Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The Reality Crisis

I am a sucker for apocalyptic fiction.

I think it has something to do with having been a teenager during the 1980s, the last decade of the Cold War when it occasionally seemed genuinely possible an errant spy plane or some skirmish thousands of miles away could erupt into flat-out nuclear war. At least that’s what all those movies very convincingly suggested in ways that lodged permanently into a certain suggestible teen’s still-forming noggin’.

I’m talking about films like The Day After, Testament, Threads, Countdown to Looking Glass, Special Bulletin, When the Wind Blows, Miracle Mile, By Dawn’s Early Light and others belonging to the “here’s what it would be like” or “here’s how it could happen” categories. More fanciful stuff like Mad Max, WarGames, and Red Dawn also kept the possibility firmly foregrounded. Even silly titles like Spies Like Us used the potential of nuclear confrontation between the Soviets and America as a ready situation for the comedy.

When it comes to nuclear nostalgia, the “Duck and Cover” kids hiding under their desks during the 1950s tend to be referenced more often than whatever it was the children of the 1980s were experiencing as Reagan and Gorbachev’s brinkmanship waxed and waned.

Maybe it was just me, but when growing up it often felt like I was “overhearing” that conversation taking place among adults, us kids being mostly excluded from it all. That is to say, I have no memories of being addressed directly about any of it. No one seemed to be delivering specific warnings to me about fallout shelters, stockpiling two-week supplies of food and water, and other ways to Protect and Survive.

But the movies created an impression. So did books like Brave New World, The Plague, Nineteen Eighty-Four (which I first read in 1984), Day of the Triffids, Fahrenheit 451, On the Beach, The Stand, and the like. I’ve revisited a lot of these in recent years, while picking up others like Alas, Babylon, Z for Zachariah, and Swan Song. I’ve gone back to most of the movies, too, being drawn to them no doubt because of that early exposure (pun intended).

Besides Poker & Pop Culture, I’ve written a couple of novels, and in fact over the last couple of years have spent odd hours here and there plotting and writing early chapters of a third novel which unlike the first two is most certainly apocalyptic fiction.

What I have plotted out kind of follows a similar trajectory as the nuclear war stories in that it begins with an event that affects everyone in a detrimental way, only in my story what happens next is great uncertainty and debate about the event itself (among other conflicts).

That’s kind of abstract, I know, but I’m loathe to be more specific. Especially at this moment, when the real world has unexpectedly provided us with its own version of an order-disrupting, destructive event.

Perhaps because of this particular obsession interest, I started following the news out of Wuhan in the Hubei province of China relatively early on. This weekend I checked my history to see I first searched “coronavirus” on January 25, although I am sure I was reading articles about the then burgeoning outbreak a week or two before. In any case, I definitely followed it each day since, although like others here in America who were similarly doing so it seemed safely distant and thus less immediately concerning.

Don’t get me wrong. It was real and intensely horrific in its details, but thanks to the distance as well as China’s robust control of information about what was happening, it also all seemed well out of reach. Or that we seemed well out of reach, depending on how you look at it.

It wasn’t as though America was ignoring it, though. Starting February 2, foreign nationals (aside from immediate family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents) who had been in China at any point during the previous two weeks were prohibited from entering the U.S. And anyone coming from Hubei would be quarantined two weeks as well.

I watched the numbers of cases and deaths in China rise and rise, then appear to settle a bit. I heard about the case in Washington reported on January 21, a man who had been to Wuhan. We reached the last days of February with there still only being 15 cases reported in the entire country, not counting ones contracted by Americans who were aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Japan (and who were eventually flown back to the U.S.).

All of the cases were in Washington and California aside one each in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Texas. None had been reported for the last two weeks. And there were zero deaths. Yet.

I’d like to say I had grown more concerned, being relatively well informed and all as I was. But it wasn’t until Sunday, March 1 that I can say I realized that COVID-19 had arrived in earnest.

Two new cases in Washington had been reported the day before on Saturday, as was the first death. That was Leap Day, February 29. Both were from the same county as the original case in January. However neither of the individuals had been to China, nor had they had any contact with the original patient or with each other. They appeared to be examples of “community transmission,” a phrase and concept with which we have become familiar in the days since.

The next day came a report that researchers examining the virus genomes of both the first confirmed case from January and one of the two new ones found that the latter one was almost certainly descended from the former. A comparison of the genetic sequences revealed both contained a rare variation, almost unique among the nearly 60 samples of the virus they had been sent from China.

What did that mean? It meant that the two cases, despite being separated by six weeks and zero contact between the patients, were almost certainly linked. Further study of the sequences’ similarities enabled the researchers to estimate a range of 150-1,500 people might have been part of the chain of folks who passed it from one to the other, with the most likely range around 300-500.

Hundreds of people, undetected, each becoming a new node from which more (tens? hundreds?) could emanate. That got my attention. I started buying meds and food.

Ten days later we’re all watching basketball and readying for a prime time statement from the Oval Office. There would be a ban on “all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days,” we learned amid mean-spirited shots implying Europe’s culpability for our misfortune. There were additional measures, uncertainly read from the teleprompter and, as it turned out, either inaccurate or not real at all. There were more mistakes and/or misrepresentations than would seem possible in a 10-minute address (never mind one of such consequence), although we wouldn’t know about that until later.

The response was called “the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history.” The virus itself was being strangely characterized as though it were an invading enemy. Or a threat from abroad. It seemed a better fit for one of those movies mentioned above, not for the actual, real crisis.

The speech was unsettling -- not just for its content (as remarkable as it was), but also in the way it provided evidence further confirming a severe lack of leadership.

The short speech had just concluded when we learned Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert had the virus. Then that Tom Hanks had it. Then that the NBA had suspended its season. All within minutes. Suddenly it felt a little like 9/11 after the Pentagon was hit. What next?

Well, the shutting down of just about everything else was next, for starters. The market spiraling ever downward. More dire news both here and abroad. And deteriorating faith in leadership, with “I don’t know anything about it” (regarding the elimination of the government’s pandemic response team two years ago and not replacing it) and “I don’t take responsibility at all” (regarding the unpreparedness and slow response to providing testing) now destined to become captions describing this moment in our history.

Way, way back in the day -- like eight weeks ago -- I remember the impeachment trial. Do you? Long time ago, I know. And before that other debates involving our current government that often took the form of one side trusting in available, concrete evidence and the other believing in what appeared an entirely alternate reality unfettered by facts.

I remember referring to what was happening as a “reality crisis,” and noticing some others do the same. Many were still accepting objective, provable facts as a guide for our actions and decisions, but there was a surprisingly large percentage of people who were otherwise informed and thus unwilling to accept such evidence at all.

That crisis was frankly the theme I had thought to pursue in my fictional book, with the event itself actually causing havoc by disturbing our ability to comprehend what exactly had happened. Thus the early part of the book would cover the event and immediate effects, then the rest carry things forward to show how the different ways of interpreting the event created different factions opposed to one another and fighting for control over the present and over how we would view the past.

Again, sorry to be so abstract. But hopefully you can see how the story was inspired by this “reality crisis” that has been produced by American politics of the last three years, and how somehow we arrived at a place where a large percentage of us have chosen to believe a fictional version of reality over the real thing.

This divide has often been mistakenly labeled “partisanship,” but that is misleading in that it suggest traditional differences of opinion or even ideology. It isn’t a political disagreement, it’s an existential one.

Now the reality crisis is affecting the way Americans are responding to the spread of COVID-19, with those already accustomed to denying reality comfortably continuing to do so. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll conducted last Friday and Saturday by and released today shares evidence that supports this observation.

In fact, the poll includes one question directly asking people what they think is real:

“Do you think the coronavirus is a real threat or blown out of proportion?”

Just 56% of adults responded to say they believed COVID-19 was “a real threat,” with 38% saying it was being “blown out of proportion.” That in itself is jawdropping, as anyone who has paid any attention at all to what is happening in other countries and how quickly the spread of the virus and the devastation it causes has taken place should think otherwise.

The reality crisis can be seen in the party identification of respondents -- 76% of Democrats think the threat is real, while only 40% of Republicans do. Meanwhile more than half of Republicans -- 54% -- think the crisis is being overblown, while 20% of Democrats do.

It gets more incredible. This question also appeared on a previous poll taken on January 31 and February 1, when Americans had just begun to hear about what was happening in China and the first travel restrictions were being announced.

Then the overall percentage of adults who thought the threat was real was 66% -- in other words, higher than it is today. In fact, both parties are represented similarly in the earlier poll, with 72% of Republicans and 70% of Democrats saying it is a real threat.

You read that correctly. At the time the earlier poll was taken, there were eight U.S. cases reported and zero deaths. Today there have been nearly 4,700 cases reported and 88 deaths. And today fewer Americans believe the threat is real.

What happened over the intervening six weeks? A lot of downplaying of COVID-19. This effort to make the threat seem less severe (or not “real”) has come from many different sources, but I think anyone who has read this far knows who the most important influencers have been.

Here is the bottom line, though: Those who don’t believe the virus is a real threat are themselves a real threat -- not just to those of us who do, but to everyone.

Not believing in COVID-19 literally makes it stronger. That’s reality.

I’m reminded of a scene from The Day After that takes place about two-thirds of the way into the film, after the bombs have been dropped.

A Missouri family living on a farm has holed up in their basement to avoid being exposed to radioactive fallout. A college student who was trying to hitchhike home when the attack occurred finds the home and the family takes him in. Some days later the older daughter, driven stir crazy by the situation and anxiety over her fiancé, crazily runs out of the house and the hitchhiker goes out to get her.

Surrounded by dead farm animals, he tries to convince her that being outdoors is extremely dangerous. The threat is real.

“You can’t see it. You can’t feel it. You can’t taste it,” he says. “But it’s here. Right now. All around us.”

There are a lot of people in this country and elsewhere who need to be told this, and somehow convinced to believe it.

My novel has been on hold for a while, in part because Poker & Pop Culture got in the way but also because I now have another nonfiction book with an early summer deadline that I need to finish first. Whether or not I’ll be enthused to return to it in June or July is uncertain, given how likely it is that by then reality will have made the fiction I was imagining seem much less interesting. The “novel coronavirus” is challenging the novel, too.

Meanwhile my wife and I are both staying at home on the farm and plan to remain put for as long as is necessary. That means I might well be posting here again from time to time, too. By the way, the photos accompanying this article are from a few months ago and feature one of our fantastic “barn cats,” Nancy, who is equally adept at drama and comedy. (Click ‘em to embiggen.)

Let’s all do our best to stay in touch here, online, for the time being -- with each other, and with reality.

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