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Lessons from a third pandemic

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I can remember the late 1940s and early 1950s when we kids weren’t allowed to go swimming in public swimming pools because of the polio epidemic. That was my first experience with epidemics, and a few things I learned from it were (1) you have to take epidemics seriously because they kill people, (2) we’re all in this together, and (3) we trust the scientists.

My second experience with an epidemic, or pandemic given its worldwide spread, was of AIDS. I took that seriously, too, for obvious reasons. We listened to the science as it evolved (and it did evolve over the course of the years), but we also were appalled when the phenomenon of “barebacking” occurred. This was an insane movement among a very small percentage of gay men who insisted on having anal intercourse without condoms. I never could understand its wellsprings. Were these men suicidal? Homicidal? Did they imagine they were exhibiting a dashing form of derring-do machismo by tempting the virus (as if the virus knew or cared) to infect them, the way a matador waves a red flag at a bull?

Now I’m experiencing my third epidemic/pandemic. In the anti-mask, pro-Trump movement I see the natural descendants of the barebackers. It shares with its notorious predecessor the same insane oblivion to the facts, but it’s much worse. At least the barebackers weren’t denying the science; they merely chose to ignore it. And at least the barebackers weren’t exposing the greater community at large to the virus; the only people they put at risk were those dumb enough to have sex with them. With these latter-day anti-maskers, they pose a risk to everybody: their neighbors, friends, family members, co-workers, people who work with public exposure like cashiers and bus drivers. The barebackers, in other words, weren’t being disrespectful to everyone they met. The anti-maskers are.

I admit to making inferences when I see chronic anti-maskers, like the family in my building: Three people whom I assume to be mom, dad and girl about 12 years old. I’ve never seen any of them wear a mask in our common areas like elevators, stairwells, lobby and front courtyard—not a single time in all these months, and this despite notices we’ve posted all over the building that our County requires face masks. So, for that matter, does our State of California, and our country. So why, I wonder, would a family choose to disregard this request? I haven’t asked any of them, because I get the feeling I’d only be met with a hostile response, but I can make inferences. And my inference is that these are people who don’t care about their neighbors, who don’t believe in science or who maybe believe science is a liberal hoax. They probably support Trump. And there’s no doubt that they’re setting their little girl up with a horrible example of anti-social, malign behavior. (The father smokes cigarettes too, which does not raise them in my esteem.)

Ordinarily, I would say that someone else’s health practices are none of my business, but of course in this case it is my business, because they touch the same elevator handles, the same doorknobs as I do. Their exhalations go into the same lobby air as I breathe. They put me, a senior at high risk of infection, in even greater danger than I would ordinarily be. And it’s this sort of behavior I can’t fathom. It is exactly the same behavior we see at every Trump rally—behavior sanctioned by Trump himself, whose message from the start of the pandemic has been, “Nothing to get excited about. Don’t bother wearing masks or social distancing. Cases will soon be down to zero.”

Republicans already inclined to irrational thinking, which is most of them, succumbed quickly to this narrative. It didn’t help that so many of them have jettisoned their critical thinking abilities through belief in superstitious religious nonsense. When you’ve suspended your ability to think rationally for year after year by believing that the Bible is literally true and that its explication by rapacious preachers is the word of God, you can no longer make reasonable decisions about anything, including whom to vote for for President. This is the prime reason why the Founding Fathers, those eminent disciples of The Enlightenment, were so insistent on separating religion from the new nation’s governance, by keeping religion out of the Constitution.

Sadly, that enlightened attitude has been under attack from America’s beginnings, by fundamentalist Christians who want to live in a theocracy run by High Priests who use the Bible to write their version of sharia. In this, their goal—the goal of the fundamentalists—is no different from the goal of the Mullahs who run Iran. The only difference is that the Iranian people have allowed this to happen with hardly a ripple of protest, whereas in America, thank God, enough of us still possess the common sense and pride in democracy to resist the imposition upon us of a religious dictatorship.

That will continue even if Trump wins the election. It’s called The Resistance, and it’s greatest mass movement I’ve seen in decades. I am so proud of my fellow Americans for seeing through the Republican haze of lies, religious idiocy and demonization of others. Way to go, Americans, way to go!

  1. “Republicans already inclined to irrational thinking, which is most of them, succumbed quickly to this narrative. It didn’t help that so many of them have jettisoned their critical thinking abilities through belief in superstitious religious nonsense. ”
    If you haven’t heard about it, you might want to read about the Covid outbreak in Maine that stemmed from a wedding in Millinocket, particularly statements by the “pastor” of the Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford Maine.

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