An aphorism of online life goes: Every day, the internet picks a hero and a villain, and you hope that neither one is you.
On Wednesday, the villain was a conservative editor named Bethany Mandel, who tweeted, in what I’m guessing was a moment of extremis, “You can call me a grandma killer. I’m not sacrificing my home, food on the table, all of our docs and dentists, every form of pleasure (museums, zoos, restaurants), all my kids’ teachers in order to make other people comfortable. If you want to stay locked down, do. I’m not.”
Naturally, people did indeed call her a grandma killer. For a while the phrase was a top-trending topic on Twitter. But despite her callous language, I couldn’t help feeling a stab of sympathy for Mandel’s anger and exasperation. It is only natural that after almost two months of something like house arrest, people are starting to lose their minds. The president of the United States and much of the Republican Party are signaling that all this suffering is unnecessary, a prim sort of virtue signaling. And they’ve squandered the time bought by the sacrifices of the citizenry, so there is no national plan for a safe reopening. The lockdowns thus seem to have no clear endpoint.
In a functional country, the federal government would be assuring people that all they’ve given up has been necessary and not in vain. In this one, it’s every state — and, in some cases, every person — for themselves. As Andy Slavitt, a senior health care official in the Obama administration, tweeted earlier this week, the Trump administration has essentially decided, “It’s a long and difficult road and after we climbed halfway we decided it was too hard and decided to roll back down the Hill.”
Meanwhile, the people who are following the rules — who do trust the scientific consensus — look on with terror as any semblance of a national public health plan collapses, as states reopen even where coronavirus infections are rising and people are forced back to work whether they feel safe or not.
The only tool ordinary people have to try to combat this deadly entropy is public shame, and so there’s been an enormous amount of it, both online and off. “The Social Media Shame Machine Is In Overdrive Right Now,” said a BuzzFeed headline. Indignant people are posting photographs of neighbors violating social distancing guidelines and flooding the police with tips. The mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, has urged residents to “socially shame” anyone not wearing a mask or gathering in large groups. “What is clear is that people across Tampa Bay are watching each other in ways that range from vigilant to possibly obsessive,” said a piece in the Tampa Bay Times.
Donald Trump has polarized the response to the coronavirus so that compliance with public health directives is coded as progressive, and defiance is conservative. But people on the left used to know that when it comes to public health, shaming is generally an ineffective strategy. “Shaming people is, I think, like ‘Just Say No to Drugs,’” Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health, told me. “It doesn’t deal with people’s psychology, with people’s economic circumstances, their own fears and anxieties, and so it just seems wrong to me.”
Gonsalves was a prominent activist during the AIDS epidemic, and remembers how agonizing many people found it to change their behavior in the 1980s. “If you’re going to tell people they can’t have sex for 40 years, people would be pissed. And there were a lot of people who were upset about the introduction of safer sex. You have to go back to harm reduction: You meet people where they’re at.”
So far, most Americans have responded to the coronavirus crisis with remarkable generosity and solidarity, shutting down their lives and in many cases enduring economic devastation to protect themselves, their families and their communities. They’re doing it despite a federal government that has largely forsaken responsibility for them, forcing everyone to figure out their own private path forward. But it’s not surprising that lots of people are starting to chafe, especially given messages from high officials that coming out of lockdown is brave rather than selfish. (On Tuesday, the president described citizens reopening the economy in the face of the virus as “warriors.”) “This is what happens when your leadership is totally collapsed, it’s no longer guided by facts or evidence or data,” Gonsalves said.
We’re left with a patchwork of state responses, some serious and responsible, some nihilistic. In states that are being guided by public health, it would help to have more communication about what a return to a minimally bearable way of life might look like. New York, for example, has put out a phased plan for the reopening of different types of businesses, but I haven’t seen any guidance on when even small-scale socializing might resume. If people believe they’ve going to have to sacrifice “every form of pleasure” in perpetuity, they won’t.
Given that the coronavirus is likely going to be with us for months or years, we’re going to need to find harm reduction models of socializing to make life bearable. Many people I know have teamed up with other families to share some of the child care burdens and give their kids playmates, but they don’t talk about it lest they seem to be engaging in, or encouraging, irresponsible behavior. They might be slightly increasing their risk, but they’re also increasing the amount of time they can live this way without cracking.
“If we had a rational, national conversation about what’s going on, we could start to have these conversations,” Gonsalves said. “When is it safe to open up your immediate social unit to one or two other people? We need some of this guidance, and we’re not getting it. I’m a public health person, and I don’t know what to do.”
It’s natural that people are struggling with formulating, enforcing and abiding by new social norms. There are villains here, but they’re not the ones desperate to escape this awful new half-life we’re all living. They’re the ones whose job it was to chart a way out, and just gave up.
Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.