It’s up to the rest of us now

Our leaders have failed us on Covid-19. But more of us can get through it if we work together.

Welcome back to The Long Version, a newsletter by Jonathan Myerson Katz.

So it’s come to this, whatever this will turn out to be. The incompetence. The greed. The Faustian bargains to adopt and acquiesce to rule by the worst of us in exchange for the briefest sniffs of worldly power and access—all of that has led us to this moment, in which we all collectively trip over the threshold of the unknown, left to our fates by a handful of idiots and the credulous systems that let them fester. It begins with a cough. The question is what comes after.

None of it was inevitable. After the first few unfortunate cases of what is now known as Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2, were detected, mitigation and isolation could have stemmed the tide. China lost valuable weeks dithering about the image of individuals and the survival of the Communist Party rather than acting quickly.

But that system did eventually act, and bought the world time. Some countries, such as South Korea, used it wisely. The United States did not. Trump, who had already crippled the government’s pandemic response capabilities on a sunny day in 2018, concentrated on dissembling about the threat. The Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC ignored pleas to put science above authoritarian politics. They failed. All of this was done to further the vain, juvenile dream of keeping the economy from crashing and imperiling one stupid man’s reelection hopes. It turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: The stock market today posted its worst single-day crash in a year that wasn’t 1987 or 1929. The recession has probably already begun.

Those addicted to great-man narratives and celebrity access journalism will keep waiting for redemption, when some great leader will rise, or the one we’re stuck with will snap out of it. It isn’t going to happen. And that isn’t just because the president gave possibly the stupidest, most ill-prepared Oval Office addresses in the history of television last night—a speech followed immediately by a flurry of walk-backs and corrections whose combination of xenophobia and sheer incompetence surely contributed to the market collapse. Or because his allies such as Senator Tom Cotton are pivoting inevitably toward blame-casting racism, the first resort of despots facing the possibility of angry masses roiled by a disease since at least the Middle Ages.

The real problem is that the time for big, top-down leadership has passed. Survey your Fox News watching relatives if you don’t believe me: Trump gave them what they wanted, what they always want—an excuse not to care—and they won’t give it up without a fight. Rush Limbaugh, despite being the walking embodiment of “underlying conditions,” blurted out yesterday that the fact that Covid-19 appears to be at least ten times more lethal than the seasonal flu does not matter because, and I would not dream of altering a single word of this quote: “What does lethal mean? Does lethal kill you?”

(For the record, ten times more lethal than the seasonal flu could mean half a million Americans dead in the next few weeks.)

The people most likely to die from Covid-19, in other words, have been told to actively court death. The flurry of cancelations of public events, including the suspension of the NBA and NHL seasons, cancellation of the NCAA tournaments, and the shuttering of Disneyland, will be helpful. But it has all started far too late. The virus is spreading exponentially. That means that baring a miracle, in a matter of days, maybe less, it will go from a theoretical problem to one appearing in your town, then your street, then possibly your home. A professional marketer for an online learning platform ran the numbers and found the difference every additional day could have made:

In short, it’s too late to prevent the disaster. It can be mitigated, it can be fought case by case by case, but it can no longer be stopped. Whatever is going to happen at this point is going to happen, soon.

So what can we do?

Most important: Don’t panic. Don’t give into the reactionaries who, without a whiff of irony or self-awareness—will transition cleanly from denial to stoking fear and hate, while trying to scam a few bucks in the process. Stock up on what you really need for a week or two without going to the store; there is no cause to hoard supplies. Most of those stocking up on guns and ammo, as panicking elites do in the face of any fear, are more likely to cause disorder than protect anyone from it. Try to ignore them. Don’t be one of them.

Be in touch with your real-life social networks. Learn what the most vulnerable people in your religious, professional, and whatever communities you make need to get through possible weeks of limited social contact, especially if they contract the disease. Encourage anyone at risk or showing even mild possible symptoms to stay home. (Stay home if it’s you.)

Review these suggestions on what to do if you’re sick.

Do everything you can to keep from overburdening the healthcare system by slowing the spread of the disease, and making sure care is focused on those who need it most.

Follow trustworthy experts and journalists who actually know how to cover an epidemic to stay updated on what’s going on outside. I suggest, among others:

The New York Times has also removed the paywall on its coronavirus updates. (Note, 3/14/20: You do have to register for a free account.) Feel free to share other suggestions in the comments below.

Anyone who actually understands what is coming is scared. I’m scared. But there’s no point in giving into despair or fatalism, or to keep living in denial. (As Branswell tweeted tonight, “Please stop worrying if you are overreacting to #Covid19. If you are, if we all are, we can breathe a sigh of relief later.”) If we’re smart about it, and kind, and work in community instead of trying to shoot our way out of everything, alone, more of us will make it to the other side.

Finally, this is all going to pass. Even if the most dire predictions come true, life will keep going for the survivors. There will be time to hold those who failed us accountable, and to build the systems we didn’t have or couldn’t rely on this time, so we’re ready for the next. I’m almost looking forward to it.

Jonathan Myerson Katz is a journalist and the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, will trace the origins and contradictions of America’s empire. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.