Sunday, May 10, 2020

Gotta shop?

So there's still a pandemic on, most states' curves have not yet flattened, and we have neither widespread testing nor reliable treatment protocols nor a vaccine for COVID-19. We're still learning about the effects of the virus on the human body; until last week, we thought kids didn't get it, but then epidemiologists in New York realized there was a new rash of kids dying of an unusual disease that appears to be linked to this coronavirus.

All that, and yet governors around the nation are beginning to reopen the economy in their states. Some are moving more cautiously than others, and in some states customers have yet to flock to stores. But this weekend in Arkansas, this was the checkout line at a TJ Maxx.

Supposedly the store had a sign on the door that masks were required for entrance, but clearly a whole lot of shoppers didn't bother with them.

I've also seen a photo from a restaurant in Castle Rock, Colorado, that violated that state's reopening restrictions by letting people dine in. The restaurant, by all accounts, was packed.

This all happened on the same day as the death toll from COVID-19 in the US topped 78,000. (Mama Google tells me that today's death toll, as I write this post, is 80,562.)

But why? What is behind the need to get out of the house, go to a physical store, paw through physical merchandise touched by many other (possibly unwashed) hands, and exchange droplets with other shoppers who can't be bothered to wear a mask, let alone stand six feet from you at all times?

I know, I know. There are Americans who have been told, and who truly believe, that COVID-19 is a Democratic hoax, or else it's germ warfare that was released deliberately by the Chinese, and anyway we're all going to get it eventually and lots of people recover, so why are we hiding from it?

Besides, there are upwards of 20 million Americans who have filed for unemployment insurance since we all went home in mid-March. A lot of them work in the service industry, but not for an essential service like a grocery store or car repair place. These people would like to see a paycheck again.

And we have a contingent of folks who aren't safe at home for a variety of reasons, including poverty, lack of food, and domestic abuse.

But then there are the folks who just have to shop. That's their hobby -- they get in the car and go to a store. And I believe they've been trained to behave that way.

I used to practice simple living back in the day. I ended up not being very good at it and gave it up. But I was still involved in the movement on 9/11, and so I was shocked when one of the first things out of President George W. Bush's mouth after the attacks was to encourage Americans to go shopping.

He couched it in terms of not letting terrorism win. But I honestly think there was more to it. I think the real aim was to keep the US economy from tanking.

Back in 1992, Bill Clinton beat Bush's father to become president with a campaign whose slogan was famously described by campaign strategist James Carville as, "It's the economy, stupid." It's a truism in American politics that presidents are usually re-elected when the economy is ticking along. in '92, Clinton convinced voters that it wasn't. In 2001, Bush the Younger was in the first year of his first term, but he knew voters would remember 9/11 and whether they'd felt safe, both physically and economically, with him at the helm.

Fast-forward to 2020 and COVID-19. The virus has no political agenda. It does not have the mind of a terrorist. It just does its thing -- whether or not we have a vaccine or a cure, or even a reliable treatment protocol. The safest thing to do -- the thing that will save the most lives -- is for everybody to stay away from everybody else for as long as it takes to develop a vaccine or a cure.

But President Trump is up for re-election this year, and it's still the economy, stupid. So our politicians will keep businesses closed just long enough to make sure the infection rate isn't going to overwhelm hospitals with new COVID-19 patients. Then all good, patriotic Americans will need to go back to work, shopping, and eating out.

Actually, maybe we won't keep things closed that long. Some governors -- and President Trump -- think the economy is more important than the lives of regular Americans. They're reopening even though the curve has yet to flatten. They talk about the death toll as if it's not real people dying.

The phrase that keeps coming back to me is cannon fodder. Back before we housed our front-line troops inside tanks (as we did in the war on Iraq in 2003), armies included a lot of infantry. They were the men who went in first, on foot, and it didn't matter whether they all died because they were a dime a dozen. Oh, we still called them heroes, especially if they didn't survive the battle. They'd given their lives for a noble cause, right?

Two months ago, when we all went home and were told to stay there, we began hailing our medical personnel and other essential workers as heroes. The idea made me squirm. Medical personnel are highly trained; presumably they had an idea of what they were getting into when they took the job. But grocery store cashiers? Uber Eats drivers? Not highly trained. Dime a dozen. Cannon fodder.

Now some retail workers are being told by their bosses they need to come back to work -- and if they don't, they'll be considered no-shows and will lose their unemployment benefits. Of course we could pay people to stay home and stay safe, if people were our priority. But they're not. The economy is our priority. And low-skilled workers are a dime a dozen. More cannon fodder.

The folks working shoulder-to-shoulder in meatpacking plants where the owners routinely flout health laws anyway, the people held in prisons, old folks in nursing homes -- they're all cannon fodder, too.

And those folks shopping at that crowded TJ Maxx? The ones who could not stay home a minute longer? I just don't think they understand how little their lives are worth to the people calling the shots.

These moments of less-than-cheerful blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell, who is planning to stay home 'til we have a vaccine.


ChrisJamesAuthor said...

This is a really good piece, Lynne; well written and well argued and making a lot of sense.

Lynne Cantwell said...

Thanks, Chris!