The speech America needed to hear came on Wednesday night from Instagram and not the Oval Office. A bare-chested, tattooed Chet Hanks offered a calm voice amid a din of nervously cackling Chicken Littles.
“I just got off the phone with them,” the son of Forrest Gump, Mr. Rogers, Sully Sullenberger, and so many other worthy dads explained of his parents, both of whom tested positive for coronavirus. “They both are fine. They’re not even that sick. They’re not worried about it. They’re not tripping.
“But they’re going through the necessary health precautions, obviously,” he continued. “I don’t think it’s anything to be too worried about. I appreciate everyone’s concern and the well wishes but I think it’s all going to be all right.”
President Donald Trump, in contrast to both his earlier self and coolheaded Chet Hanks, boasted of “the first federally mandated quarantine in over 50 years,” declared “a public health emergency,” acknowledged that “the World Health Organization officially announced that this is a global pandemic,” and imposed a prohibition of “travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days.” While the president conceded a “very, very low” risk regarding the disease, the rest of his words begged to differ.
Leadership requires standing up against the mob, not grabbing a pitchfork to join it. That’s followship. The country’s leaders made a tails-I-win/heads-I-win coin-flip calculation that politically indemnifies them against imposing draconian measures. If the disease kills tens of thousands of Americans, they can justify limiting everyone’s freedom and pushing the economy into contraction. If the disease kills a fraction of that, they can counterfactually point to their unprecedented actions as the difference maker. CYA bureaucratism belongs to those lower on the federal totem pole, not to the face at the top.
Recklessness uneasily disguises itself as caution. Americans periodically confront diseases more deadly and contagious than coronavirus. Never in our history has the state, at all levels, reacted in such a draconian manner in restricting the freedom of individuals. Freedoms to assemble, to travel, to earn a living, and to do so much else fall in the face of 41 coronavirus deaths. The power of this disease finds precedent. The power unleashed by the government because of this disease does not, at least not in the United States.
The stock market crashes, schools shutter, and entire industries collapse because of sensationalism and frightened people who imagine themselves as enlightened people. Clearly, the fearful officials reflect a terrified public.
The U.S. Capitol, Disneyland, and Broadway all shut their doors to visitors. Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford, Duke, and scores of other schools told students to go home. NBANHLMLSXFLMLB suspended play, and the NCAA canceled its basketball tournament in a case of March Madness. St. Patrick’s Day parades? Not this year in New York, Chicago, Boston, and points beyond. Don’t fret. The U.S.–Mexican border remains as open as ever.
This deadly disease certainly spreads, even in the face of harsh countermeasures, further. The panic spreads virally, more as a fad than as a plague, too. In Fresno, an orthographically challenged vandal tagged an Asian grandpa’s car with “F— Asions and Coronyvirus.” Women on the internet offer tutorials to turn bras into surgical masks. Naomi Campbell arrived at LAX in a hazmat suit, and Howie Mandel similarly traveled to the set of America’s Got Talent draped in a garbage-bag getup, wearing a gas mask, and covered by rubber gloves. Foolishness is more contagious than coronavirus.
Seeing a college student wearing a surgical mask crossing the street without bothering to cross his head back and forth encapsulates the mania. Could not a car kill him more easily than coronavirus?
We do not necessarily fear what kills us. We fear the unknown.
And that, not that coronavirus cannot kill you (because it can), is the point. Heart disease kills about 650,000 Americans annually. Our zeal for exercise does not match our mania for surgical masks. Drug overdoses involving opioids kill nearly 50,000 Americans annually. Yet, those in the same profession treating coronavirus contribute to that epidemic. The flu took the lives of between 12,000 and 61,000 Americans each season over the last decade. Strangely, the same measures to combat coronavirus that also work to combat the far deadlier flu did not become imposed until the outbreak of COVID-19.
The pandemic someday ends. The precedent of government suspending freedoms upon the arrival of every new bug lasts forever.