By contrast the liberal response, at least publicly, has often been an expectation of near-total social abstinence. Some blue states made this official in November, banning most gatherings of people who don’t live together, even when they’re outdoors. But even without edicts, the rules seem clear enough.
When the journalist Will Leitch wrote an essay about living a life that’s careful but not completely locked-down, he titled it, “Confessions of Pandemic Risk-Taker.” As Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, wrote in The Atlantic, “Americans have been told during this pandemic that taking any risks, no matter how carefully calculated, is a sign of bad character.”
I don’t blame public health authorities for this. America — though not only America — has let the virus get so out of control that only inhuman measures can begin to contain it. But people will, naturally, rebel against modes of living that are inhuman. A privatized, shame-based pandemic response is inadequate and doomed to fail. It is also, until vaccines are widely distributed, all we have.
This weekend, Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus response, became the latest political leader exposed as an apparent coronavirus hypocrite. Birx had warned Americans, rightly, not to travel over Thanksgiving, or celebrate with people outside their household. But according to The Associated Press, the day after Thanksgiving, she went to one of her Delaware vacation properties with her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren. (She said in a statement that they went to winterize the place, and that they’re all part of the same “immediate household,” though they live in different homes.)
Birx joins a dubious pantheon that includes Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, who attended a dinner party at an opulent Napa Valley restaurant after exhorting citizens to social distance, and Mayor Steve Adler of Austin, Texas, who recorded a video telling people to stay home while he was on vacation in Mexico. Obviously, such lapses reek of entitlement and irresponsibility; leaders have a duty to model the sacrifices they demand of others. Perhaps the reason they keep happening, though, is that few can endure the loneliness that is a moral requirement of this moment.