America as Alcatraz

Meningitis broke out at Fort Polk, Louisiana, in the early weeks of 1969, where thousands of young men undergoing basic and advanced infantry training were packed into wooden WWII-era barracks. I knew only that meningitis could kill, and I felt a little uneasy as we formed ranks to hear the protocols we must follow. All the windows would remain open six inches, top and bottom, and trainees would make their bunks with the heads and feet alternating. In the chow line and at sick call, we had to stand two paces apart.

That was it, I think. In all other aspects we were thrown together like rugby players in a scrum. I developed a hacking, “productive” cough diagnosed as bronchitis, but I don’t remember worrying much about it. It didn’t make me a pariah in my platoon, either. We heard rumors of deaths here and there, but I figured we were all dead meat anyway, and meningitis somehow seemed less terrifying.

Not so with our latest plague. Fed daily doses of worst-case scenarios, we seem so thoroughly convinced that Covid-19 will end life as we know it that we have decided to combat it by—well—ending life as we know it. A friend who moved to Europe 40 years ago recently told me he doubted that Americans would ever accept the specter of martial law and universal house arrest currently imposed in France. I had to remind him that since 9/11 a majority of Americans have shown a disturbing, sheep-like willingness to tolerate significant levels of coercive control and intrusion for the illusion of safety.

In New York—a world already turned upside-down—the burglar is released from jail while the homeowner is arrested for going outside. We have become a nation of prisoners mainly because of our society’s medical achievements, for which the ventilators employed to treat the worst respiratory cases serve as a convenient metaphor. We are asked (or ordered) to stay home in part because there are not enough ventilators available, and “flattening the curve” may prevent the initial wave of infections from overwhelming the system. We are therefore confined to our homes simply because those ventilators exist, for without them there would be much less “system” to overwhelm. Victims of the disease might have almost as much chance of recovery at home as in a hospital, exactly as they did during the influenza epidemic that was raging when my mother was conceived, early in 1919.

Back before American citizens expected eternal life as a basic right, endemic diseases and periodic epidemics gave human existence a more precious flavor. People of the 19th and early 20th centuries clearly feared death less, but they fretted more over virulent outbreaks of diphtheria and cholera than about the endemic diseases that were more likely to kill them. We appear to accord equally disproportionate fear to the latest mutation of coronavirus, and it yields astoundingly destructive precautions because we have come to fear death so much more.

Notwithstanding the high death rate among Italy’s older and more nicotine-addicted population, a little searching yields some persuasive arguments that mortality statistics for Covid-19 are grievously exaggerated. John Lee, a British pathologist, explained in a March 29 article how inadequate testing leaves the number of infections vastly underestimated, and how the number of deaths has been heavily overestimated by ignoring other underlying illnesses—many of which would have killed the patients even if they had not contracted Covid-19. Applying more realistic and relevant criteria to the calculations, Lee showed that the UK’s apparent 6-percent death rate (as of March 28) might actually be as low as .13 percent in the overall infected population. That’s about the same as the seasonal flu in the U.S.

All 3,711 passengers on the virus-ridden Diamond Princess cruise ship were tested, but only 17 percent came up positive. More than half of those still showed no symptoms weeks afterward, while 1.9 percent of the symptomatic patients died. That’s still a death rate of barely .9 percent for all those who contracted the virus, even within a population that was almost entirely beyond middle age.

As vulnerable as I may be personally to this particular pandemic, I have to wonder if turning the entire country into a vast prison will not do more harm than good. How many cancers will turn irreversibly lethal because diagnostic procedures have been postponed? How many suicides will prolonged isolation induce? Are we prepared to respond with the violence necessary to quell an uprising of the urban poor, sequestered in squalor by millions with no source of income? Have Americans grown so craven that the slightest mortal risk will convince them to allow open-ended suspension of all civil liberties? Is this how freedom dies?

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