Now, more than ever, it seems important for U.S. citizens to be skeptical about the information we receive from the media. As has been demonstrated in study after study, we as humans are most likely to follow media that agrees with our predetermined opinions at the expense of critically thinking about media that offers alternative views. For example, memes and articles recently circulating in the media claim that President Trump’s signature on economic stimulus checks will delay their delivery to recipients. In reality, it doesn’t matter whose signature is printed on economic stimulus checks—it could be Mickey Mouse’s—and the printing and mailing times would not be affected. The content of a document sent to print does not affect how quickly it can be processed; that is a matter of mechanics. If the media wanted to evaluate the President’s hubris, on the other hand, it would be a different discussion.
Distrust of media that disagrees with our predetermined opinions is common today, and there is even confusion regarding the facts. A fact is something that seems fixed and indisputable; for example, I am writing this on April 21, 2020, and the sun rose this morning at 6:33 a.m. Another fact is that there have been 43,995 deaths attributed to coronavirus in the U.S. as of today.
It is not difficult to achieve widespread agreement on what a fact is. The difficulty arises when we ask what a fact means and how we can interpret it: Is 43,995 a large number in the context of deaths in the U.S. in early 2020? Is 43,995 a small number? Does it matter where the deaths have occurred? Does the age of the deceased matter? Does it matter if the number of deaths increases or decreases? By how much, and in what time frame? No matter how we as individuals answer these questions, we could probably agree that death and its causes are serious matters, especially when it comes to people we know and love: our partners, parents, children, grandchildren, friends, mentors, coworkers, caretakers, and even our favorite bartender or barista. I would like to believe that most of us care about at least one other living human being, though I’ll admit that’s only my opinion.
As a U.S. citizen who is trying to wade through the onslaught of information about the coronavirus pandemic in order to do my best by those I care about and love, I am following the media. As mentioned before, I sometimes encounter claims that raise my skeptical hackles. One such claim that made recent headlines is that coronavirus has now become the number one cause of death in the U.S. in 2020, surpassing cancer and heart disease! Immediately, my disbelief flared. It did not seem true because it did not fit in with my previous knowledge about causes of death in the U.S. If a disease came along that caused more deaths than the two previous leading causes combined, that would be one badass disease and worth combatting to the extreme of our social and scientific efforts.
But the claim seemed too outrageous (to me) to be true, and upon investigation, I discovered it was false, though not without a basis in fact. Coronavirus is not the leading cause of death in the U.S. for 2020, but for one week, from April 6-12, numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that Covid-19 killed more people “than any other cause of death except heart disease typically does in a normal April week,” as reported by Dan Keating and Chiqui Estaban in The Washington Post. In other words, coronavirus beat cancer as a cause of death for one week in April, 2020, as compared with previous statistics. This remains an alarming fact and reason enough that most U.S. citizens would agree that we, as a society, should take measures to combat the spread of coronavirus to save lives.
If we had a vaccine to prevent Covid-19 infection, widespread inoculations would be the answer, but at this point, we don’t. Scientists around the globe are working to develop a vaccine according to media reports. This reminds me that a minority of U.S. citizens would resist the vaccine and inoculation anyway, based on the belief that vaccines have negative side effects, like autism. Even the facts—that smallpox has been eradicated worldwide due to a vaccine, and that polio is 99% eradicated due to a vaccine—do not dissuade anti-vaxers who must believe that autism is the greater evil.
Without a vaccine, the best way we have come up with to avoid widespread Covid-19 infection is social distancing, which is basically avoiding human contact. The CDC recommends that we stay at least six feet from other people, avoid gathering in groups, and stay out of crowded places and away from mass gatherings. In order to limit human contact, forty-two states have issued stay-at-home orders, basically mandating that we (nonessential workers) stay home except when we need food, medical care, or other necessities like toilet paper. In West Virginia, where I live, the state issued a stay-at-home order effective at midnight on March 17, 2020. My partner and I have been sheltering in place for thirty-five days with no end to isolation in sight. When we must go out to forage for supplies, we wash our hands before and after leaving home and wear cloth masks in public. For me, the cloth masks are symbolic as much as preventative. A mask indicates that I am taking the pandemic seriously, that others should stay six feet away from me, and that I care about the health and well-being of other people who live in my proximate community.
Even though my cloth masks are made of colorful, tightly woven cotton by a local seamstress, they are tedious to wear. Breathing in a cloth mask feels like breathing in a claustrophobic sauna and often fogs my glasses up. Donning a cloth mask, however, also gives me new respect and empathy for professions that require close face coverings and seems like a small sacrifice. I don’t know how long it will be necessary to wear a mask in public spaces, just like I don’t know when West Virginia’s stay-at-home order will be lifted. The uncertainty causes me anxiety, and I am not alone. Across the country, many U.S. citizens are growing frustrated and tired of social distancing mandates. Demonstrations to protest coronavirus lockdowns have erupted from Michigan to Texas, from North Carolina to Oregon. There are rumors the protestors are funded by or paid in some way by political groups; either way, they set a bad example. Chuck Todd, television journalist and former Chief White House correspondent, spoke with Boston Public Radio about how long he thinks we, mostly compliant citizens, will obey social distancing guidelines. Todd gives us until May 1, when he says parts of society will have to open back up. He said, “That might mean half capacity movie theaters, half capacity baseball stadiums, my point being, I just think it’s needed in order to keep society from losing it.”
Listen, I want to go to a baseball game as much as the next guy, even if I have to wear a mask. In fact, before the onset of the pandemic, we had tickets to join family and friends in Milwaukee to watch the Brewers play the Cubs on Memorial Day weekend. Unfortunately, Wisconsin’s stay-at-home order has been extended until May 26, the Tuesday after Memorial Day weekend, a prime holiday for large gatherings where coronavirus could have a picnic. I had anticipated seeing my two beautiful granddaughters, my high school best friend who was flying in from Dallas, and other people important to me. The cancellation of Memorial Day weekend events in Milwaukee is sad and depressing, so when the media tells me that social distancing and isolation might extend into 2022, I want to rip off my face mask and run amok in the local grocery store kissing everyone I meet. “Losing it” is an understatement in my protest fantasies. I can understand “losing it” given the uncertainty of how long social distancing will last, and the disappointment it elicits.
An alternative prediction about social distancing emerges from a study done by Harvard researchers, led by professor of immunology Yonatan H. Grad and professor of epidemiology Marc Lipsitch. The research team has performed computational models that indicate many shorter periods of isolation, or “intermittent distancing,” are favorable over a single extended isolation. Intermittent distancing would depend on the fluctuating numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths. When the numbers go up, social distancing would be mandated. When the numbers go down, society could open up. In order to protect ourselves and the people we care about, I predict the acceptance of intermittent distancing will become the new norm.
I can imagine that even when a vaccine for Covid-19 is available, we will remain on alert for the next mutant virus to emerge. We’ll hang onto our face masks—cloth or disposable—and be prepared at any time to comply with stay-at-home orders. In the post-coronavirus world, we’ll have a greater fear of proximity to strangers and outsiders, and we’ll commit instead to circles of known people. Our lives will become more local since contact contamination is a hazard of travel; ask the poor suckers stuck on cruise ships when the pandemic was announced by President Trump. And if cruise ships are a high-risk setting, so are airports, airplanes, buses, and trains; we might even add travel plazas and gas stations to the list. Some of us will remain leery of stadiums, theaters, and concerts, or any place that the crowd is at mosh pit density. Virtual events, virtual education, virtual business meetings, and telemedicine will replace, to some extent, face-to-face encounters and body-to-body experiences.
When I gaze into my crystal ball, I can see with absolute certainty that 2020 is a watershed year for changes in how humans will interact in the future. Distancing, intermittent or not, will become the new norm. In order to know when it’s safe to go outside, we’ll rely on media as our primary source of information. Evaluating sources will help us determine risk, interpret facts, and prioritize what matters, which for me includes the health of a Venn diagram of people and communities near and far. It’s hazier when I try to see when it will be safe to travel to Milwaukee. I want to hug those granddaughters and see the Cubs play the Brewers at Miller Stadium. But uncertainty has turned my crystal ball into an 8-ball. It says, “Reply hazy try again.”