January 5, 2021

No War on Coronavirusremembering the other way to see our problems

Researching social problems in America, you get the word “war” a lot. Like red-nosed drunks who just can’t believe the joke gets worse with each retelling, we declare a War on This, a War on That, a War on Everything—poverty, addiction, bullying, child abuse, elder abuse, domestic violence, hunger, obesity, and the news. In print. In talks. In conversation especially. Often as not, our actions speak a warlike attitude, whether we use the word or not.

But not so much for COVID-19.

Despite a deeply felt need to see the damage done as some kind of human-on-human assault, the virus and its gouges through the soft tissue of our society defy personification and the need for scapegoats. We grasp intuitively, even collectively, that this is not so much an “evil” virus as a dumb, mechanical menace utterly incapable of good, evil, or any kind of intent whatever. Like a downed power line throwing sparks, a gas line on fire, an earthquake, a hurricane, or a rabid animal frothing and hissing down our quiet lane, we might look for someone to blame for how it came to be. But we understand the here and now as an act of God, a cruel reality, a harsh glimpse at that side of the universe that does not care that we are here.

Both disease and war stretch back through our history. Our ancestors knew pillage and plague. Rare were those who didn’t, firsthand. So we seem to have inherited, one way or another, the knack for spotting a difference.

That is a bright ray of hope behind dark clouds.

I pray that when this thing is done for us, by dint of refreshed memory, disease will take its rightful place as a dominant metaphor for our most serious struggles, as seductive or moreso than combat. I hope the new mental availability of pandemic-type interventions will restore a missed competitiveness to our policy debates, which have long suffered a near monopoly of martial attitudes. We’ve hit our problems like nails ‘til the hammer’s come loose. As consolation prize for a problem not responding to blunt-force trauma, and loudly blaring for a screwdriver, we may yet remember that we have those.

Researching social problems in America, you also get the phrase “public health approach” by drips and drops. On nearly any topic I’ve threshed, a kernel of generally knowledgeable, mild-tempered do-gooders softly stump for an alternative to warlike interventions and the drive to personalize all ills. They ask for the kind of response we are busy relearning now. Which doesn’t sound so great as the scythe swings through us. But for which a martial assault represents no real alternative. A difference in kind, rather than quality.

Some calling for the change hail from public health or medicine, and wind up on other issues, like gun violence. More come up on their issue of direct concern, but go the other way around, grasping for the clearer emotional air, the calmer analytic remove, and the freer choice of tools and techniques they envy on the medical side. In the middle, we find threshold issues, like obesity and addiction, that begin as matters of health, but run amok so far widespread that popular consciousness takes hold and war-ifies perception. There is a margin, and it is not in the cards we’re dealt, but how we read and play them. A margin that could move, as surely as perception and tact can.

Call it “public health approach”. Call it “harm reduction”. Call it what you will. If we accept that mankind, or at least those of our society, bear certain biases and tendencies, practically unchangeable in our lifetimes—call it “human nature”—questions of culpability and choice remain important. Nothing is certain, least of all about ourselves. But we have better ways to tell what men can do for themselves and their fellows in these matters than waging scare-quote “war” upon them, and seeing who’s left.

When we see a problem of nature—the world’s or our own—we can react accordingly. That art is aching from disuse. We might yet grow stronger. If those of us left remember.

Your thoughts and feedback are always welcome by e-mail.

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