Extra! Extra!: The Risk of Social Distancing, the Risk of Reopening

This week’s Extra! Extra! COVID-19 looks at what’s happened with the stimulus package and protests against social distancing in the US, and how countries the world over are thinking about reopening. The entire situation is full of all sorts of different risks, with each decision being a trade-off of one risk for another. These reflections are inspired by this brilliant essay by scientist Joseph Osmundson.

+ I Am a Gay Scientist. Here’s What the HIV Crisis Taught Me About Risk.

Osmundson contextualizes the world’s collective anxiety in terms of risk. As he writes:

“We have to reframe the very notion of risk, of fear. It can never be zero. The more we minimize risk, the less there is to fear.”

Human Toll of the Virus

There’s no downplaying what’s at stake right now. Over 150,000 people have died because of COVID-19 in just about five months since the first likely case. The horrifying stories continue; here are just two that stood out to me from the US.

+ After Anonymous Tip, 17 Bodies Found at Nursing Home Hit by Virus

+ Coronavirus Is Killing Far More US Health Workers Than Official Data Suggests

The measures being taken to slow the spread of the virus are critical, but they too invoke risks, just different ones. In some cases, as in Spain – which has experienced one of the worst outbreaks in the world – the strict quarantine measures are taking a serious toll on people’s mental health. In others, as in the US, local governments are using the pandemic as an excuse to restrict privacy and increase surveillance.

+ Silent Trauma of Children Facing the Strictest Lockdown in Europe

+ McHenry County Judge Orders Names of Coronavirus Patients to be Shared with Law Enforcement to Protect Officers

The Responsibility of Government

One of my favorite passages from Osmundson’s essay discusses risk as a tradeoff:

“The risk is not, and can never be, zero. Could I order groceries, have them delivered? Sure, of course I could. And that would push some of my risk onto another person, a shopper in the store, a delivery person on a bike. That person is more likely to be a person of color and more economically at risk than I am. My risk may be lowered, but the overall risk remains, and will always remain, as long as my body has needs, which is to say as long as I live.”

And it’s exactly this idea of “overall risk,” or I would even call it “collective” risk, that brings us to what governmental responsibility is and should look like. Part of the government’s responsibility is to ease other burdens so people can reduce some of their risks and adhere to social distancing measures. Otherwise, as we saw last week, in many parts of the world people risk starvation because economies have shuttered.

In the US, the stimulus package that was passed just over three weeks ago was intended to reduce the economic burden of social distancing on everyday people who have been laid off and small businesses that have been forced to close. And yet, as always in America, it’s billionaires and corporations that cashed in first. Republicans included a change to tax law in the stimulus package that would largely benefit millionaires. Banks are using stimulus checks to pay off debts. Hotel and restaurant chains are cashing in on the fund that was earmarked for small businesses which, by the way, is already out of money. And private corporations are stealing money that was supposed to go to indigenous people.

It looks like things are beginning to turn out, just slightly. Six tribal governments are filing a lawsuit to prevent corporations to try to ensure that indigenous people get the money that was supposed to support their needs during this time. Some of the corporations that profited off stimulus checks and the small business fund seem to be returning that money. And, there seem to be signs of another deal making its way through the federal government to grant additional aid to small businesses.

+ CARES Act Lawsuit

+ Shake Shack Returning All $10M of PPP Loan

+ USAA Changes Policy, Will Return Emergency Coronavirus Payments to Customers

+ White House and Democrats Near Deal on Aid for Small Businesses

But, in addition to providing economic security, I also believe it’s the government’s responsibility to impress on people the severity of the situation. Instead, in the US we have a president who’s egging on people protesting state-imposed social distancing measures. Does it come as a surprise to anyone that the far-right has completely co-opted those protests?

+ What the People Organizing “Reopen the Businesses” Protests Are Thinking

+ The Rightwing Groups Behind Wave of Protests against COVID-19 Restrictions

What Comes Next?

As the global economy continues to take a nosedive and people become increasingly restless, the question remains – when can we risk opening countries back up? Countries like South Korea, which took COVID-19 seriously from the start, are already beginning to resume regular life, with people returning to work and some restaurants and parks reopening. Angela Merkel in Germany, which was among the most proactive countries in the West, recently announced cautious measures to slowly reopen its economy. Both countries are able to do this because they tested aggressively for COVID-19 and have the capabilities to continue to do so. But in the US, testing is still not anywhere near the scale it needs to be at. Countries around the world are taking markedly different approaches to reopening their economies. And, of course, America is taking its own disjointed approach based on the decisions of individual state governors.

+ South Koreans Return to Work, Crowd Parks, Malls as Social Distancing Rules Ease

+ Relying on Science and Politics, Merkel Offers a Cautious Virus Re-entry Plan

+ Coronavirus Testing Needs to Triple Before the U.S. Can Reopen, Experts Say

+ How Does the World End the Coronavirus Lockdown? Countries Can’t Agree on Exit Strategy.

+ How Does the World End the Coronavirus Lockdown? Countries Can’t Agree on Exit Strategy.

+ This Is Where All 50 States Stand on Reopening

At the end of it all, there’s no guarantees about anything, or as Osmundson says,

“The risk is not, and can never be, zero. … The more we minimize risk, the less there is to fear.”

Himani has written 14 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. Thank you for this. The headline made me emotional – in my small town, we’ve had two (possibly three) suicides of young queer people in the last month. It’s terrifying to think of what could happen with more time, but reopening can’t possibly be the option here yet.

    • That’s terrible, and I’m so sorry to hear that. I hope that you and others in your community can get the support you need after such tragedy.

      It’s so upsetting that communities that are so vulnerable to social distancing (because of its effects on mental health, loss of community, loss of income, etc.) can see that we still need to distance for the greater good and yet a loud vocal minority that also happens to have disproportionate political power can’t.

  2. I’m glad to hear a balanced approach. I feel like we can be so reactive and reflexively disagree with what’s coming out of certain people’s mouths. Who gives a f about that one lady’s gray roots or hell my hair is a mess too- whatever. But I am in a fairly easy situation and I have no childcare and I’m grinding away at work/school/cleaning/cooking/bills/etc until late every night, and everyone is frayed and there’s been no grownup tv for fun, I’ve had like 2 baths to try not to go completely off the edge but I pushed off other urgent stuff to do it. I took all my apps off my phone except stuff that is helping me get my stuff done and AS is how I reset because it doesn’t have infinite scroll. I don’t know how many of your readers have kids, or have kids who are school aged, or are trying to work with young kids at home, but this shit is REALLY overwhelming and there is NO end in sight. The mental health toll is real. And this is just my personal demographic I’m speaking for. There are lonely people and recently unemployed people and those stuck with shitty people. I do appreciate joe osmondson a lot- I liked what he had to say on Food 4 Thot (I listen when I do aforementioned chores). It feels a lot more balanced than what I’ve been hearing out of either my conservative family members (business first! Let them die!) and my reactive liberal friends (shut down stuff for as long as it takes!), and he’s still thoughtful towards people while understanding that long term lockdowns are not healthy.

    • I think you’re right about the need for balance, and thanks for sharing what your own experience has been. It’s so difficult when the federal government isn’t doing the basic things it can do to get us to the place that allow us to end social distancing.

    • My wife and I just adopted our two youngest this morning! I’m excited to take parental leave from one of my jobs to atleast get something off my plate. And I know it’s hard on my teenagers to be stuck home and all of the uncertainty.

      Still we’re lucky to be able to slow down some. We got chicks that we’re watching grow along tadpoles and peas in our garden.

      • @shewasnice CONGRATULATIONS! That is huge! I am so happy for you all, and what a wonderful thing to have that element of uncertainty off your shoulders while the rest of the world is so topsy turvy. I have SO appreciated your positive take on things. I feel like for years you’ve written so positively and beautifully about your home life, which can be so stressful. Thank you for your response, and again, congratulations!

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.