The further we get into the COVID era, the more the rhetoric of officialdom brings to mind both the “new speak” of 1984, which Lewis Carroll anticipated by 80 years when he had Humpty Dumpty harrumph: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
Take “testing.” As important as testing, leading to contact tracing and then the quarantining of those unfortunates who came in contact with a COVID-positive person, the word “testing” has taken on a talismanic sense, all but replacing “vaccine” or “treatment.” In part, this is understandable, for as each day passes, we learn that either is far off. Hence, while neither the United States nor Canada has the kind of national, regional or local testing regimens that Germany and South Korea do, given enough money and the training of a couple of hundred thousand people, chief medical officers’ prescriptions could be filled.
Left unsaid is a stark reality. What an epidemiologist sees as a vector is, for the rest of us, a person sickened by and in some cases killed by COVID-19. Indeed, this link becomes even stronger under the pressure of those who call to “open up the country,” which, we know from other countries that have lifted restrictions, like the Empire in Star Wars, allows the 0.12-micron sized virus to strike back. The tests that we can be certain will show more cases in states like Florida are not just a snapshot of COVID’s circulation. They herald illness and death — although, to listen to the politicians who say testing will be in place (even when and where it isn’t) one would think that taking a swab of mucus or a drop of blood is a magic bullet.
“Curiouser and curiouser!” Alice might cry today were she to hear government leaders (who had “quite forgot how to speak good English”) use phrases like “open up the country” and say, “our country wasn’t built to be shut down,” as President Trump did months ago. Neither the United States, Belgium nor even Italy were “shut down” as the words are normally understood. What would a closed country even look like? Tombstone Arizona? Even accounting for the waves of death that have washed over each country, their populations have not been even statistically dented. Nor has there been mass migration from Spain, the U.K. or America’s hardest hit area, New York City, or Canada’s epicentre, Montreal.
As does Trump, governors like Georgia’s Brian Kemp go further than did Margaret Thatcher, who famously said, “There’s no such thing as society, only individuals.” Their view can be summed up as, “There’s no such thing other than an open market.” For them untrammeled economic activity trumps, as it were, any notion of citizenship. “Opening up the country” has nothing to do with allowing walks in state parks. Kemp tipped his hand when he included tattoo parlours to be among the first business to reopen. He didn’t claim, as gun shop owners did vis-à-vis the Second Amendment, that the tattooist’s art is protected by the First Amendment.
Nor can we say that Kemp is in complete agreement with the protestors who demanded the parlours be reopened. Had he been, he would have had to abolish the regimen of licensing businesses and cancel the order of fire marshals who, long before COVID, dictated how many people can be in a business. Rather, the logic of “opening up the country” meant a massive expansion of the meaning of caveat emptor from let the buyer beware of shoddy merchandise or services to let the buyer beware of poisonous air, which amounts to a massive retraction of the state’s responsibility to protect its residents. Kemp believes in a perfect market that exists outside the social context of COVID-19.
“Opening up the country” makes a good sound bite and may sound as if the President and his supporters in the state houses have the economic interests of the 32 million Americans who have lost their jobs top of mind. This is, however, belied by fact that with the exception of the $1,200 stimulus checks to individuals, most of the trillions of dollars in government aide has been sluiced to big companies and bond holders. While Canada’s response to the economic crisis has not been perfect, Ottawa has put in place a raft of programs to help buoy individuals: including a $2,000 a month government payment to all who have lost their jobs because of COVID and a 75% wage subsidy designed to keep workers’ links to shuttered companies extant.
Nor does “opening up the country” mean that individuals will suddenly be able to access lawyers and accountants. These are among the 87% of Americans who are still working, though unlike those who stock supermarket shelves or work for Amazon, such white-collar members of the labour force mostly work from home. Rather, the jobs that are going to be “opened up” will fall disproportionately on women, people of colour and Hispanics.
Given how low the president’s polling numbers are among these groups, it’s almost surprising that Trump has not drawn attention to the fact that his call to “open up” means paychecks for these workers. Almost, but not quite. To highlight these workers now would mean that it would be hard to ignore them when their infection rates tote up and, in Trump’s maladroit phrase of a few days ago, they begin “filling…Yankee Stadium with death.”
For that is exactly what the epidemiological models predict will happen to workers who toil at low-paying service jobs in stores or hair salons where social distancing is all but impossible, and given the problems of supplies in hospitals, personal protective equipment is not likely to be supplied. Instead, the president and his supporters ignore this inconvenient truth and hang their hats on the phrase “opening up the country” as if the nation was nothing more than a chain of restaurants hosting “soft openings” before the real customers come in to pay cash on the nail.
And then there’s “courage.” Three score and four years ago (with more than a little help from Theodore Sorenson) Senator John F. Kennedy wrote Profiles in Courage, which told of eight United States senators who displayed political courage. One was Edmond G. Ross, who destroyed his career by voting to acquit President Andrew Jackson in the nation’s first impeachment trial, because he did not want to sully the presidency by having an occupant of the office removed.
Today, according to Fox News host Peter Hegseth, “courage” means getting “out there” to contract COVID-19, to do your part in building build herd immunity. He conveniently ignored both the fact that scientists are unsure such immunity can be achieved and the more pressing individual reality that if you are not one of the elect, before the herd is safe, you will be among the millions of Americans who will die. To be fair, Hegseth is only echoing Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who in April suggested that senior citizens should embrace the increased risk of dying from the coronavirus to “get back into the game and get this country back up and running.”
Hegseth’s definition of “courage” shares nothing with how the Ancient Greeks view it. For them, Homer’s Achilles or the hundreds of Greeks who stopped an overwhelmingly stronger Persian force at Thermopylae in 480 BC embodied courage. Nor would the Romans have recognized Hegseth’s and Patrick’s impatience to see cash registers ringing as a species of courage.
And yet, both explicitly and implicitly, the rhetoric from those who demand that the country be “opened up” casts those who would follow science, those who believe we cannot reopen until we have a vaccine, treatment or the virus has burned itself out (because we have taken shelter from it), as lacking in moral fiber, to use an antiquated phrase. Patrick might think his beat the drum statement, “there are more important things than living. And that’s saving this country for my children and my grandchildren and saving this country for all of us” cuts the ethical mustard.
In fact, what it and the tendentious use of “testing” and “opening up the country” show is what Alice learned after she challenged him by asking whether he “CAN make words mean so many different things.” Humpty Dumpty answered, “The question is which is to be master, that’s all.”
Nathan M. Greenfield is a Brooklyn-born author who taught English at Algonquin College in Ottawa and has written extensively on U.S. and Canadian history.