Uri Friedman of The Atlantic popped off a chewy little thought bomb a couple of weeks back. Surveying the national landscape under COVID, he argued that in the age of the pandemic, a new metric for “national strength” must be cultivated: the resilience of a population under duress. It is this metric, Friedman argued — not a nation’s military prowess or economic muscle — that matters the most right now. And by this metric, the United States has failed the COVID test thoroughly.
Friedman’s insight feels all the more relevant as we pass into the COVID crucible of mass Thanksgiving travel. While holiday travel this year has dropped several percentage points due to pandemic concerns, many millions will still risk breathing the air on planes and trains in order to spend time with family and friends.
They do so at a grimly consequential moment: COVID took almost 2,500 lives just yesterday, and has been infecting nearly 200,000 people a day for the last week. It is, at present, worse than at any moment since the crisis began. Once Thanksgiving has come and gone, the pandemic will almost certainly spread its wings even wider due to the close association of the season. A long, dark winter promises to be even more bleak and unforgiving once the leftovers are gone.
Quoting historian Sulmaan Khan, Friedman noted, “[The coronavirus] didn’t care how many aircraft carriers you had or how many Confucius Institutes you could stick up around the world or what size your economy was. The virus asked simply how your least wealthy people would be treated in times of illness. How effectively you could trace the contacts of those it afflicted. How swiftly your medical system could cope with unexpected demands.”
The United States is proving time and time again its inability to succeed in relation to this metric. It is facile to scapegoat Thanksgiving travelers, a vivid example though they may be, because this failure began with the first infection and has spread with it from one side of the nation to the other. When a large segment of a population is gulled by its leaders into thinking protective masks are an anti-freedom political statement to be shunned, even as the bodies pile up inside refrigeration trucks at the morgues, that is a gross and dispiriting failure of popular resilience from top to bottom.
Trump offered a comfortable, self-affirming narrative to counteract the terrifying truths of COVID, and millions embraced it because it was easier, and because it required no empathy or sense of civic duty. “MY freedoms!” was the rallying cry, the banner to which people flocked; doing something for everyone was made to smell like socialism by a whole host of officials who absolutely knew better, but cozened their followers in trade for an illusory measure of political insulation from the pandemic’s rolling consequences.
Nowhere has the weight of our national failure of resilience landed heavier than in the medical facilities that are taking this new COVID spike straight in the teeth. The pandemic may have revealed our weaknesses as a country, but it has also shined a bright spotlight on our strengths. Within the confines of a broken, profit-motivated health care system is an army of deeply devoted professionals who have thrown their bodies on the gears of this viral machine since it began. Almost a year into the battle, however, even their knees are beginning to buckle.
I spoke to two working nurses this week, one on the East Coast and one on the West. Kathleen Logan, a nurse practitioner in acute inpatient and primary care, works in Massachusetts. T., who asked that their name be withheld out of concern for job security, is an RN at a hospital in the Pacific Northwest.
“I don’t understand why they won’t listen to us,” lamented T. regarding the mobs of holiday travelers. “We are screaming at the top of our lungs and so few are listening. We don’t have a well-functioning health care system in the best of times. I wonder what it will look like in three to four weeks?”
“I’m getting scared again just like the worst part of the first surge,” said Logan. “We are reusing ‘sanitized’ N95 masks, which is just disgusting. It’s been documented that the integrity of the mask is depleted with each sanitization, so I don’t participate in it. I leave it in the UV light and spray it down with disinfectant.”
I asked T. and Logan what their worst experience of the pandemic has been. For Logan, the worst part has been getting left to sink or swim by the president. “We know this current [Trump] administration hates us,” she said, speaking on behalf of her fellow medical professionals. “He will mass-produce ventilators for his voters but not PPE for his health care providers. Because we are not his. He has abandoned us. There is no culture of compliance and teamwork.”
T. was blunt: “Nope. Can’t revisit that.”
T. and Logan, along with their colleagues, are holding themselves and the country’s COVID response together with bungee cords and used PPE masks. For them, “Thoughts and prayers” is as effectively helpful as injecting bleach; they have been through so much already, established their genuine heroism many times over, and shown what national resilience truly looks like.
Now, as they and the rest of us face the long midnight of a pandemic winter, I have a humble idea.
When I was a kid, wearing arm bands to support certain causes was an ever-present thing. Hot on the heels of the 1965 Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which allowed students to wear black arm bands in protest of the war in Vietnam, these items became commonplace. I recall wearing arm bands to support the end of apartheid in South Africa, against the first invasion of Iraq, and in support of justice for Rodney King after the videotape of police beating him made national news.
In the intervening years, the arm band has often been pushed aside by the now-ubiquitous rubber “cause” bracelets that are simultaneously far more fashionable and far less visible.
Visibility is the key. After September 11, there were American flags absolutely everywhere, reminding us of how many had died — and also giving momentum to the hyper-nationalistic and xenophobic response marshaled in the wake of the attack. National tragedies like the Oklahoma City bombing provoke the lowering of those flags, another visible reminder that we have been visited by trouble and sorrow.
For COVID? Nothing, deliberately. Masks are the flag we fly now, right over our faces when we choose to wear them, perhaps with a pithy little message on them. No flags lowered, no recognition of our collective national horror as we grind toward 300,000 dead. In such a milieu, people can and do become numb to the situation, and that numbness can lead to lethargy and an abandonment of the caution we all owe to each other if we are to endure this.
More to the point, we owe it to those medical professionals, to the last faces some of us will see if we ourselves become infected. They are the definitive avatar of our national strength, what remains of that strength, and I think it is time every one of us did one small thing in recognition of that truth.
An arm band is a simple, entirely visible way to do this.
I propose a plain black band, old school. When asked what it is meant for, we can reply “For the medical professionals.” Or simply, “For the dead.” The black band can also signal our disgust for the straightforward fact that none of this had to happen. The query inspired by the band itself is the candle we wish to light.
Those who still cleave to the fictions of The Incredibly Fading President may try to co-opt the concept, as they did with “Blue Lives Matter” in response to BLM, but that shouldn’t stop us. The more arm bands there are out on the streets, the more people will be compelled to contemplate the present circumstances, and not shun them for the comfort of that numbed denial.
If you wish to show thanks, it’s one clear way to do so all year round. Our national resilience has been proved wanting. Perhaps, in this small show of solidarity, we might alter that melancholy trajectory. At minimum, we will recognize the strength and sacrifice of those who have been in the throat of this thing for us all from the beginning, and with hope, will be there until the end.