During World War II, did Americans cheer for those who refused to use ration cards for their meat and butter? Did we pour into the streets to support keeping public pools open during the worst of the polio outbreak? Did news outlets give space to anti-science misfits who denied any link between open city sewers and the spread of deadly cholera? No doubt there are examples of all three, but in each instance, the vast majority of the nation sucked it up and did the right thing, often making considerable sacrifices for the greater good and for the welfare of future generations.
That proud history comes to mind as the nation hurtles toward the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, which might aptly be titled the “winter of our discontent.” If the first 10 months of the outbreak seemed painful, the next several may prove excruciating. Not simply because the numbers are moving in the wrong direction with the U.S. now recording its most coronavirus-related deaths in a week (exceeding the worst of April), but because people are hitting a wall. They are frustrated and angry, not just at the virus but by government-ordered restrictions and their adverse economic consequences.
On Monday, Maryland State Police announced the running tally for police agencies statewide that have been enforcing those COVID-19 restrictions from limited indoor seating in houses of worship to shuttered playgrounds. The numbers loom large: 42,166 compliance checks, 4,688 calls for service and 132 charges filed or arrests made. In theory, police should never have to be called to enforce rules during a pandemic that has already killed more than 280,000 Americans, but human nature being human nature, there are inevitably people who are indifferent, unthinking, unaware or some combination of all three. The same could likely be said of some during World War II, but back then, we didn’t hold them up as heroes in some form of culture war.
And there’s a lot of that going on. Just tune into Fox News or One America News Network. Want to get some adulation by the right-wing? Charge an elected official who approved COVID-19 restrictions with hypocrisy for eating a meal out, preferably a pricey one. Or make a video explaining why restrictions hurting your business aren’t fair because there’s another business (it need not be comparable or even especially nearby, apparently) that is not as heavily restricted. In either case, you will get around-the-clock coverage and sympathetic news readers pleading your case.
Make no mistake, nothing about the pandemic is fair. And you can always find “do as I say, not as I do” in public office. But is selective “gotcha” the biggest story around, when more than 2,000 Americans are dying from the virus daily? And as far as restaurant and bar owners and others hit hard by restrictions, we hear them. And, yes, in some cases, there are inconsistencies in restrictions and enforcement (in part because there’s also a lot of denial going around). But ultimately, these restrictions have a purpose — to slow the spread of the virus until vaccinations can be administered. For most people, that reprieve is still months away. We can’t lose sight of that.
We are in a war of sorts with a brutal, unyielding enemy. Some sacrifices must be made, whether it means restricting holiday celebrations to Zoom or a local bar closing at 9 p.m. or perhaps not opening at all for a time. In turn, there should be help extended to those from whom we have asked so much. A return to Paycheck Protection Program direct aid, for example, or mailing out another round of federal stimulus checks to individuals or simply encouraging families to order takeout from their favorite local eatery. It would be nice to think that Americans come together in our “finest hours” when times are tough just as they did 80 years ago fighting the Axis powers. The reality is probably never quite that simplistic or tidy, but surely it should be our proud, patriotic aspiration.