Michelle Goldberg: The pandemic’s inhuman demands

Few can endure the loneliness that is a moral requirement of this moment.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Masks are a common sight in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. The Utah Department of Health on Friday reported a seven-day average of 2,702 new positive test results per day — below last week’s rate of nearly 3,000.

Journalist Anne Helen Petersen recently asked, on Twitter, for articles about the “long-term psychological effects” of the pandemic. She soon noticed that many of the replies were about the damage it was doing to children.

Seeing this crystallized something I’d been dimly aware of. The strange politics of the coronavirus have created a taboo, at least in certain progressive circles, in talking too much about the emotional suffering wrought by nine months of purgatorial isolation. It’s easier to discuss what it’s doing to our kids, because we feel justified in trying to spare them pain.

If, before this year, I felt for a day the way I now feel all the time, I’d consider it an emergency and do anything I could to fix it. Now that I’m waiting out a pandemic in a small apartment with small kids and winter closing in, most things I’d need to do to be less miserable are proscribed, though sometimes by suggestion rather than decree. In many cases, it’s up to each of us to decide how much seclusion, how much joylessness, how much boredom and frustration we can tolerate, even though the pandemic means that whatever risks we take for relief aren’t ours alone.

So emotional respite has become a public good. Many conservatives, not surprisingly, feel entitled to make whatever use of the commons they want. Throwing gratuitous holiday parties is like the social equivalent of “rolling coal,” modifying vehicles to be extra polluting and thus own the libs.

By contrast the liberal response, at least publicly, has often been an expectation of near-total social abstinence. Some blue states made this official in November, banning most gatherings of people who don’t live together, even when they’re outdoors. But even without edicts, the rules seem clear enough.

When journalist Will Leitch wrote an essay about living a life that’s careful but not completely locked-down, he titled it, “Confessions of Pandemic Risk-Taker.” As Julia Marcus, a public health researcher at Harvard Medical School, wrote in The Atlantic, “Americans have been told during this pandemic that taking any risks, no matter how carefully calculated, is a sign of bad character.”

I don’t blame public health authorities for this. America — though not only America — has let the virus get so out of control that only inhuman measures can begin to contain it. But people will, naturally, rebel against modes of living that are inhuman. A privatized, shame-based pandemic response is inadequate and doomed to fail. It is also, until vaccines are widely distributed, all we have.

This weekend, Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus response, became the latest political leader exposed as an apparent coronavirus hypocrite. Birx had warned Americans, rightly, not to travel over Thanksgiving, or celebrate with people outside their household. But according to The Associated Press, the day after Thanksgiving, she went to one of her Delaware vacation properties with her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren. (She said in a statement that they went to winterize the place, and that they’re all part of the same “immediate household,” though they live in different homes.)

Birx joins a dubious pantheon that includes Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, who attended a dinner party at an opulent Napa Valley restaurant after exhorting citizens to social distance, and Mayor Steve Adler of Austin, Texas, who recorded a video telling people to stay home while he was on vacation in Mexico. Obviously, such lapses reek of entitlement and irresponsibility; leaders have a duty to model the sacrifices they demand of others. Perhaps the reason they keep happening, though, is that few can endure the loneliness that is a moral requirement of this moment.

Often, when people find themselves unable to live up to public standards, it inspires discussion and literary confession. But with a few exceptions — Leitch’s piece is one — the pandemic makes candor about transgressive behavior harmful. No one who takes the disease seriously wants to create a permission structure for people to endanger others because they just can’t bear to keep living the way we’re all supposed to.

In April, when the pandemic was still new, I interviewed a community leader in a particularly hard-hit Brooklyn housing project who told me, frankly, that she and her friends weren’t social distancing because they needed each other too much, especially in apocalyptic times. “You don’t want to know that your friends and family are going to lock you out because there’s zombies outside,” she said.

I couldn’t help but sympathize. At the time my family, vastly more privileged, had moved in with friends at a remote country house, hoping to wait out a disaster we expected to end in a month.

We’re alone now, but I understand people who decide they can’t be, even if these decisions are collectively calamitous. My guess is that when this ends, many will start talking about the loopholes they found to avoid losing their minds. For now, as this hellish year reaches its end, solace and guilt are intertwined.

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.