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Weeds: Divided by a common threat

I have this picture in my head of us all sitting around when the pandemic is over and saying, “What the heck just happened?”

We’re trained from youth on to prepare for bad things. Fire drills, tornado warnings, duck-and-cover in the event of nuclear war: all manner of dreadful events are possible in our minds. A virus that moves around the globe, morphing into deadlier variants, arriving in surges like waves on the beach? Hadn’t really planned for that one.

I remember as a teenage reader being taken with the book “The Andromeda Strain.” That was a 1969 science fiction tale about a satellite that returns to Earth bearing a deadly microorganism from space that kills almost everyone it comes in contact with. It becomes a harrowing story of a group of scientists racing against time to save humanity.

“The Andromeda Strain” was more dramatic and fast-paced than the COVID strain, although the part about heroic scientists follows. Our non-science fiction pandemic is definitely not fast-paced. Here we are, well into our second year of dealing with this wretched virus. We know now COVID is unlikely to “end.” It will eventually join the list of afflictions that make life something of a crapshoot. For now, it is too virulent to ignore and hope for the best.

Historians will have a field day dissecting what happened. This has affected every place on Earth where members of our species reside. Most events we study in history are isolated. The World Wars didn’t cover the “world.” This global pandemic is really, truly global.

As for historians analyzing our actions and reactions, good luck to them. Those of us living this in real time can’t make sense of it. I don’t, won’t, and never will understand how this became something we fight over. We’ve managed to pack an enormous amount of divisiveness, rancor, and just plain old arguing into the last 20 months.

Did it have to be this way? Is it possible to imagine we could have come together for the better of everyone? We faced a challenge that was most threatening to the weakest and most vulnerable. Shouldn’t that have united us?

When a tornado tore through Comfrey, hundreds of people showed up to help. If a farmer is injured during harvest, dozens reach out to the family. I could go on with examples of humanity and compassion. That is in us. In those cases, the reaction is “How can I help? What can I do?”

Since March 2020, we’ve known things we can do. And in fact, most people have done those. I am talking about a minority who fought against the notion of a common good. But guess who stands out in a room of 20 small children? The 19 behaving or the one screaming in the corner?

When I found myself in a conversation with someone upset at measures being taken here, I pointed out that these same tools were being used in every country on the planet, democracy or dictatorship. Mozambique. Uzbekistan, and Peru are doing the exact same things we are. There is striking consensus among scientists and health officials everywhere.

From the beginning, we have had to waste valuable time and effort quarreling. Mistrust, pettiness, name-calling, you name it. Every negative quality has flowed like a river. Flight attendants, shop owners, waiters have all been abused. Good grief, there are stories of nurses being attacked verbally.

At the beginning, we had a president who told us things that weren’t true. I don’t think he was lying. I just think he is not intelligent enough to know what he doesn’t know and to listen to people smarter than him. Knowing what you don’t know and listening to smart people are important skills.

He wasn’t helpful, but I don’t blame him for the ongoing divisions. The seeds for that were sown before. Analyzing those seeds will be a chore for those historians I refer to. This should be a golden age of cooperation. The internet means each of us has access to all the collected knowledge of humanity, something undreamt of by previous generations.

Turns out the internet is also an ideal way to spread fakery and deception. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone who is disparaging masks or vaccinations say, “I saw a video…”

Mark Twain’s admonition takes on new meaning: “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.” A falsehood on Instagram or TikTok is around the world in a nanosecond. The truth might not even be out of bed.

Nothing has been more contentious than wearing a mask in certain settings. Early on I thought if there is a tiny chance that I’m protecting you by wearing one, why wouldn’t I?

Our daughter spent parts of the pandemic living in Europe and Central America. She reports that people there willingly adapted to masks. My six-year-old grandson wears a mask in the Rochester schools. His parents point out to him that he is protecting people. Like his grandparents.

With the instincts of a child, he understands that. Yet, among adults, arguments broke out every day over that simple effort. The ability to focus on a larger good over personal comfort is a mark of maturity. For society to function, the needs of the community have to sometimes rise above the wants of the individual.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of the contentious sides people take on every issue, is that intelligent and reasoned debate is pushed out. There are important discussions to be made about how best for schools, businesses, etc. to proceed as we work through the pandemic’s stages. I have not agreed with every decision made. But when one group won’t accept the science or medicine the rest of us are working from, the foundation for rational dialogue doesn’t exist. Instead of thoughtful deliberation, we have another argument. Just what we don’t need.

We have to worry about problem-solving amidst crises we will face in the future. It’s probable our country will face graver challenges. Are we going to react to those by arguing among ourselves? We may not have the luxury of the time that COVID gave us. If there were a Pearl Harbor today, would 30% of us blame the other party and insist it was a government hoax?

All this is heavy and depressing stuff. What good is a global pandemic if you can’t have a little fun with it? I’ve gone back to wearing a mask during the recent spike in COVID as I go about my business in town. I’ve taken to telling whoever I’m working with, “Yeah, my wife says I look better with it on.” That’s a joke.

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