Over the past several months our nation—and most of our world—has been engaged in an unprecedented experiment with home restrictions and invasive public surveillance in response to the terrors inspired by the prospect of possible Coronavirus infection. Opinions vary as to whether some new dictates have gone too far (or were even necessary in the first place), but for the moment government’s whip hand has shuttered most businesses, closed schools and colleges, and caused extraordinary nationwide economic hardship that is causing growing anger and fear.
Given that the projected national death toll that justified this extraordinary action has dropped from the many millions to the tens of thousands because of gigantic statistical flaws in the original computer models, the question of when our lives will return to normal becomes more pressing each passing day.
Although we are continually assured that the potential for second and third waves of Coronavirus infections justifies extending the current restrictions and shutdowns into the summer and fall, credulity is increasingly strained as the apocalypse caused by the “cure” becomes more devastating than the actual disease with each passing hour. Mass unemployment, hunger, and despair are quickly becoming America’s constant—and unwelcome—companions as our record-low joblessness of only a few months ago quickly recedes into memory.
What do we do now, and what have we learned for the future from our national reaction to the Coronavirus?
We have certainly learned that media-driven panic can partner in a frightening manner with the shockingly expansive—and amazingly elastic—police powers of government to enforce policies and practices that would have seemed like science fiction only a few months ago. We have also learned that you do not ever craft public policy based on a seemingly plausible prediction because the inevitable human errors baked into any computer model can lead to financial and societal catastrophe. Even the most brilliant people are often wrong, and we fail to recognize this simple fact at our own risk.
Despite what we might think we know from watching Hollywood disaster movies, we did not need a meteor strike, rampaging horde of zombies, or volcanic eruption to create the conditions for national misery and madness. We are, sad to say, quite able to do this to ourselves with a witch’s brew of journalists who routinely traffic in speculation and irrationality, scientists desperately seeking both funding and attention, and politicians vainly hoping for career advancement and a new gold mine of tax dollars whenever a “crisis” hits.
We are, in addition, seeing a new and potentially devastating societal problem emerge from the lockdown of our country: a huge cohort of Americans who seem strangely content—even happy—with being isolated from all but the most necessary human contact.
It was, of course, the case that even before the onset of the Coronavirus crisis our country was dealing with record high rates of psychological problems carrying a variety diagnostic labels but essentially boiling down to an extreme personal fragility that caused a consequent inability to cope with the daily challenges of life. This problem cut across all demographics and drove frightening levels of suicide, drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, and depression that robbed many Americans of any sense of contentment and security.
Having now used the powers of both the government and media to convince everyone that our lives are at immediate risk if we should step out of our houses or come within six feet of another human being, Americans have proved strangely willing to believe that shutting down the many schools and businesses that once provided the only daily dose of personal contact for many is a reasonable and rational course of action. This commitment to promoting near-complete isolation has caused many troubled individuals to become yet more shut off from the outside world. As a result, America is on the cusp of a new epidemic—this of crushing loneliness and despair—that is going to tear a gaping hole in our civic culture and make the reopening of America doubly difficult.
Those increasingly cut off from the majority of personal connections don’t go out to eat, travel to visit friends or family, go out to movie theaters, walk in a park, shop in a store, or engage in any of the activities we associate with a typical daily lives—loneliness is a devastatingly progressive disease.
More and more American lives will be reduced—even after these Coronavirus lockdowns finally come to their inevitable end—to little but streaming video, computer games, food deliveries, and sparse online interactions that provide the mere illusion of social contact. Our new state-sanctioned agoraphobia that has now locked everyone in their homes has preyed on the weaknesses of the most emotionally and psychologically vulnerable, which has now made their mental health even more fragile—and will lead to even worse consequences in the future.
It is natural that we all want to be protected and to also protect those whom we love, but overprotectiveness is a disaster at both at the national and individual levels.
Common sense caution regarding an unknown viral infection is far different from the mass incarceration of people that has crushed our economy and produced the highest level of unemployment since the Great Depression. Similarly, shunning love and commitment to avoid heartbreak is a sure prescription for a life that is empty and sad; some risk is necessary in order to reap the many rewards that come from love. The fantasy that any of us can enjoy lives of joy, comfort, and security by cutting ourselves off from humanity is foolishness that robs us of any hope for happiness.
Just as we should not enact government policies based on predictions that are likely—as most predictions are—to be flat wrong, individuals should not limit their lives based on vague fears that might never become realities. Allowing our fevered imaginations regarding the worst that may happen to control our lives (even when these terrors are endorsed and supported by supposed experts) is exactly what we are doing on a national basis today, and this is depriving us of the best that is possible for ourselves and everyone around us. Worse still, the passivity that is born of depression, anxiety, and fear makes individuals vulnerable to manipulators, disables independent thinking skills, and renders one unable to adapt easily to the inherently changeable nature of life itself.
To step out into the world and engage fully is obviously a risky proposition at any time. We should always avoid unnecessary dangers, but to demand a life devoid of all risks is to condemn oneself to a lifetime of depressing isolation and confinement that will eventually itself kill us by stealing our souls, emptying our minds, and locking away our hearts.
Our uncontrollable and unreasonable fears are the true enemy we must face today. On both an individual and national basis, we must recognize this stunning truth—and take action now.