The American View: It’s Time to Face Our Dawning Sense of Dread

COVID-19 isn’t going to magically ‘go away’ and neither are the severe disruptive effects that it’s had on our society, our economy, and our culture. There won’t be a ‘return to normalcy’ like the end of a movie. At least, not like the sort of happy, upbeat movie that everyone wishes we were living through … This applies as much to our ‘return to work’ plans as it does to our return to every other communal space and activity.

What happens next? That’s the question of the summer as America continues to thrash ineffectively like a drowning fool in a burning sewage plant in response to the bloody pandemic. Friends, family, neighbours, colleagues, and vendors have all pressed me about what our post-COVID ‘normality’ is going to look like. Will American society fundamentally – perhaps irrevocably – change because of what we’ve learned about collective responsibility and community mindedness? Or will everything re-set to square one? Will we return to our pre-2020 lives as if nothing every happened?

The latter option is what everyone wants. You can tell. After the U.S. botched the national testing plan and failed to develop any semblance of a plan, individual state governors made their own cynical calculations on the risk/reward equation and took a gamble on how best to balance economic growth against preventable deaths. Some states – like Texas – elected to ‘re-open’ early in the hope that everything would somehow work out. Our governor refused to set state-wide standards for protective public health measures; instead, he ‘asked’ citizens to take practical precautions whilst simultaneously forbidding county and city officials from enforcing public health standards. Good luck, Texans! You’re on your own! Hope you do the right thing!

What did people do? They did exactly what you’d expect them to do. Because, people.

Most Texans looked at the situation, calculated the odds, and wisely chose to maintain their essential protective measures. They continued to stay home except for necessary errands like getting food. They continued to wear masks and practiced physical distancing from strangers. They avoided crowds, especially indoors. That was our family’s take and still is. Same for most of our neighbours.

Ironically, I’ve seen 10X more of my neighbours since the pandemic started than I ever did before thanks to our once-a-day outdoor exercise regimen. Normally, we only recognize our neighbours’ cars.

Some Texans saw an opportunity to reassert ‘normalcy’ and immediately abandoned all of the mandatory and recommended protective measures that were slowing the infection rate. They rushed back to bars and nightclubs. They resumed dining out and visiting movie theatres. They packed the beaches. They caroused in the clubs. Hell, a bunch of ‘em partied about three blocks away at a neighbour’s pool. All across the state, adventurous folks crowded together while imbibing enough to forget rational risk mitigation … with predictably grim results.

On 7th May 2020, President Trump lavishly praised Gov. Abbott for Texas’s glorious ‘re-opening.’ Military stunt planes flew over our cities to (somehow) ‘celebrate’ our healthcare workers. Dallas County hadn’t yet reached 5,000 total reported Coronavirus infections. The tide had turned (the newsreaders said)! Everything was groovy again! Yahoo!

Like hell. At the start of August 2020, Dallas County alone surpassed 50,590 reported infections: a ten-fold increase over ninety days. Texas reached 448,000 infections across the state while more than 7,400 Texas were needlessly dead from COVID-19. Many of those folks ‘lucky’ enough to survive the infection might never fully recover. We re-opened too soon and too carelessly, and we paid an unacceptable price for our unwarranted overconfidence.

This is why we can’t have nice things … like a functioning society.

What does this suggest about the post-pandemic world, though? Put bluntly, what’s past is prologue: we’ve had our dress rehearsal for post-vaccine America, and we botched it. Most people stayed sensible and it didn’t freaking matter because a fateful few were so enthused to return to what they thought they’d had before that they brought the infection roaring back, effectively undoing all the progress we’d made. A few die-hard denialists ruined it for everyone else, harming themselves, their acquaintances, and scads of perfect strangers in the process. That’s what we have to look forward to. Anyone who says different is flogging fantasy, not facts.

They might as well be peddling tripe like “We’re not just going back to how it was like before the Coronavirus, buddy! We’re going back to the 1950s! Everyone will wear suits! Women will be happy languishing in the secretarial pool! All those gosh-darn minorities will remember their place! It’ll be a return to Utopia – you’ll see!”

Let’s be clear: modern America is currently saturated with deliberate misinformation that’s engineered to politicize and polarize every conceivable topic, all the better to polarize every conceivable issue into an artificial ‘culture war’ flashpoint. Even basic germ theory and the fundamentals of hygiene are somehow ‘up for debate’ to the point that some zealots will commit violent attacks on strangers rather than follow trivially-simple protective health measures. This is on top of our pre-existing virulent community of anti-vaccination fanatics; their ranks have swollen and gotten even more unhinged in the age of Coronavirus. Then there are our best-known export: the irascible contrarians who simply won’t do anything they’re told because they refused to take orders or advice from anyone. These people will still live among us after a working COVID-19 vaccine is both finalized and widely distributed. For how long, though, is anyone’s guess.

What this means, in pragmatic terms, is that we’re not going back to the ‘good old days.’ Whenever we finally lick this problem – be it in 2021 or later – we’re still going to have to contend with a large population of people that are perpetually vulnerable – through their anti-social behaviour – to contracting the Coronavirus and are motivated – through their individualist attitudes – to put others at risk of death or life-long crippling injury by spreading it. As dark reflections of society, this isn’t new. Our post-pandemic future probably looks a hell of a lot more like George Romero and Dario Argento’s zombie flick Dawn of the Dead than probably any other piece of modern media available. [1]

If you haven’t seen it, Romero’s 1978 follow-up to his genre-defining 1968 masterpiece Night of the Living Dead explores America three weeks into a ‘zombie apocalypse.’ Summarized briefly, a handful of survivors take refuge in an abandoned shopping mall. By barricading themselves inside, they enjoy a life full of comfort and relaxation, surrounded with all the modern comforts they enjoyed before whatever caused the dead to rise. The survivors’ problems – the shambling undead – are kept safely outside, even though the risen dead seem drawn to the mall, as if they yearn to reconnect with what was most important to them in life.

Yes, Romero’s story was both a satire and a vicious condemnation of America’s consumer culture. Even in death, Americans want the latest fashions.

Just because our entire economy is crumbling underneath us – exposing millions of innocent people to unnecessary suffering – is no reason to dress ‘business casual.’

The idyllic safety of living in the mall comes to an abrupt and violent end when a gang of bikers break the barriers and allow the undead to pour into the mall. It was the 70s; biker gangs were common movie shorthand for anti-establishment forces and insidious divergent ideologies back then. Depending on which version of the movie you saw, either everyone dies or almost everyone dies. What matters most is that a few anti-social cowboys ruined the serene ‘new normal’ for everyone (including themselves) by violating safe health practices and allowing the infected to reach – and kill – the uninfected. Does that sound a bit on the nose? It darned well should.

The tranquil future we all yearn for – one where a single shot keeps us safe forever and COVID-19 is permanently banished to the history books – just isn’t realistic. First, we have to come up a vaccine that’s close to 99% effective and then immunize everyone. We may still need to task annual booster shots like we do now for influenza. Even then, there will always be some people that either can’t take it or for whom it isn’t effective. Even if the Coronavirus never mutates – which it has been and will continue to – a global vaccination campaign will never be completely effective; there will always be some people vulnerable to it … and, therefore, able to infect others.

Of course, that assumes that everyone falls in line with the vaccination plan. That people receive their inoculation on-time and practice whatever continuing safety measures are needed. Given what we already know about Texas-style contrarians, it should be obvious that ain’t gonna happen. We’re absolutely going to continue to suffer a die-hard percentage of the population who obeisantly refuse to comply. These people will still want to access to our consumer culture just like everyone else: they’ll want to dine in restaurants, carouse in clubs, sit beside us on busses and trains, shop beside us in malls and grocers … They’ll want to be every bit as engaged in civil society as vaccinated people will. It doesn’t matter whythey’ll refuse to meet minimum requirements for re-joining the consumer economy; we have to prepare for how to live with them and the threat that they represent rather than bicker with them about their beliefs.

So … how draconian does a post-pandemic America have to be to balance one’s individual right to be a contrarian jack-wagon and one’s responsibilities to the community to not freaking kill one another? To be blunt, we don’t know. We’ve reached a significant fracture line in Americans’ vision of who we are and what we stand for. We weren’t prepared to address this when the plague arrived and we’ve made little meaningful progress since.

We’ve been a bit busy asking the powers-that-be to stop murdering us with impunity. As priorities go, that is pretty darned important …

The logical answer is the same one we teach Scouts about citizenship: your rights as an individual are inextricably connected to your responsibilities to your community. Put another way, your right to swing your fist ends where my face is. Sometimes, a person’s petty preferences have to take a backseat. If a person isn’t willing to meet their obligations, then someone – presumably the state – has to step in and stop them from harming others without those others’ consent. That makes sense … and it’s also wholly anathema to a population raised from birth on the myth of unassailable narcissistic individualism. Forget E Pluribus Unum; what’s Latin for ‘I DO WHAT I WAAAAAAAAAANT!’?

Texas has already shown what happens when state government is unwilling to take any unpopular action that would protect the majority of citizens from a few dangerous malcontents. Essential restrictions like holding people accountable to meet minimum safety requirements in public places. ‘Asking’ people to behave and not enforcing minimum standards looks like body bags in overloaded morgues. Politicians can’t have it both ways.

So, we’re not about to crack down and force people to do what’s necessary. We’re not to deprive people of their hallowed personal liberties. Why, that would be un-American! So, instead, we’re going to fight over access to community resources. Who is allowed where and when? How many deaths are ‘acceptable’? How much restriction is endurable until we buck the law and suffer contagion? Is an infected person with no mask sufficient provocation to defend themselves with lethal force? These bloody stupid questions are going to get hashed out in shops, bars, offices, and malls all across America until we collectively realign our individual, local, and national priorities, thereby create a new-normal that balances our rights and responsibilities. It’s going to be ugly, and a lot of innocent people are going to pay for every stupid, counterproductive mistake.

If you thought, ‘But Keil, that’s a national zeitgeist problem. We have a business to run!’ you’ve lost the plot. This is going to get played out in the office, like it or not. The American economy is teetering. 54 million Americans are grappling with unemployment while states are running out of funds to cover it. Companies are going bankrupt from the decline of consumer spending. Mass evictions are imminent across the country as citizens lose faith in essential institutions like city government and law enforcement. All of this is coming with workers when they attempt to return to the office. There’s no escaping it. As comfy as your cubicles may be, the people tentatively pretending that ‘everything is fine’ know darned well that it isn’t. At the very least, they’re perpetually distracted and anxious; at worst, they’re operating on a hair-trigger, ready to explode at the slightest provocation.

These meetings are going to be excruciating. They’re also absolutely necessary. We have to be brave enough to face the issues head-on.

We have to address this. NOW. Not to satisfy some ‘industry best-practice’ or tick a box on an HR checklist, but because our people are hurting. So long as our workers are fearful, our shared spaces are potentially lethal, and our economy is unravelling, there isn’t anything more important to talk about. Except … we don’t want to. Those conversations are uncomfortable. The decisions we have to make are unsettling and won’t be popular.

You know, just like those exact same conversations that needed to be sorted at the state, county, and community level … and weren’t. Because they were too uncomfortable. Too unsettling. So everyone waited for someone else to fix the problem in the forlorn hope that ‘they’ would take the heat for it. Look how well that’s worked out for us.

That’s why, I’m afraid, The United States’ near-future will play out pretty much beat-for-beat like Romero’s English-language cut of Dawn of the Dead. We can only keep the infected and the uninfected apart for so long before some maverick goes and forces the confrontation that our politicians have been trying to pray away. Everyone wants American consumer culture back. We want total freedom to live our lives carefree in a world where that’s no longer an option.

The second-most important question is how long do we have to wait until some irresponsible jack-wagon forces the issue and makes all hell break loose? The most important question is how many of us will be left when the end credits roll?


[1] Not Zack Snyder’s 2004 godawful loose re-interpretation of the same name. Rather than go off on an angry rant about this, I enthusiastically recommend YouTube superstar Maggie Mae Fish’s video essay ‘We’re Already Ded || Zack Snyder Part 2’ for a comprehensive and insightful explanation of how Snyder both metaphorically and literally lost the plot.

Pop Culture Allusion: George Romero and Dario Argento, Dawn of the Dead (1978 film)


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