The Fault Lines of a Failed Society Begin to Open Up Into Chasms

The area from which I write and live is a tourist area. It’s located in the Berkshire Hills (foothills of the Appalachian Mountain chain) of Massachusetts. Signs on roadways leading to the area read: “America’s Premier Cultural Resort.”  There are lots of live entertainment venues here including theater, music, and dance. The demographics here point to an aging population increasingly made up of a significant number of people coming here to live in second homes and to retire. Tourism means a tourist economy with many low-paying jobs and few opportunities for younger people and young families. There is a small professional class and many successful tradespeople. Small farms are also numerous. Young people, and especially young people with families, have left the area in high numbers as reflected in the 2010 US Census, and school enrollment continues a precipitous decline. House prices have skyrocketed, leaving first-time home buyers with no way to finance a home. The towns here are commonly referred to as hill towns.

The Internet provides a means for people to communicate during the Covid-19 pandemic. But here, there is a push for some to make the extreme situation of self-isolation and the practice of social distancing into somewhat of a vacation-like experience. Most people here are not treating the pandemic lightly. On March 23rd, I saw an advertisement for a local hall rental to hold activities such as weddings. The ad appeared on a Facebook community forum. Perhaps the hall owners are looking toward more hopeful days?

On a similar email forum for another hill-town community, a blizzard of posts reflected the explosion of local curbside food pickups from local restaurants. This area is known as a tourist stop for food, shopping, and the cultural venues noted above. The latter is primarily a summer tourist phenomenon. One person who posted on the email forum celebrated the fact that she had ordered takeout at three restaurants in the past few days. The moderator of the email forum cautioned against turning local activities into potentially unsafe interactions.  The more people a person interacts with during a pandemic, the greater chance there is for the spread of the virus. A person does not need the credentials of an epidemiologist to recognize the cause-effect relationship of social interactions and the spread of the virus during a pandemic.

In 2010, while completing the census, I knocked on the door in an apartment building in the business center of a local community. A person came to the door and said that she was one of several residents of the apartment who worked at a local restaurant. Thinking back to that encounter, I wondered if apartments such as that one could act as a conduit for the coronavirus now, even if restaurants in the area relied on curbside pickups of food and food deliveries? Doesn’t the simple concept of home preparation of food make sense in a pandemic when self-isolation and social distancing are the norm? Curbside pickups of takeout food don’t achieve the goal of self-isolation, except providing prepared food in much the same way that the restaurants provide food during normal times.

I am not opposed to the workers cited above or getting takeout food, but need to draw attention to this possible means of the spread of the virus.

In the most egregious violation of isolation, a man who said he comes from the epicenter of the virus in the US, New York City, admitted that he is ill and sat in front of his computer screen, wearing a face mask, on a local Facebook video feed in a major population area of the local geographic area, and added that he has frequented many local businesses. I sat in front of my computer screen in complete disbelief. He may not have known of his illness at the time of his visits to local businesses.

Typical of racist attitudes and actions in the current right-wing political climate is Trump’s “Chinese virus” rants. Here, in these hills, the drumbeat against “New Yorkers” as invaders holds the unsavory antipathy toward some. A person could just as easily assign blame (Oh, how those in the US love to assign blame!) to a doorknob, as doorknobs are common transmitters of the virus. Then we could understand when someone said, “I wouldn’t send my child to a school with kids from homes with those gold doorknobs, or I would never let my son or daughter date a person from a family that lived in a house with those silver doorknobs!”

The email forum has also become a rental “agency” where fearful people from outside the area seek rental spaces during this pandemic. What could be more insane than bringing people here from urban centers where the pandemic rages? This is not the tourist season or business as usual, but a social function hall is advertised, people repeatedly seek out takeout food normally reserved for more normal times, and others seek out available spaces for rentals for people not following the commonsense policy to self-isolate and remain in place. Most people on social media in this geographic area express opinions that support the general welfare. Most small business owners here also want to survive and support the general welfare of their customers and workers.

The abandon of behavioral norms much like some behavior during the high season of tourism, rugged individualism, and narcissism have combined here for some to create a risky health situation for the many. Fourteen days is the number that needs to be used in so-called self-quarantine to limit the pandemic’s spread. I don’t see that happening here. Self-quarantine has been suggested as appropriate behavior by government officials.

The federal government needs to increase aid to small businesses that depend on commerce in normal times, not to cruise ship lines and airlines. Workers need financial help, but they need not be  concentrated in steaming kitchens in restaurants or apartments where the virus could easily spread. People need to remain in place, not seek rental spaces as if this was business as usual. This situation and disease is anything but normal!

The late historian Howard Zinn said that “governments lie,” and that is especially true when looking at people like New York’s Governor Cuomo who has worked to slash hospital beds in New York over many years and has worked to reduce Medicaid (“Frontline NY Nurses Lack Protective Masks, Say Worst Yet to Come as Covid-19 Spreads,” Democracy Now, March 25, 2020). Now, he acts as a leader, and he is a leader, but neoliberals like Cuomo have worked hand in hand (sometimes indirectly) with reactionaries like Trump in the past. The fault lines of the society open everywhere; the tectonic plates of aberrant behavior dangerously shift.

Doctors, nurses, and hospital support staff work tirelessly under conditions of extreme danger, while others deny them the resources they need and others act as if it’s a holiday celebration! American exceptionalism and its local expression combined with a form of self-righteousness can harm many.

In the last minutes of Friday’s Democracy Now (March 27, 2020), Amy Goodman demonstrated a proper hand-washing technique. The latter is something every leftist around the world can get onboard with. The far right’s decades-long battle against science and public health has placed this catastrophe right at our fingertips! The insanity of the moment sends some out into the natural world for respite where the sky, cleared of some of its environmental detritus, is bluer than I ever remember.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).