Viruses, Agendas, and Moral Panics

Some 80,000 people died of flu in the winter of 2017 in the United States, the highest death toll seen in 40 years. Did you hear any news about this? That’s one flu season. This was almost twice as much as what health officials previously consider a bad year. A lot of those who perished were elderly people. In fact most of those who perished were elderly.

“I’d like to see more people get vaccinated,” the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Robert Redfield, told the Associated Press in September 2018. Like to see more people get vaccinate? That’s it? Why didn’t he say that we should shut down the economy and shelter in place to save tens of thousands of lives? Was Redfield asked about which older person in his life he was prepared to sacrifice to keep society open?

The CDC estimates that, since 2010, influenza has resulted in as many as 45 million illnesses, 810,000 hospitalizations, and 61,000 deaths annually. Just for the United States. That means that as many as 610,000 people have died in the past decade from influenza, again the vast majority of them elderly. Reflect on that for a moment. Well more than half a million dead Americans over the decade from influenza. 

I know, I know, coronavirus may be worse than the flu. But in light of the fact that the flu is lethal enough, in light of the fact that the some 60,000 people who die every year in the United States from the flu, mostly elderly people (whose lives matter), a number we could mitigate if we shut down the economy every flu season, where were all these shaming memes claiming that, for Republicans, the economy is more important than your grandmother? Have you seen these obnoxious memes? Why this time around and not before? Ignorance is no excuse. The data have been widely available all this time.

Aren’t all of these meme-shamers guilty of not demanding “shelter in place” every time the flu comes around for the sake of our grandmothers? In light of the numbers, the failure to sound the alarm has had lethal consequences. Were they in the habit of taking their children to see their grandmother knowing that they could be carrying viruses? A lot of people with viruses are asymptomatic and spread the virus anyway. Why haven’t people cared about this? 

Rhinoviruses, the main cause of the common cold (the agent in around 50 percent of cases), are a cause of lethal respiratory infections. Did you know that? Why didn’t you know that? The CDC reports out this stuff on a continual basis. Rhinoviruses kills a lot of elderly people. Should we have been shaming people all this time for suggesting by their silence that people should live normal lives and not shelter in place? I would look like a crank manufacturing and spreading wacky memes if I made this argument. They wouldn’t have spread very far. The memes, that is.

Why is it now that people feel moved to shame people into not talking about all the consequences of shutting down society? The millions of jobs lost. The thousands of small businesses shuttered. The memories robbed. Do these folks think that it is better to socially isolate old persons on a continual basis or to allow them, in the twilight of their days, to recreate, see their family, live a normal existence? Or to socially isolate everybody? Our children? Aren’t children inside alone enough, already? (See Jonathan Haidt.)

Dr. Wolfgang Wodran (in German so use YouTube’s closed caption translator)

This coronavirus is going to sweep around the globe more times. Are we going to shelter in place until it passes? What about all those other viruses? Is this the new protocol for influenza? What about all the coronaviruses that sweep the planet every year, responsible for between 5 to 15 percent of flu-like diseases and thousands of deaths? This isn’t the first lethal coronavirus. It won’t be the last. There will be this one, the old ones, probably some news ones next year. 

Dr. Sucharit Bhakti (in German so use YouTube’s closed caption translator)

Maybe. Who knows. Folks are panicked. We’re in a weird place right now, you may have noticed. We will be able to map the story of a moral panic and its folk devils soon enough. But is it too much to expect that the least folks can do is resist mounting stupid partisan attacks against their ideological enemies for asking a basic question: When are we going to be able to return to a normal life? Don’t ask me who I am prepared to sacrifice for the economy. It’s a stupid question. 

There’s more to existence than dying. The most important part of existence is living. And living is more than breathing. We’re social beings. It’s a fair question to wonder why this is happening and to wonder when is it going to be over.

Seriously, using the same logic that’s popular on my Facebook news feed right now (and I am sure the memes are rampant on Instagram and Twitter), the United States could have saved thousands of lives every year if we had just shut down the economy and sheltered in place during every flu season, but for those evil Republicans who wanted to keep the economy going and people in jobs and small businesses growing at the expense of our grandparents. Where were the Democrats during all this? Were were the progressives?

Can you imagine how crazy it would sound if folks were clamoring to shut down the economy in 2009, during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, because 50,000 Americans were going to die from the flu if we didn’t? You’d say, “What?” Don’t lie. That’s what you’d say.

Where has this “Pick which grandparent you want to die” meme been in previous years? Why have those tens of thousands of deceased old people not generated mass concern for the plight of elderly before now? All those visits to grandmother in her tiny house or the nursing home? “Give your grandma a kiss.” Where was our collective conscience then? With these numbers, somebody you know has watched a grandparent die on a ventilator. The media has had access to these numbers. I’ve been aware of them. I’ve even talked about the flu and vaccines and the elderly on Facebook. The CDC is clearly aware of them. Crickets. 

To be a sociologist for a moment, and be a little daring to talk about something now that everybody will be talking about after this crisis has past, what we are witnessing today is a classic moral panic. Only this moral panic is on steroids thanks to intersecting forces. The folk devil in this panic—the scapegoat—is the president of the United States (whom I did not and will not vote for). Folks love to virtue signal about how horrible this man is, the Orange Cheeto (redundant), etc.

The superstitious think that by banishing the Orange Cheeto to the margins of the social landscape during the ritual exercise we call elections—or maybe even an impeachment—we will magically cleanse our community (or the intersection of communities, for the progressives) and restore the moral order to its proper parameters. Grandmother has become the ritual fetish, the totem, in this ritual. Kai Erickson would have something to say about this. Wayward Puritan. Remember that? So would his inspiration, Emile Durkheim.

Somebody is injecting memes into social media that seek to shame those who want to open up society to social and economic activity. Why? To make anybody who talks about the social and economic fallout of this sound like a cold hearted asshole. Why? It’s a lot like what happened to people who doubted the veracity of the Inquisitor’s claims. Moral panics are meant to sweep you off your feet. This current one is no less irrational.

The meme injection piggybacks off of the media-created panic over coronavirus. But the media hysteria is not occurring in a vacuum. The nation has grown uneasy because of the disruption Democrats and the media has been sowing for years in a coordinated effort to delegitimize an outsider president and strangle the populist movement.

Even before Trump was elected, the media and the left prepared the ground for moral panic. Have you seen the videos of progressives, some prostrate on the ground, almost always dressed like a ghoul from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, screaming and wailing in the wake of Trump’s election? I’d show them to you but I don’t want to see them again. Mainstream conspiracy theorist extraordinaire Rachel Maddow unable to keep her composure talking about it on TV? (Now she’s talking about censoring Trump’s new conferences.) Have you seen that? The army of psychological counselors deployed to universities to address the trauma? Did you hear about that? Left wing thugs attacking conservative and libertarian protestors? People so sensitive to disagreeable ideas that speech becomes violence? Criticism of ideology becomes genocide? Rallies and marches that look more like cosplay conventions than actual political protests? (And people thought Tea Party folks in their tricornered hats with dangling teabags were mockable. Those pussy hats.) The president is a Russian agent. The president is throwing children in cages (Obama-era photos—anything goes). The president is conspiring with Ukrainians to take out a political opponent (who has already been taken out by dementia). Catholic boys are bullying American Indians in our nation’s capitol. It’s like the McMartin Preschool case mapped onto half the nation’s population, the people who pride themselves on not being hysterical.

And, so, in this context, a meme that would have been disregarded a few years ago as obvious hyperbole—hell, a virus that would have been treated like the first go around with SARS (a more deadly coronavirus) or H1N1 (the cause of the Spanish flu pandemic)—is suddenly morphed into the Andromeda strain. 

Governments shut down economies and throw millions of people out of work, destroy thousands of small businesses, wreck the educational experience of tens of millions of children and young adults, acting as if this were a novel event, as if an asteroid had struck the earth.

Meanwhile not recognizing that the cause of hospitals unable to cope with a pandemic is the result of decades of neoliberal devastation wrought by the very people who are fueling the hysteria.

Pay no attention to the Millsian power elite behind the curtain. Go melt the witch and bring back her broom.

My news feed is full of these memes. “Pick which grandparent that you want to die.” “Republicans put economy before your me-maw.” Memes celebrating that on the day it happened all the gains on Wall Street since Trump’s election were wiped out. “Tired of winning yet?” the gleeful memes and comments went. Did you see those? Retirement savings for millions wiped out. “Whee!” As if Trump were responsible for the virus and the panic that ensued. Of course. Trump is responsible for all bad things that happen in the. He is the folk devil par excellence

Had he not panicked like the half the population, just imagine the pandemonium.

I’m not surprised by this. But I have to tell myself that I am to avoid the cynicism that is crouching in the corner, waiting to pounce and ravage my skeptical sensibilities. How is it that people can so easily trust the establishment media and the Democrats after they lied about Russia, the Southern border, Ukraine? Why is it that Trump’s popularity is rising in the middle of all this? Folks better figure that out.

Deaths are terrible. I don’t want to see widespread death from this or any other virus. But viruses kill people every day of every year. We cannot shut down social life for the sake of viruses. They will always be with us. Like bacteria. Like heart attacks. And cancer. Of course we should always strive to reduce disease and death. Wash your hands. Don’t cough on people. But humans have been dealing with disease and death before they were even human. It’s part of life. Life is more than dying. Life is social. You can’t mastermind this. We are mortal.

I hope this stimulus buys us some time. But there’s a huge downside to it. The more time it buys us, the more reasons the neoliberals will have to devolve the public function for the sake of curbing the debt. 

Tragically, the left is in no shape to do anything to transform our societies in a better way. Frankly, given their contempt for freedom and their loathing of their countries I’m not sure I would want them to. The major project the left faces is actually fixing the left. But they’re sheltering in place right now. Meanwhile, economic depression, which it appears we are destined for, is going to hurt a lot of people. 

So, how dare people shame those who look at these realities with memes saying that they want to kill old people. Every one of you who has not heretofore clamored to shut down society to save tens of thousands of elderly people from dying from the flu every year are just as shameful by these lights. As I said, ignorance is no excuse. 

I wonder how many people before this crisis ever walked away from a death bed complaining that we didn’t shut down society for the sake of their loved one. Is the number greater than zero?

Note: The latest numbers (as of the date of this blog entry) identify 81,836 cases of coronavirus in the United States. There are a reported 1,186 deaths caused by this virus. That’s a death rate of 1.4 percent. We know that many people who have this particular coronavirus are asymptomatic. Many more have mild symptoms and are never tested. Let’s suppose that there are ten infections for every confirmed (tested) case. That brings the number to 810,000 cases in a population of 320 million people. The number of deaths doesn’t change. Do the math. Now the death rate is 0.14 percent. The death rate for the seasonal flu is approximately the same, at around 0.1 percent. These are not confirmed cases of the flu, mind you, but epidemiological estimates.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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