The death toll attributed to the novel coronavirus has grown to over 210,000 in the United States, and it has surpassed a million world-wide. The figures are sure to swell by the time you read this, but those numbers, dire as they are, do not tell a story that has been largely overlooked, that is, the human cost to the survivors . . . to the rest of us.
I think of Vito, a World War II veteran, grown blind and in the grip of dementia, who I would see at daily Mass. What it must have been like for him after the church was decreed shuttered, to be unmoored from the one anchor of his life, his religious practice, the rhythm that brought him constancy. We can state without a shadow of a doubt that the virus has had the most severe impact on the sick and the old—Vito died of Covid-19. Though I doubt he got it at church.
While New York’s numbers have been stable for a while, the first weekend of October brought unsettling reports of a rising number of positive tests for coronavirus in certain New York City neighborhoods (and a couple of adjacent counties). Not illnesses, or hospitalizations, or ICU transfers, but positive tests—a number that our lumpen media refuses to break down. Again, our elected representatives acted with caprice, establishing color-codes to dictate the degree of stricture to which these zip codes would be subject. Nothing, they determined, short of a severe renewal of restrictions in the affected areas of Brooklyn and Queens could possibly hope to quell the outbreak, sweeping up mom-and-pop shops, freshly reopened schools, and—government’s favorite target—houses of worship, which had been among the last institutions to creak open after the initial coronavirus lockdown.
This time, people pushed back. Ultra-Orthodox citizens of Borough Park started bonfires in the street and tossed their masks into the blaze. Some Jewish political leaders complained that they had not been consulted prior to these actions being taken, and they bristled at the implication that their communities alone were responsible for the rise in positive tests.
Our Hebraic brothers and sisters weren’t alone in their alarm over the human costs that restricting worship can entail. The formerly reticent leader of the Diocese of Brooklyn (also serving Queens) Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio seemed to find his footing in the face of these Byzantine affronts, calling them “outrageous and disrespectful.”
Agudath Israel, an Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization (and other groups) filed a lawsuit that sought relief against limits on the number of faithful who could gather. As did the Brooklyn diocese. Many synagogues are designed for well over 500 congregants; Our Lady Queen of Martyrs in Forest Hills seats 550, and the reborn 10-person edicts seem absurd in light of previous social-distancing guidelines. A federal judge dismissed both complaints.
There was also the question of enforcement. “You start singling certain groups out,” stated NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea, “I get awfully nervous and it is a slippery slope. I will say that on the record. I think we have to be very careful about the words we use and talking about sending the police to certain groups only.” Although it was not immediately clear where, at least 13 summonses were issued before the weekend, the Commissioner’s apprehensions notwithstanding. He may have been referring to the sour smell of religious persecution.
The data are far from complete—and who is an expert without his data?—but there appears to be no question that our collective mental health is slipping. The rates of depression and anxiety are skyrocketing, and so are the requisite medications prescribed to squelch these anomalies. The constant media torrent warning of virus outbreaks and hot spots and flare-ups, genuine or exaggerated, isn’t calming anybody’s nerves, and it’s not going to cease any time soon.
Some people are so terrified they can barely function. One friend belongs to a more vulnerable cohort because of his age (not that any of us are getting any younger) and is prone to some underlying conditions, but they are well short of leprosy, and in any case can’t justify the fact that he has not left his apartment in six months. Six months of fear, simultaneously playing off of and feeding into the anxiety of his high-strung wife, who, in spite of the efforts of those with mounting concern to extricate him from that redoubt, will not consent to let him out. He does spend a portion of his day meditating, and this, I would like to believe, has prevented him from being driven completely mad and throwing himself, or his wife, out a window. Here is a man who since March has not breathed the air out of doors nor felt the light on his face—baseline pleasures (necessities, really) so fundamental to our human existence now sacrificed out of fear.
And then, nearly concurrent with New York’s arrogant overstep into authoritarianism, and because this long season of our discontent can’t get any more bizarre, the lightning rod of our age, President Donald Trump, was diagnosed with a case of Covid-19. The jeers of “serves him right” and “I hope he dies” were repulsive, but because he received an aggressive therapeutic protocol and the best medical care in the world—and because, let’s face it, he’s Donald Trump— three days later he walked out of Walter Reed Medical Center.
Anyone hoping for a transition to humility would be disappointed. With his defiant, dramatic mask-rip from a White House balcony, coupled with the inevitable tweet, everything his detractors hate about him was in full flower. But Trump’s point, bumptiously made in the Trump style was, I believe, the right one: Do not succumb to fear. Live your life.
I won’t downplay the tragedy of the sheer amount of sickness and death, for these are very real, and, in the starkest terms, they are human costs. But the crowning evil unleashed by coronavirus is what it has done to our public discourse, not exactly in the pink beforehand but now on a ventilator.
As the outbreak took hold, the commentariat (and those with Twitter accounts) appointed themselves epidemiologists and shrieked about “flattening the curve,” and then once that had been accomplished, less persuasively about “crushing the virus.” The crisis ground on. The weeks lapsed into months. The unemployment figures shot up, although no observer needed statistics to confirm what they were experiencing: people wandering around in the middle of a weekday, dazed, glazed, with nothing to do and nowhere to go. At this point the erstwhile media “epidemiologists” dubbed themselves economists, banging on about dollars and cents.
Money is a fact of life. But just as critical is the human need for belonging, the sense of being part of a larger whole, and that’s hard to come by when you’re waiting for the figures in a bank account to tick higher with the latest government transfer. A job, an occupation, a career, a calling, these are the pursuits that help lend shape and purpose to participating in life. The media “economists” somehow missed that. “The rage invested in abstract politics,” the uncannily counterintuitive Holman Jenkins said, “is almost always displaced concern about our own status.” Bingo.
A contrary consensus may be forming. Every measure attempted to contain the novel coronavirus has come up short, not just here in the U.S., but everywhere. There have been several exhumations of the lockdowns—a sledgehammer (where maybe what’s required is a scalpel) that may have caused more harm than good—and any “crushing” of the virus is wishful thinking. The Spanish flu still exists. So does the Bubonic plague. We’re going to have to figure out an approach that allows us to live with the threat of Covid-19.
Stating as much are over 20,000 medical and public health scientists and medical practitioners, who, as of this writing, have signed the Great Barrington Declaration, which begins “As infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists we have grave concerns about the damaging physical and mental health impacts of the prevailing COVID-19 policies, and recommend an approach we call Focused Protection.” Read the whole thing on the website: gbdeclaration.org/ You may wish to join the over 200,000 members of the general public who have also signed it.
We are quirky and idiosyncratic and eccentric, because we are human, all too human. And I rejoice in that. But I’ll leave the last word to Rabbi David Zwiebel who heads Agudath Israel, the organization mentioned above. He wasn’t referring to any particular data set when he said, “We are now, you know, on the precipice of an enormous sense of despair.”