we’re willing to see pathways to normalcy where they should not exist. We’re screwing ourselves over by refusing to admit how shitty this is.

A week or two ago, when I had last checked the New York Times‘s excellent collection of state-by-state data, the virus was on the decline in quite a few states. Today, the infection rate is declining in just two. Forty states and territories are currently seeing a rise in infections. Minnesota was staying level until recently. Now our case count is growing again.

But even positive data can be misleading. Through this whole process, I’ve been consistently surprised (and super mad) at the consistency of the infection level in my home state of South Dakota – I’ve wondered how a state that did absolutely nothing to combat the spread of the virus could see anything other than an incredible rate of infection. But a closer look at the data yesterday cleared that up; South Dakota still isn’t seeing any major upticks or downticks in its number of daily cases, but that number of cases, in some parts of the state, is still alarmingly high.

In Hennepin County, Minnesota, where I live now, 1 in 104 people have the virus (per NYT). In Minnehaha county, South Dakota, where most of my family lives, it’s 1 in 53. 

Both of these states are pretty mild compared to other areas of the country. Rates of infection in Arizona and Florida look like vertical lines that transcend the boundaries of the Times‘s graphs. This is as good a place as any to remind us that the situation in our own states is variable and subject to change via outside interference. Minnesota’s rate is starting to increase. South Dakota is staying stable for now. But if either of these states start to see a decrease in cases and decide to open up to greater gatherings, they’re only safe so long as we can be sure folks from states like Florida and Arizona can’t show up and join in. But states don’t have hard borders, which renders that moot.

The absolute dearth of proper federal response to the virus has led us to the new normal of state-by-state leadership and reactions, but we have to remind ourselves that this is not normal, and that we are only as safe as the country at large.

Our government is not going to act properly. Its chance to do so was long ago. Our leaders decided their stock was better placed in shitty Facebook memes and weird dick-waving than preventative measures and public education. For a while, it’s been on us.

…and for a while, we’ve been fucking it up. At this point, I’m not sure there’s a way back. As other countries enjoy the luxury of opening up in a state of relative normalcy, we’re confined to debating what additional compromises we can make moving forward, operating off the assumption that we deserve the benefits reopening conveys without having put forth the necessary effort to have earned the privilege. We are no longer concerned with the ebb and flow of the virus; we put in our bare minimum, and now it’s the virus’s turn to fuck off so we can enjoy mediocre brunches and colossal parties in pee-filled pools.

The risks are the same as they’ve always been. People are dying. Folks are suffering permanent bodily damage. The elderly and immunocompromised are extremely susceptible to potentially-fatal infection. The virus is on the rise. The only difference is us. We just don’t give a shit.

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