After a fashion, the COVID-19 pandemic contributes some re-enforcement to the attitudes of bourgeois America: namely, an aversion to each other’s presence, an unreasoning fear of everyone and everything we encounter, and a wilful inability to tell the healthy from the sick, or accidental from intentional injury. These attitudes are bequeathed to us equally by the aristocrats of Europe, the various generations of refugees who sought to escape them, and the Founding Fathers who fomented the Revolution. They have been adopted for a variety of reasons, according to the party who adopts them; but the common motivation of every party in turn, has been a wish to pursue one’s chosen ends, and enjoy oneself as one pleases, without question or contradiction: in other words, to be indisputably master of one’s person, family, and possessions.
The same attitudes have been taught to generations of reluctant children: most recently in the form of admonitions to respect such things as ‘privacy’, ’social distance’, or ‘personal space’ (which are synonymous in practice), and refusal to speak to strangers. It is therefore only asked of Americans, to expand and enforce a habit already theirs, and apply it inconveniently not only to others, but to themselves as well. Insofar as this habit is already familiar to us, it is not enough to delay, slow, stop, retard, diminish, or otherwise counter-act the spread of disease.
It should be obvious to the observer, that a population nurtured upon a prohibition to talk to strangers, consists in practice of citizens unwilling to form social relationships among themselves, and accustomed to suspect nefarious purposes, made the more terrifying by their ambiguity, in everyone they encounter. Nor can it be doubted, after nearly six decades (at least) of demonstration, that such universal suspicion follows hard and fast upon any suggestion, that nefarious purpose is invisible to the on-looker, and may occur in anyone without warning.
It must be repeated, These attitudes are an established habit among American citizens, especially of the upper and middle classes. The admonition to abide by them in an emergency, is therefore as frivolous, as the second President Bush’s recommendation to the American public, at the declaration of his so-called ‘War on Terror’, to ‘Go shopping’, in support of the business community, on whose behalf the war was waged, and who supplied the majority of men and machines to fight it.
It is perfectly necessary, and therefore desirable, in times of pandemic, to abolish all assemblies and gatherings, suspend festivities, close businesses, and confine those in danger. But to go above and beyond the same, and advise a nation to live in fear of every sort of interpersonal intercourse, even after the parties thereto are out of danger, is to exceed the bounds of courtesy. However well intended, the warning of a disease so insidious, as to show no symptoms until well after infection, and of no way to distinguish the well from the ill, is to spread a second, and longer-lasting plague, capable of claiming far more lives: the plague, i.e., of fear. To spread such a plague, even in a time of genuine emergency, is to lay the way open and unobstructed for social injustice: a name virtually synonymous, in American and indeed in most modern parlance, with those of Xenophobia, Chauvinism, and racism, which between them have cost more innocent lives than any disease in modern times.