With more states removing mask mandates and other Covid-19 restrictions in coming weeks, I’ve suddenly found myself in a number of discussions about next steps: How swiftly should schools open? For small business, is this good news or a death sentence? Will live music return with the numbers it needs to staunch the bleeding of closing venues? How can we ever know who in the room is actually vaccinated?
But none of that is what I want to talk about. I want to talk about what’s underneath all of those questions, about why this is happening the way that it’s happening right now.
I live in Ohio. We’re catching about the same daily rate of cases as we were in October 2020 — an average of about 1,100 cases daily over a seven-day period. Everyone thought that was a terrifying rate back in October because it was, and still should be, but isn’t because we’re Ohioans and we like to eat out a lot. There are a handful of ways to parse that data out for whatever debate you’re looking for, but that’s essentially what’s happening: Things are opening back up and every authority responsible for guidelines has decided people will suddenly become more empathetic to their fellow man. The pandemic infrastructure of my state has more tools now than it did last year to combat the disease, so cases are trending flat, but contrary to the hopeful spirit of the impending changes, cases are not trending “away” yet.
A temptation here is to think that the state (or the country for that matter) is relying on hope; that they are watching the data and hoping things play out the way they want. They hope people jump at the incentive of a million-dollar lottery for random vaccinated Ohioans to get shots.
But hope doesn’t have anything to do with it, and that’s what I want to remind people of.
None of the stuff I’ve mentioned already is really what I want to talk about, but they are things that must be said first. I’m mostly addressing folks who are frustrated by announcements regarding the removal of safety measures at what appears to be a too-soon point on the calendar. Those of you who are good with the way things are going or just don’t care at this point can keep scrolling and venturing out to discover if your favorite restaurant survived the pandemic.
For everyone else left in the room, the term you need to resign yourselves to is “acceptable rate of loss.”
Consider your local library. Most libraries have some kind of security to protect their collections: electronic tags, lockable media cases, security guards… that sort of thing. I don’t expose any industry secrets by telling you that they’re not the most robust security measures, and librarians are generally okay with that. They would rather spend their time being welcoming and helpful than frisking people to see if someone lifted the new Ta-Nehisi Coates. And so they spend money on security, but only so much. And they do that because they allow for an acceptable rate of loss of books. That percentage may be 2% per month or it may be 10% per year or whatever. All libraries are different. But there is a magic number of items they’re willing to lose before they get Draconian about access.
America only knows how to function with a certain number of tools in its box. It doesn’t have empathetic policymaking or educational priorities. It has the hammer and nail of empire and capitalism.
Naturally, you won’t hear Biden or the CDC use this phrase when it comes to a health crisis because it sounds barbaric, but it’s how the government handles most social issues, and Covid-19 is no different. Numerous agendas are always impacting policy, and the repeal of safety measures now are no different.
When it comes to this country and how it operates, I’m always going to bring it back to what America is, not what America says. In that spirit, here is America 101: America is a capitalist society at its root. It’s other things as well, but the engine that drives American politics, progress, and spirit is capitalism. You don’t need me to tell you how deep that runs. The list of things America has done in the name of making as much profit as possible off anything it touches would stretch from here to the moon and back, single spaced.
If the concept of an acceptable rate of loss seems wild to you, it shouldn’t; it’s how our society runs any other time on any other major social issue. There’s an acceptable rate of loss in how we exercise democracy regarding how many people don’t or can’t vote. There’s an acceptable rate of loss in policing around how much city governments are willing to pay in civil case resolutions, rather than reform. There are observable acceptable rates of loss in homelessness, public education funding, and pretty much any other issue you can name. America is historically a “just enough” country when it comes to things like safety and justice. It doesn’t mind spending some of the profit on marketing itself as being great, whether that’s true or not.
The goal was never zero cases of Covid-19, just like the goal has never been zero racism, zero police abuse, or zero hungry families. The government isn’t in the solution business; it’s in the acceptable rate of loss business. And while even the most paranoid advocate for public safety was resolved to live in a world in which Covid-19 might be a seasonal reality, I don’t think that most of those people assumed we’d be navigating the disease with personal responsibility as our primary line of defense. There are people turning their SUVs into car bombs right now by hoarding gas in plastic bags. The placebo of personal responsibility is already out the barn.
There was a point at which the rate of loss regarding Covid was unacceptable, and when that was the case early on, things (eventually) shut down. But we are re-entering the phase of American life where that number has shifted in line with the country’s priorities in the face of a market-cratering event. America only knows how to function with a certain number of tools in its box. It doesn’t have empathetic policymaking or educational priorities. It has the hammer and nail of empire and capitalism. That’s what America uses; it’s also the why.