Jennifer Senior: The one kind of distancing we cannot afford

Last week, within the space of just 24 hours, two friends of mine — one an ICU nurse, the other an ER doctor — told me that they’d each watched a 50-year-old woman die of COVID-19.

I, too, am a 50-year-old woman. As I listened to their stories, I had to stifle the same unlovely impulse. “But did your patients have a preexisting condition?” I wanted to ask. “Were they fighting cancer, were they smokers, were they already floridly unwell?”

Which is ridiculous, honestly. Even if their patients had a history of heart disease or were partial to Camels, they no more deserved to die a frightening and solitary death than anyone else.

But my reaction, I think, was fairly typical of this exceptional moment, when reminders of our own mortality are never more than a few paces from our conscious, clattering minds: We are silently building moats that separate ourselves from the dead.

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It’s the other culturewide distancing campaign.

The first, we know about: to socially distance, which is deliberate and altruistic. But this one, to psychologically distance from the suffering and the deceased, is more furtive and fraught. It is certainly understandable, and probably even adaptive. But we’d do well to guard against it.

For Exhibit A, look no further than the Twitter account of David Lat, the 44-year-old lawyer, legal recruiter and founding editor of Above The Law, an immensely popular blog. Lat was diagnosed with COVID-19 in mid-March, and he’s tweeted about it ever since, save for the chilling stretch during which he was on a ventilator. When he returned, he posted a thread exploring the reasons some people die from COVID-19 while others suffer not at all.

He was suddenly pelted with queries about his own health. People were subtly probing to see whether there was a hidden reason he’d fallen ill.

I emailed Lat to ask him about this. (We would have spoken, but his voice is still ragged from intubation.) “Maybe I’m reading too much into things,” he replied, “but I received a number of responses that seemed to latch on excitedly to the mention of my exercise-induced asthma.”

That he ran two New York City Marathons with this asthma in his 30s — and did high-intensity interval training three times a week until he fell ill — didn’t move a number of his followers. (The bluntest response: “Asthma is still asthma, waiting to knock you out, and any severe respiratory illness reveals the fundamental weakness of your lungs.”) Nor did the fact that Lat was healthy in every respect: normal blood pressure, normal weight, didn’t smoke, barely drank.

“I have definitely had people trying to psychologically distance themselves from me and my case,” he said, “but I haven’t been surprised by these reactions — partly because, truth be told, I used to engage in them too.”

In a way, this bias is a modified, pandemic-ready version of the just-world fallacy, the bias that makes us believe that good things ultimately happen to good people and bad things ultimately happen to bad ones. We’d all like to believe there’s a reason for a person’s ill luck. That bad luck might be insolently random, working its way through the world with pitiless indifference to who or what we are, is simply too upsetting.

It is, of course, a natural instinct to fear our own mortality. In “The Denial of Death,” published in 1973, the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker went so far as to argue that our dread of dying is what motivates all of human behavior, that it’s responsible for the whole of culture, of civilization; how else to create meaning for ourselves?

But it’s irresponsible when this denial affects our political rhetoric, especially during a historic pandemic. “The risk to the average American is low” went the Trump administration mantra for weeks on end — meaning that older Americans weren’t average, and neither were smokers, or people with heart disease or diabetes or compromised immune systems.

Now we see that African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately dying, because they’re more apt to work high-exposure jobs and less apt to have access to high-quality health care. Are they not average either?

And what of all the Americans who are dying of COVID-19 for reasons doctors can’t discern at all?

How you speak about a disease matters, as Susan Sontag pointed out so long ago in “Illness as Metaphor.” It informs the very way that you treat it. When the president described COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus,” he wasn’t just deflecting blame for his slow response; he was explaining it. He thought of the novel coronavirus as something that happened only to Americans who went to China, or those who were in contact with people who had been to China. This was our testing policy for weeks.

It was, once again, Donald Trump’s own form of psychological distancing, and it had lethal consequences. It’s little different from the mentality that led young people to go tra-la-la-ing on the beaches of Florida over spring break, oblivious to the notion that they might silently spread the disease to the busboys who cleared their food, the cashier who handed them their beer, or their parents who waited for them back home. (It was also foolish for them to believe they were completely immune: Statistics say otherwise.)

The only way to fight this pandemic is through identification with its victims, not deliberate estrangement from them. As we spend weeks — months — in isolation, it’s our connectedness we ought to keep in mind. This virus affects us all. Je suis Covid.

(The New York Times) Jennifer Senior

Jennifer Senior is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.