Calmly Make Your Way to the Exit

A look at precautionary mindsets in the COVID-19 pandemic

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

At the time of writing, we’re 2 days into 2021 and 10 months into the COVID-19 pandemic. With vaccines in distribution, I want to look back at how we’ve thought about public and personal safety during this strange time. I want to examine three mindsets I’ve come across during the pandemic and explore their flaws.

The Atomic Mindset

In late March 2020, I was in a group text with my wife and some friends. We had plans to go out for a birthday dinner celebration and were discussing what to do. With recent closures and uncertainty around the new coronavirus that had just been classified a pandemic, we decided to cancel and reschedule for another time.

The next morning, in the group chat, one of our friends shared a C.S. Lewis quote from his book Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays. The quote reads:

If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb, when it comes, find us doing sensible and human things — praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts — not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.

Maybe you’ve seen this quote. It made the rounds on social media early in the pandemic. C.S. Lewis is talking about fear of the newly created atomic bomb in his essay, but many felt the sentiment transferred nicely to the COVID-19 threat.

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

The idea my friend was putting forward was: It’s out of your control. If you’re going to get the virus, you’re going to get the virus. You might as well go out and live your life normally rather than live in fear of something you can’t control. The stoic, laissez faire attitude of this mindset has an appeal, but also some serious flaws.

Atomic bombs and COVID-19 are both agents of death, to be sure. But, the difference between nuclear attack and a highly contagious virus is that we have a certain level of control over how rampantly the virus spreads. Lewis says we shouldn’t fear nuclear attack from another nation, an outside force we cannot control. He is not proposing we neglect to build bomb shelters, or refuse to erect defenses in case of an enemy launch, and he is certainly not advocating we provoke an enemy into firing an atomic bomb.

We can take measures against the spread of COVID-19 just like we can take measures against nuclear devastation. We can have an honest debate over which measures we should take to control the virus, but by arguing that any precaution is motivated by fear is to misunderstand our situation.

I would wager you don’t wake up every morning concerned about a nuclear attack, and that’s good. However, I would also wager that you’re glad your tax dollars have been invested in systems and defense networks that would protect you in the unfortunate event an atomic weapon was fired at the United States.

I don’t wake up every morning afraid that I’m going to get COVID-19. I am glad to wear my mask, social distance, and take proper precautions to do my part containing the spread of this deadly virus that has killed and affected so many of my fellow Americans.

The Comparison Mindset

Not long after the pandemic started, we saw the full impact of shutdowns. Many called for immediate reopening, arguing that ‘the cure is worse than the disease’. Many of these early voices against shutdowns compared the rising COVID-19 deathtoll to other causes of death in the United States.

The first broadly embraced comparison was the seasonal flu. At first glance, it made sense. The 2019–2020 flu claimed 22,000 American lives, the same number as COVID-19 had claimed in the early days of the pandemic. The seasonal flu, like COVID-19, is particularly dangerous for older adults, young children, and those with preexisting conditions.

This comparison didn’t age well as the year wore on. The season flu subsided, but people continued dying from COVID-19 well into the summer and into the current flu season of 2020–2021. At present, 348,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 compared to 22,0000 Americans dead from last year’s seasonal flu.

For frame of reference, imagine getting 1 pimple on your face a week. Annoying, but nothing too serious. Now, imagine getting 15 pimples a week for the entire year. That’s the difference in severity between the seasonal flu and COVID-19. One is manageable, the other is a chronic issue that requires treatment.

Another common comparison is the death tolls of heart disease and COVID-19. According to the CDC, 868,000 Americans die to heart disease every year. This has given rise to the question, ‘If we’re so concerned with COVID-19 deaths that we shut down the entire country, why don’t we take such drastic measures to limit deaths from heart disease?’

The main problem comparing deaths from COVID-19 and heart disease is that only COVID-19 is contagious. However, there are certain aspects of heart disease that could be considered ‘contagious’. Second-hand smoke is a prime example. When was the last time you saw someone smoking in the grocery store? What about smoking indoors at restaurants? Smoking in the movie theater? If you’re not a smoker yourself, do you allow people to smoke in your home?

Photo by Sabine R on Unsplash

We’ve taken drastic measures to limit the spread of heart disease through eliminating exposure to second-hand smoke. The contagious and covert nature of COVID-19 means more drastic measures need to be taken until its spread is under control.

We are afforded certain rights as Americans. But those rights only extend to the point of infringing on others’ rights. We all have a right to freedom and safety. But, when my right to freedom infringes on others’ right to safety because I may be carrying a contagious disease that, while not deadly to me, may be deadly to those around me, I owe it to my community to sacrifice a portion of my freedom to ensure everyone’s safety.

The Active Shooter Mindset

Recently, I was listening to an episode of Radiolab where Latif Nasser was talking to a man, Santa Robert, who does a lot of charity work and paid gigs as Santa. Latif and Santa Robert discuss how Christmas has changed during COVID, and Santa Robert says:

I’m still able to be Santa. But it’s kind of hard because when — the mask I wear is a red mask, and it covers most of the face. A lot of people will ask if I could take pictures without the mask. They’re not posting pictures on social media, which is fine with me because we could all get into trouble, theoretically.

Santa Robert reveals that he often obliges and takes pictures with people sans-mask. He takes his mask off, they take their masks off, they gather in close, take the picture and move on with their day.

Photo by Mike Arney on Unsplash

Latif and Santa Robert have a back-and-forth exchange. Latif pointing out the clear danger of removing masks while interacting with so many different people, and Santa Robert talking about his need to be Santa and provide a sense of normalcy for people in these difficult times.

After being pressed by Latif to admit that what he’s doing is risky, Santa Robert responds with an interesting revelation. He mentions that he survived a workplace shooting back when he was a postal worker. He then adds:

And, yeah, that kind of probably has something to do with my kind of somewhat cavalier attitude, I guess you can say, because having to deal with having six of your co-workers getting their brains blown out. By another former co-worker who went off the rails — and, yes, I knew her. And the world doesn’t stop. The world ain’t going to stop because this is happening. It’s still going to go on.

I was so intrigued that Santa Robert brought this awful event up as justification for his self-admitted ‘cavalier attitude’ about COVID-19. Surviving a tragedy like an active shooter incident is unfathomable. I can only image how it would change your outlook on life. But, I think Santa Robert’s mindset is misplaced.

Something awful and out of his control happened, but what Santa Robert could control was how he responded to that terrible incident. When the shooting started at the post office, did Santa Robert stop everyone from escaping and implore them to keep working as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening? I would imagine Santa Robert did everything he could to make sure he and those around him remained as safe from danger as possible.

I understand the desire for things to return to normal. I can’t wait to throw a party where all my friends and I can eat, drink, hug, and laugh together. But, I know throwing that party before the pandemic has passed would put the ones I care about in unnecessary danger. These are difficult times, but by doing what we can to protect ourselves and those around us, we can ensure that when this traumatic time is over, we will know we did what we could to mitigate the crisis.

The theater is on fire…

Rather than comparing COVID-19 to an atomic bomb, the seasonal flu, or surviving an active shooter incident, I think it’s more appropriate to compare the pandemic to a theater fire.

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

According to the NFPA, 2,620 Americans died in 353,100 structure fires between 2014 and 2018. Chances are, if you were in a building when it caught on fire, you survived without suffering any injuries. This surprisingly low number is partly due to the immense cost and trouble that goes into ensuring all precautions are taken to protect people and get them out safely in the event of a fire.

Imagine you are in a movie theater on opening night. It’s crowded, the air is electric with excitement. Your nose twitches at an odd smell. Is it someone’s popcorn nearby? After a moment you realize it’s the smell of smoke. It’s probably just something wrong at the snack bar. The lights go down, the screen lights up and the previous start rolling.

The smell gets stronger, the opening credits roll. Suddenly, you’re blinded by flashing lights and deafened by wailing alarms. After your eyes and ears adjust, you see a theater manager down in front shouting that there is a fire and everyone needs to make their way to the emergency exits.

What do you do? Chances are, you’re going to be fine. So few people die in fires every year. Do you remain in your seat and call for everyone to not fear a fire they have no control over? Do you explain to people that they’re more likely to die in a car crash on the way home than in this fire? Do you shout out that you’re going through a difficult time and need to see this movie so things can feel normal?

Or, do you get up from your seat, make sure those around you are safe, help the older lady down the stairs and hold the door open so the family with the baby can get out safely? You don’t panic and cause more chaos than there already is. You can’t control the fire, but you control how you respond to the crisis. You’re disappointed, but you’ll have the opportunity to see the movie another night. Looking back, you’ll know you took proper precautions to make sure you and those around you stayed safe in the face of a known danger.

The building is on fire. Calmly make your way to the exit.

Trying to make sense of this wild, wonderful world.

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