"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, March 13, 2020

Corona Virus And Showing Our True Colors–The Supermarket Roller Derby

Yes, yes, we all agree that the Corona virus is nothing to sneeze at.  It has already killed many, infected more, and continues to spread. While the death rates are nothing compared to those who die from cancer, heart disease, malaria, or diarrheal diseases, the world is in a tizzy.  Entire countries like Italy have closed down and America is slowing to a halt.  Schools, governments, businesses, sporting events, and churches have shut their doors while citizens self-quarantine to ‘separate’ themselves from others in an attempt to control the disease.  The media, always upfront and newsworthy when it comes to a crisis, is flogging the epidemic for all it is worth.  If not the Armageddon, then an Armageddon.

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In an earlier time when life expectancy was 35 years and death came suddenly and surely from infection, accident, and war, people were less concerned about dying.  Death was inevitable, close, and inescapable; and those who thought otherwise – who thought that Man could control God’s destiny – were few and far between.  There was what historians have called ‘an optimistic fatalism’ in the new American Republic – an abiding belief in God’s will and an understanding that only he could redeem, forgive, and save; and a corresponding commitment to the moral justice and Christian compassion expressed by Jesus and Paul.  All were in God’s hands, but that predetermination or election did not obviate faith and personal responsibility. 

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Such a complex belief was behind the sanity of the age – death was not to be feared, nor desired, nor even embraced, but accepted. Whether it came early or late, it was simply a step to the beyond, a far, far better place than the world left behind.

Hindu texts were even more eloquent about the insignificance of death.  Life in and of itself had no absolute value.  It is only a stone on the path to Enlightenment, neither good nor bad, but a proving ground – to a higher spiritual order.  One does not choose to be born or choose to die; and the end of one’s spiritual evolution rests only upon the acceptance of  the natural cycles of birth, death, and rebirth.

So the run on supermarket shelves in the age of the Corona virus, while not surprising, is unsettling.  Have people not learned anything in two-thousand years of Christian history, five thousand years of Jewish tradition, and even more of Hindu philosophy? Have we lost all sense of perspective? How have we become so venal, so irrelevantly purposeful, so ignorant?

Tolstoy in his tale of the Battle of Borodino in War and Peace describes the happy camaraderie and enthusiasm of the Russian soldiers facing the cannonade of Napoleon’s army – a sense of patriotism, courage, defiance, and acceptance of Fate and God’s will; the best expression of a predetermined, predictable human life.  Better to die on the battlefield in glory than by virulent sepsis from a field thorn.

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While many of the prescriptions issued by the Centers for Disease Control and the federal government are sensible from a purely epidemiological point of view – i.e. separation, quarantine, and isolation are proven ways to stop the epidemic – they are seen by many as overreaction.  To shut down the world’s economies and the social and economic life of entire countries to prevent an infection which kills relatively few, is asymptomatic or mild at most, and seems exaggerated at best.

From an epidemiological point of view the only sensible course is to isolate, test, and quarantine the only group which has shown a particular susceptibility to the virus – the old, the infirm, and the immunologically compromised.  Corona is not everyone’s disease, but a disease of the very few.

From a broader health perspective, the mortality and morbidity risks associated with Corona are insignificant compared to the other prevalent killers in modern society.  Why be so upset, nervous, and anxious about a disease which is far less lethal than most others, which is temporary if not seasonal, and which will soon disappear?

From a philosophical perspective, the Corona virus while bringing death a bit closer, at least in statistical terms is nothing.

All of which is why the scene at the Bethesda, MD Whole Foods is quite something.  Customers are lined up at the door long before opening, and when the store finally opens, and the charge let in, the roller derby begins.  The savviest head for the frozen foods, rice, pasta, and dried beans, staples for the expected long internment.  Those looking for add-ons, helpful luxury items like fresh mussels and oysters, filet mignon, and Camembert are muscled aside.  Within a half hour the frozen peas, lima beans, green beans, tortellini, and bacon are sold out.  The canned peas, garbanzos, black and kidney beans gone in minutes.  The few cans of tuna left from the previous day’s pillage gone in a flash.

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Women with young children in tow push through the meats and dairy, head back for a quick circuit of potatoes, garlic, and bananas – frivolous buys in a time of scarcity – and line up at check-out, satisfied but without the the turkey bits and creamed corn, dissatisfied at the less-than-hoped-for purchase of toilet paper, but all in all finished and prepared.

The few men in the store, on leave or ‘working from home' and unused to shopping, are shunted from frozen foods by the more aggressive women on leave from their own power K Street law firms, are hopelessly over-matched at the fish and cheese counters; are lost and un-moored, adding a bit of their own panic to the growing crowd, and lined up sadly with only a few desultory items in their carts.

If this experience at the pricey, high-end, top-of-the-line Whole Foods in Washington’s richest suburb where shoppers’ substantial financial reserves, philosophical remove, and logical, practical experience are thrown to the winds in a chaotic free-for-all, then the scenes at low-end Target, Wegman’s and Costco must be a trip.

Recent polls have indicated a sharp divide between progressive and conservatives concerning the Corona virus.  Not surprisingly progressives are much more concerned.  For them the response to the virus has been nothing less than the failure of international economic and financial globalism which has caused the emergence and spread of the virus in the first place.  Capitalism unchained, free, unfettered borders for goods, services, and viruses – a world economic system finally and righteously brought down and to its knees while The State picks up the pieces- is finished.

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Nothing doing, say conservatives who see things in a much broader perspective. While the virus might have had its start in the unregulated wild animal cages of Wuhan, and while it might be spreading because of lax international security, political indecision, and wooliness, it is nothing more than a blip on historical radar, nothing compared to the bloody hordes of Genghis Khan, the Hundred Years War, the hundreds of civil wars in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Be all this as it may, the shoppers at Whole Foods are having none of it. Better safe than sorry; winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing; and the finish line is only for winners – good hard core American-issue cultural aphorisms that never have lost salience.

There is a millennial cult, a latter-day religion which believes in the imminence of Armageddon and to prepare for it has built a warren of well-equipped shelters under the fertile valleys between the Crazies and the Absarokas.  There are no ifs, ands, or buts in their apocryphal vision.  The world will end, and true believers will emerge from the shelters and repopulate the world with woke, spiritually revived survivors.

The While Foods shoppers are far from endorsing that apocalyptic vision of doom, but have taken the first baby steps toward belief.  They have tossed reason, rationality, and common sense to the winds, and have gone whole-hog  towards doomsday.

Once the Corona crisis has ended, and the world has returned to normal, will these frozen pea hoarders realize their folly?  Will they reconsider their horribly misplaced fears? Might they turn to a more enlightened and temperate view of the future?

Doubtful, especially because these very shoppers, political progressives all, will shout, “I told you so!” – the death knell of capitalism and the resurgence of the State, the guarantor of personal and social welfare, the one, unified institution to be trusted in time of crisis.

God forbid, but every event has consequences, intended or otherwise; and those who take crises as a matter of cyclical interest only, have to accept the consequent political ebb and flow as well.,

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