Caring for stupid

The sign at the demonstration read, “We are NOT all in this together!” In an era of pandemic, when each person’s survival depends in large part on the cohesion and cooperation of the entire society, this sign screams for an individual exception; does that poster-toter really believe that their freedom of action trumps the health of everybody else? A colleague of mine is wont to say, when looking at something like this, “You can’t fix stupid.”

          One recent meme suggests that those who assemble and protest at state capitol buildings or who gather for church services or association meetings without adequate precautions acknowledge that they are placing themselves at risk and accept moral and financial responsibility should they contract COVID-19. The idea behind this is that if you are stupid enough to act contrary to all the warnings, then the rest of us shouldn’t have to pay for your medical care, or even maybe that the heroic healthcare professionals shouldn’t have to risk their own well-being to save your sorry self.

          Have we sunk this far? I understand the emotional intensity here, and, to a large extent, I share it. At times I have felt the same thing about, say, antivaxxers or motorcyclists without helmets. Years of working with the dying has occasionally led me to feel anger at those who treat their own lives so cheaply. But that anger, even when, on a bad day, it borders on disdain, cannot rule my actions and it must not influence our corporate attitudes.

          First, a very large part of the ill health and premature death in the United States stems from individual stupidity expressed in poor choices. Smokers get heart disease, emphysema, and lung cancer. Unprotected intercourse leads to sexually transmitted disease and AIDS. The supersized Big Mac dietary culture probably kills more people than the novel coronavirus ever will. I, the overweight one who exercises too little, drinks too much, and enjoys an occasional cigar find myself in a glass house if I think about throwing stones at another that I see as stupid.

          But even more importantly, we must and will care for all who need it because that is what communities do. The vital lesson of the current crisis is not whether certain governors went too far or not far enough, whether President Trump is a stable genius or a dithering fool, or even how many lives are expendable for how many jobs or points on the S&P. The essential lesson is that the United States safety net, not the one we often think about for the disadvantaged, but the real one that supports us all, the one created by the entire economic, medical, legal, and security systems, is woefully inadequate and inherently unjust. I hope that we can emerge from this crisis resolved to strengthen the essentials that tie us together as a nation and as a world.

          In the meantime, let us all know that we will all care for and hopefully care about each one with unmet needs, no matter how stupid each of us is. After all, we are indeed all in this together.
Photos by Clem Onojeghuo and Nick Fewins on UNSPLASH