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Voices / Viewpoint

The one green state

On a recent Coronavirus map, Vermont stood alone as a green spot in a sea of red, yellow, and orange. We are not an island that can isolate itself from the wildfire on the mainland.

MacLean Gander often contributes to these pages. He serves as a member of the board of directors of Vermont Independent Media, the nonprofit that publishes The Commons.

West Brattleboro

Last week brought grim news about the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis in the United States.

The stock market is still holding its own, but in the real economy unemployment is still rising. New funding for supplementary unemployment benefits has not yet been agreed on in Congress because of Republican intransigence.

The moratorium on rental evictions has expired. For many working Americans, the loss of benefits and the rent coming due is a perfect storm.

The second-quarter economic report on the U.S. economy showed a drop in gross domestic product that would play out to more than 30 percent over a year — an unprecedented downturn.

The economic crisis that the U.S. faces may be the greatest in its history.

* * *

If the economic news was bad, the news on COVID-19 was even worse.

As the nation considers re-opening schools and colleges, it learned that some signs that had seemed hopeful might not be the case.

It was thought that younger children are relatively immune to the virus and don’t spread it. But on the first day of classes in an Indiana public school, a seventh grade student tested position for COVID-19, and students he had been in contact with had to be quarantined.

According to reports, more than 250 children and at least 28 staff members were infected at a summer camp that had followed guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for reopening closely. The question of whether this is an isolated case is unclear so far, but it may well not be.

A recent New York Times report said that more than 6,000 college students have already been infected by the virus, even though colleges and universities have not yet opened. The Times report said that this was certainly just the tip of the iceberg, since their numbers were based on only a small fraction of the various institutions it had contacted.

In a headline story on Aug. 1, The Washington Post reported that the virus was essentially out of control in the United States, with a national map of where the virus was taking hold marked in colors of red and yellow.

The majority of states experiencing upsurges are doing so without any effective means to manage them.

In Ohio, cases are surging.

“There are fewer and fewer places where anybody can assume the virus is not there,” Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, told the Post. “It’s in our most rural counties. It’s in our smallest communities. And we just have to assume the monster is everywhere. It’s everywhere.”

* * *

The science is clear: the virus is incredibly skillful at spreading itself, and anytime we think there might be some element of hope — like the idea that younger children don’t catch it or share it so much — new data comes along to prove that hope wrong.

Of course, the incompetence of Donald Trump and his administration is a huge factor. Having a self-serving and deceitful president in the current escalation of an unprecedented health crisis — a 100-year event — has made things so much worse.

Our economic disaster is as dire and unprecedented in its own way as the COVID-19 pandemic, and addressing it conflicts in some ways with addressing the outbreak.

But European countries have shown it can be done. Under Trump’s erratic leadership, we have shown how to do it wrong.

* * *

Still, it is wrong to simply blame a failure of leadership for the wildfire of the Rona sweeping across the nation now. There are two other factors, each of them psychological.

The first is that humans naturally seek ways to normalize their experience, no matter how difficult it is, so any hope things might be improving causes us instinctively to relax our guard and go back to the normal ways that we have missed. That’s what many Americans have been doing this summer.

The second is that the concept of individual freedom is deeply woven into the American character and became increasingly entrenched through a combination of the “do your own thing” 1960s and the “government is the problem” mantra of the Reagan years.

That concept has exploded in the loss of a sense of community and civic responsibility that Trump epitomizes but did not create.

In our current climate, largely because of Trump and his Trumpist allies, the question of whether to wear a mask and follow CDC guidelines has been politicized, sometimes in belligerent ways from those who drank Trump’s Kool-Aid.

For some, individual freedom has come to mean one’s freedom to infect me with the virus.

* * *

We are in deep, deep trouble, probably the worst crisis since the Civil War, and we have known from the start that any hope of controlling the virus would probably be impossible until a safe, reliable vaccine is developed and unless we took radical measures to prevent the spread of infection.

My wife and I have eliminated all social contact and minimized the time we spend around other people to a weekly grocery run and a few other errands. I know I am going to die someday, but I refuse to die of COVID-19. That’s my main priority now.

Vermont’s situation is unique, since it is the one green state left on the map where the virus is under control. Gov. Phil Scott’s administration has been thorough and thoughtful in its approach, and our numbers make us seem like an oasis.

But we are not an island that can isolate itself from the wildfire on the mainland. Our borders are porous.

The day after I saw that bright red-and-orange map, my wife and I drove around the state for about four hours, up to an abandoned place northwest of Rutland to do a photo shoot, and back down another route so I could take a swim in a relatively uncrowded lake.

Half the license plates we saw were from out of state, which is normal this time of year, and wherever we went we saw people who looked like they thought things are back to normal.

They were sitting in outside cafés, congregating on beaches or swimming holes, and packing small grocery stores as if the idea of curbside pickup was too hard to maintain.

I hope that our state will stay green on the COVID-19 map, but it seems an irrational hope to think that it will. The odds seem slim.

But things are not back to normal, and Vermont is not an oasis. It is an island under siege.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #573 (Wednesday, August 5, 2020). This story appeared on page B2.

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