Elsewhere — many elsewheres — colleges are announcing plans to reopen campus. The administrations offer a lot of happy talk about how they’ll keep students and employees safe through reduced occupancy of dorm rooms, distanced seats in dining halls and online versions of larger lecture classes. Few seem to be acknowledging that the primary risk of reopening is bringing large numbers of people together at the age when their appetite for risk is highest.
College presidents who think that dorm rules and exhortations from their elders will keep students from assembling in groups and engaging in activities that have been shown to spread covid-19 — plus some activities that might not have been shown to do so but still probably will — must suffer from retrograde amnesia, possibly covid-induced, about their own college years.
These are the places and institutions that have, over the past three months, taken covid-19 fairly seriously. Consider the places that have tended to view the pandemic through the lens of conservative politics: as an urban sickness spread mainly by public transit or, worse, as a hysterical overreaction by blue-staters who are hoping that a sufficiently damaged economy would cost President Trump reelection.
Consider, for example, the state of Nebraska, where Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts has threatened to withhold funds from any county that requires people to wear a mask in public buildings. Read that again: The Republican governor is forbidding counties to require residents to do something that will, at very minimal personal inconvenience, reduce the spread of covid-19 to their fellow Nebraskans. If you take covid-19 seriously, this is less a forgetting than a lemming-lunge toward the memory hole.
In several red states — Texas, Florida, Arizona — covid-19 looks serious indeed, with a spike in new cases that seems likely to have been seeded over Memorial Day weekend. Those caseload increases are not nearly as large as those in New York and New Jersey at the height of their outbreaks, but the steepness of the spike suggests the possibility of exponential growth — and with exponential growth, everything looks basically fine until suddenly it really isn’t.
Yet even blue-state blue-checks on Twitter, who used to be obsessed with pointing fingers at laxer red states, have barely registered the upsurge. The United States, it seems, has gotten over covid-19 and moved on to other things.
I can think of a few explanations for this. The first is that as the pandemic has worn on, and everyone has learned more, covid-19 no longer seems so threatening. The virus is clearly deadliest to the very elderly; more than 40 percent of all deaths in the United States are linked to nursing homes or long-term-care facilities, whose residents are presumably even less healthy than others in their age group. For the rest of us, the risk seems smaller than it did in March.
Yet that is a little too sunny; even as the initial spike in cases has receded, covid-19 is still the third-leading cause of death in the United States, behind only cancer and heart disease. And while 40 percent of victims had ties to nursing homes, 60 percent did not. Moreover, there’s a strong possibility that the virus hit care facilities so hard not just because those elderly patients were so extra-vulnerable but because those elderly patients were in an institution, unable to isolate themselves, while the other high-risk groups were kept home by lockdowns.
Another possibility is that we understand the risks but have collectively realized that long-term self-isolation is unsustainable, and that we’re all going to get it eventually, so we might as well start now. If we’ve really decided to accept our own mortality with a certain cheerful fatalism, though, why go through the motions of carefully positioning those cafeteria chairs six feet apart?
This suggests a third possibility: Americans have neither the stoicism to actually bear the risk of dying from covid-19 nor the fortitude to embark on an indefinite period of rigorous self-isolation. Nor, even if we could muster those qualities, could we get a majority of our fellow countrymen to go along. And so, instead of deciding upon some basically rational course of action, we have collectively agreed to forget the things we could no longer bear to know.