This pandemic didn’t sneak up on us. It came with us watching and refusing to believe what we saw. The way in 2008 we watched the floodwaters rise so slowly and yet so swiftly.
We didn’t think it would reach us. Perhaps this is because a flu is not a wall of water — in many ways COVID-19 is an abstraction. We cannot see the virus, we can only know its effects. And testing in other countries has shown that many of us can carry the virus and pass it on without showing any symptoms.
But the warnings have been there for months. And yet, even last week Iowa has seen county officials still blithely traveling overseas, still not recommending people isolate until this week when community spread already has happened. The University of Iowa still sent groups of tourists to other countries during the pandemic. Even the people overseeing the response have been slow to act — taking a wait-and-see approach to something we cannot see until it’s too late.
Even now as it’s here, Iowans are refusing to believe the reality of this moment. Memes on Facebook shared from school parents urge people to “Trust Jesus, not the media hype.” Another message from a pastor of a local Baptist church noted that this was just a flu and a new ploy by the Democrats to undermine the president. This denialism isn’t just focused on Iowa, it’s everywhere. Even the president has suggested the flu is media hype.
Reporting in the Atlantic this week shows that in January an in infectious-disease specialist in Seattle, Helen Y. Chu, found out she could monitor the spread of COVID-19 using nasal swabs and detected community spread of the virus. Her work was hampered by government officials who told her lab to stop testing. The early response that Chu’s work could have sparked would have saved lives.
For four years, we’ve had a president and an administration that has lived in an alternate reality. Denying the truth and undermining the institutions that tell those truths. Now, they face a situation they cannot deny their way out of.
The past week, I have been begging people I love to not take a trip they had planned for spring break. They refused. I was overreacting, they told me. It’s fine. It’s just a flu. But it’s not fine, it’s not just a flu. Finally they ignored me. The silence worse than the denials.
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Their trip was forced to end when the governor of the state they were visiting made an emergency declaration, closing bars and restaurants and hotels. And now, as they return, Iowa is shutting down as well. I’m grateful. And I hope it’s not too late.
This deep denialism entrenched in our American society is its own kind of fear — an inability to face a reality that will have far reaching and long term consequences on our state and our nation and our daily lives. For too long, Americans have denied climate change science and vaccination science. They deny the science of evolution and the science of climate change and in the denial lives are lost. But there is another kind of denial that this pandemic is revealing — for too long we’ve been able to turn a blind eye to the absolute gutting of health care and social services that’s happened in our state and nation. But now that we all will be relying on them, we can’t pretend they are only for the lazy or the selfish. The reality is here for everyone.