Anybody, these days, might understandably feel conflicted. A resourceful and resilient citizen cheerfully looking for silver linings to the crisis one minute, singing with others on the computer and taking up new hobbies (I keep getting online ads to sign up for study of quantum physics or Norwegian) is the next moment ready to strangle the idiot who posts yet another chipper little meme about purple finches or sourdough starter. People are out of work, out of money, and sometimes out of patience. They may be really, really worried, both about getting sick and about getting evicted. Most with a financial cushion are still in a state of upheaval. Dr. Nirav Shah of the Maine CDC and the other medical experts keep telling us, “It’s perfectly fine to not feel fine.”
I have been asked about a hundred times recently how I am doing, and the fact is, I’m fine. Hesitant to be mocked as being hopelessly naïve, I usually remember to add, when asked, that “Of course, our comfort, meaning our groceries and freight and mail and access to health care, depends to a great extent upon the health and safety of the air service pilots. Long term, everyone here is concerned about what will happen to the lobster industry. And of course, if anybody on this island gets dangerously ill with this virus, we are set up to manage that maybe once.” That’s a big maybe.
The fact is we have always been a community of people who keep a good stock of supplies, who volunteer, and who respond to each other’s emergencies whether we like each other or not. We will keep each other fed, at any rate. We have always had people among us who dared to do scary things, like venture out into storms to rescue mariners in distress. Whether we dare risk exposing ourselves to each other’s infectious diseases, I cannot say.
There is so much about human behavior we cannot anticipate. The toilet paper hoarding thing seemed inexplicable to me at first as this was never, even in the more cartoonish media outlets, advertised as an outbreak of amoebic dysentery.
I am baking bread because I happened to have flour and yeast on hand before those commodities became scarce. If you can tolerate a maddeningly upbeat observation, given the genuine fear and illness and hunger in the world, I feel I’ve been granted an extension on the start of the busy season and I don’t mind that one bit. Thankfull,y my husband and I don’t mind each other’s company, either, and we have enough to eat, and we’re having a good time watching the chickadees, and the International Space Station, and listening for the woodcock in the evening.
Is it wrong to count the blessings and enjoy the warm bread while others suffer? Is it unfeeling to write about the first peepers when friends are at risk of hunger, poverty, and dangerous illness? I don’t know. It really might be.
Hard times bring out the best and the worst in society. People are emotionally fatigued, and many are truly exhausted, so we have to cut our friends a little slack when they lose their temper. I have heard people say things like, “It’s all about looking out for yourself; coronavirus doesn’t care if you act like a jerk.” OK, if that’s how you want to look at it, but there is a limit. Certain panicky denizens of Dark-Age Europe nailed their neighbors’ doors shut on account of the plague. We can take measures to better our odds without becoming prejudicial bullies or a public menace.
Social media is overflowing with judgement, including criticism of both gross governmental overreach and gross governmental apathy. Everybody’s an expert. People are raging against folks they see at the grocery store wearing N95 masks as though said random food shopper had probably bludgeoned some nurse upside the head and stolen the mask, when, in fact, two months ago our shopper had been sanding floors and owned the mask anyway. Then, there is the hot-button issue of the “outta-stater license plates” seen in Maine grocery store parking lots, state parks, ferry lines and so on.
To be sure, if you are one from anywhere—any state -- who believes that, “I can just flee to my 9000 square foot vacation cottage and start my summer two months early, and buy out the tiny local store, because I can run from reality and be safe and damn the little people” why, then, sure: I’ll sniff disdainfully and question your right to be here. But we’ve got to watch our prejudices. We may need to back off a little on our quick judgement of strangers.
Many who are being insulted and scorned are hard at work: nurses, linemen, Coast Guard members and such, and others are just going about their business and doing no harm. The license plate is no gauge of the intentions, or the usefulness, of the person in the car. Stooping to the level of acting the bully is never the right way for us to handle our fears.
You may have noticed that it is not the low-paid CNAs and store clerks and delivery drivers who are escaping the hotspots by fleeing to their vacation homes. I am as resentful of this class distinction as anybody. But no matter how Bolshevik our opinions, xenophobia is a bad thing, full stop. Our response to being worried should not be to grow mean. Maine sure doesn’t need to greet traveling nurses and power company workers with insult.
While some demand government edicts, and formal directives to businesses to manufacture necessities, others resent and mistrust big-G Government telling anybody what to do whatsoever—even the physical distancing--because next thing you know, “they” might march us off to concentration camps or try to take away our guns. OK, let’s keep this horror movie in perspective. Abuse of power is always a valid worry. I’ll be among the first to speak up against treatment of citizens in any way similar to what China did in their enforcement of rules related to the pandemic-- for example, the manhandling of citizens—even if those draconian tactics supposedly helped. That having been said, this is not the time for defiance of common sense just because we resent being told what to do.
Reader, you will likely never meet anybody more resistant, more bristly at the very idea of being given an order than yours truly (just ask my parents). But physical distancing on account of a contagious disease is not akin to sheep-like obedience for its own sake, or citizens blindly following unethical and criminal directives, or Americans giving up our civil rights. This is “Stay out of crowds because there is a contagious disease. Stay away from other people for this legitimate reason. Make yourself a mask for when you have to go to the store.” We do, seriously, have to protect our civil rights. We also have to extend to other people their rights, including their right to be safe from us. We can do both.
How is it that some people think they have the right to toss their used masks and gloves in the street? Is boorish and callous behavior an expression of their “civil rights?” No, and nobody thinks it is. If we’re going to live in civilization, in community with others, then we have to manage a certain degree of restriction on our actions. Not because we are “commanded” to—the hair stands up on the back of my neck to even think of such a thing!—but because we know it could help us all.
We have to do the right thing not because we have been told to, but because it is the right thing. L.L. Bean (to mention only one of many Maine businesses trying to help out) is not manufacturing that safety equipment because it was ordered to.
Above all we must make our best efforts to maintain safety without becoming participants in behavior we would not countenance in calmer times. The mob is not, as a rule, a good leader. As I’ve said in other papers—and I say this as a part-time, quasi-professional, somewhat-trained disaster-preparedness nerd-- this is not every man for himself, because no disaster ever is.
Eva Murray lives on Matinicus