No one is coming.
A simple phrase, but one that is rich with meaning. Three of those meanings weighed on my mind this morning while I took my morning constitutional around Boston Common.
My friend Jen Iannolo has an entire manifesto built around the phrase, “No One Is Coming.” Jen’s use of the phrase is empowering — exhilarating, even. We do not wait for our future. We create our future. To realize that no one is coming to help you achieve your dreams is to kick you in the ass to go get what you want however you can with the resources available to you (and you always have more resources than you think.) In its use as an empowerment mantra, it doesn’t mean that you are alone in this world. But it does mean that the CEO, COO, and CMO of the entity that will engineer the future you want is you, because no one else is coming.
It’s also a very common phrase in movies and TV. Often, “no one is coming” means “the coast is clear!” Frequently, it portends a sense of false security. “C’mon, Frank — there’s no one out there. Let’s make our move!” is the last thing Frank hears before he becomes “Body #2” on Law & Order. This second connotation of “no one is coming” is very worrisome to me, because we are seeing it play out right now, with human lives, amongst elements of the US population who are chafing against social distancing and business shutdowns and what they see as a draconian infringement upon their civil liberties.
Where I live, in Boston, we are right in the middle of a terrible surge of COVID-19. The recent news that 147 out of 396 people tested positive at a local homeless shelter was concerning. The revelation that they were all asymptomatic is terrifying. It’s terrifying to me because we all, no matter how smart, rely on empirical evidence. It’s easy to poke fun at Florida beachgoers, or the people protesting COVID-related policies on the steps of the State Capitol in Austin, Texas and other places around the country with their misspelled signs, gleefully photographed for us by a media that doesn’t exactly trip over itself to paint these people sympathetically. But these protesters, like poor Frank, think that the coast is clear because the facts on the ground suggest that no one is coming. No one they know is sick, and the sickest thing in America right now is our economy.
But you can’t know that no one is coming. 400 homeless people at the Pine Street Inn thought no one was coming because none of them were visibly sick. The difference: testing. This is what concerns me about some of my smartest friends who say things like: “I’m pretty sure I’ve already had it” to justify their re-entry into society and the opening of their businesses. They can’t know it because they weren’t tested. And they can’t know if they are carrying it because it can be asymptomatic and it is virulent and contagious for a very long time. Many of these smart people I know also equate COVID-19 to the flu, which is another false equivalency. Unlike the “flu,” we are all getting COVID-19 at once.
In last Sunday’s Boston Globe, there were 15 pages of obituaries.
The flu doesn’t do that.
And consider this — Massachusetts is pretty sick right now. We are right behind NY/NJ and closing in on 40,000 cases with a 4% mortality rate. This is happening now. But we started isolation and closing down businesses four weeks ago. Imagine what our state would look like if we had not taken these measures?
Soon, I fear, we won’t have to imagine. There are absolutely parts of the country that are experiencing this crisis differently to how we are seeing it in Boston. One of these two things will be true: that will continue, and these areas won’t be affected by the virus, or that they, like their urban-dwelling fellow citizens in our densely-packed coastal population centers, will still get it, eventually. The future, wrote William Gibson, is already here — it’s just unevenly distributed.
If more sparsely populated areas of the country don’t, in fact, get sick, it will be hard for those spared by this crisis to acknowledge anything other than what their eyes can see — that they lived their lives without restriction and didn’t get sick. There will be no thought that it might, in fact, have been the draconian, liberties-infringing actions of cities like New York City and Boston that sharply blunted the spread of the virus. We’ll never know, so we’ll just believe what we see.
But if those parts of the country are wrong about this, if accelerating a return to “normalcy” brings this highly contagious pathogen to places that have not been staying at home and wearing masks and closing businesses, let me assure you…no one is coming.
And this is the third and most sinister connotation of this phrase that has me deeply troubled. The groups protesting business closures and isolation are a small minority, but eventually, as the economic toll of this disease mounts, these cries will become more strident and the protests more numerous. Underlying them is a sharp libertarian streak — the government has no right to infringe on our personal liberties. I have a few smart libertarian friends, and they speak articulately of the tightrope government has to walk to avoid becoming worse than the problem. I get that. Libertarianism isn’t anarchy, though. Libertarians do believe in minimal intrusion from the government. Now, I might posit that slowing global pandemic warrants at least minimal intrusion, but let’s set that aside. I am sympathetic to the libertarian argument here, and when the story of this crisis is written, years from now, there will no doubt be chapters about the cities and states that “went too far.” But here’s my question for the protesters seeking a return to “normalcy”:
What’s the libertarian plan, here? Is there one? What is the plan to restore your family’s economic prospects that doesn’t potentially deprive other families of their life, liberty, or their pursuit of happiness, which last I checked were also inalienable rights? This question may seem harsh and harshly posed. But the pointedness of the question is due to the awful truth of what we saw last week at a Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. There was a report of one sick person there on March 25th. By April 15th, there were 644 cases and the plant was closed, eliminating the city’s fourth-largest employer and a noticeable chunk of our nation’s pork supply. The people who went to work, even perhaps knowing that they were sick, went because they were a missed paycheck from ruin, and no one is coming. Today they are sick and home and still, no one is coming.
What I would respectfully ask “re-openers” to consider is that Massachusetts, today devoid of both its great marathon and our beloved Red Sox on this Patriots Day, is not different, but first. And part of being first is noticing what the stats say, and don’t say, about the hidden impacts of this disease that other, less-affected areas haven’t had to consider. Here are a few unintended consequences of COVID-19 here in Mass., all reported by the Boston Globe: reports of child abuse cases, domestic violence cases, and heart attacks are all down significantly since we started sheltering in place here. This sounds like good news. It is not. In the cases of abuse and assault, many of these cases are first spotted in public, as victims bearing the marks of that abuse can be seen by co-workers and friends. Now? They are home, locked down potentially with their abusers, and unseen. No one is coming for them. In the case of the decline in heart attacks, there are reports of people experiencing the symptoms of a heart attack (which can present as indigestion) who didn’t call an ambulance because they didn’t want to risk getting sicker or even dying with COVID-19. We have no idea what is happening with people who live alone. No one is coming.
If Boston and NYC and Sioux Falls are not different, but first — then this is what awaits many of the areas of the country that can least afford the disruption that COVID-19 has caused us. I grew up in a part of Maine that has a strong libertarian streak, and count many friends in that part of the world. When the response to COVID-19 or indeed any public policy doesn’t seem to affect your corner of the world, I can understand the urge to cry out to a meddlesome government, “leave us alone!”
But what if, in the blink of an eye, you are?