A warm, sunny, springtime weekend. Was it two weeks ago already? It disappeared as quickly as it burst on the scene. There I was out for a spin on my riding mower. The first mowing of the year. The first weekend it felt like the weather might really be turning away from the gloom, chill, and rain of the past couple of months. And then snow this past weekend. Really? Not that it was a bad winter, but still … Next week it’s supposed to warm up. My fingers are crossed. The grass on the other side of the fence … Blah, blah, blah.
That mowing, now almost two weeks ago, was my first really extended period of time outside for two or three hours unconfined by a car or the walls of our house in months. Of course, after a couple of hours of feeling liberated, of inhaling the aroma of freshly cut grass, of taking a close look at the effects of winter on all the trees and shrubs that we’ve planted over the years, there came a reminder of this reality: Mowing is really pretty boring. I’m already dreading (well, that’s probably too strong a word) how often this must be repeated until I can put the mower away in the fall.
Besides, even if feeling liberated, even if for just a couple of hours, there is this other reality: I’ve simply expanded the size of my semi-self-imposed confinement in this time of the novel coronavirus. I’ve gone from the walls of the car and house to the invisible walls surrounding our three acres. If the grass I can see through my windows looks greener, once I’m out there walking around, the walls close in again and things look greener where I cannot/should not go.
Of course, for those of you living in close quarters with lots of other people, living in apartment houses, living in cities, my sense of confinement must seem enviable, the greener grass on the other side of your particular fence.
The real question, I suppose, is how green, how real is the other side of the fence? Or to put it another way: How badly do we want to escape our semi-voluntary confinement? What price are we willing to pay for our “freedom?”
Those are vital questions because they are neither rhetorical or theoretical these days and we all know it. We are in the twin grips of a viral health pandemic brought on by covid 19 and an economic collapse deliberately brought on to mitigate its deadly effects. No matter where we stand on the political spectrum, no matter what we think of our president, we all know that well over a million Americans have or have had the coronavirus and that the number is inexorably climbing towards two million. We know that by the time you read this, we will have far more than 80,000 dead victims, a number that will also keep climbing. We all know that there are over 33, 000,000 people who have lost their jobs as of last week, an unemployment rate of near 15%, an economy in free fall.
We also all know there is no one who is not susceptible to being infected by the disease. Old people have died. So have babies. Some of the most protected, most tested, people in this country — the White House staff — have been infected. So, we all know that no one is safe. The only question is who gets sick? How many of us will die?
How likely is it that I will die?
Finally, among the things we all know, is that the economy cannot be allowed to be in free fall forever. The government cannot print an infinite amount of dollars to support us without dollars becoming valueless. At some point attempts must be made to return to some semblance of normality. Like now. Right?
How green is the grass on the other side of the fence? I have no idea.
The President of the United States has gone from saying that this is a national emergency to he is responsible for nothing. He’s gone from saying he is singularly in control of the response to this pandemic to saying it’s up to governors to decide what to do to or for their individual states.
He’s gone from issuing guidelines to letting them expire.
He’s gone from saying that decisions on reopening are up to the governors to saying that they are really up to individuals.
He’s gone from saying that virtually no one will die, and that the virus will all of a sudden disappear to saying that maybe 65,000 people will die to saying that maybe 100,000 will die but, one day, it will miraculously disappear. He now simply says that as the states try to reopen their economies, of course more people will die.
How many more are likely to die? He no longer says. How many more are likely to die as the economy reopens than if isolation and home confinement policies remain in effect for a few weeks longer. He is silent. He, in effect, says that it is up to individuals to decide how much risk to take with their lives and the lives of their family, friends and co-workers.
Is it only a rumor that in some states rules are being contemplated that say that if you are out of work and collecting unemployment payments, you cannot refuse to return to work because of your fear of illness without losing your jobless benefits? In other words, risk illness death or starve. Some say that employers should be free of liability if their workers are not provided PPE’s, or if working conditions are unsafe.
The grass is greener?
By the way, the medical experts on the White House’s virus task force have reportedly said that they’ve never budged from their estimate that between 100,000 and 250,000 lives will be lost to covid 19 no matter what the president says. That estimate assumed that there would be perfect adherence to mitigation efforts. I point out that there has never been, and certainly isn’t now, perfect adherence to those efforts and guidelines.
So how many people are actually going to die? No one, least of all me, has any idea. There are some who claim the right to risk their lives is a matter of liberty, of freedom. They are not wrong. Ultimately all of us bear some responsibility for what happens to us as individuals, how much risk we are willing to assume. We also, as individuals, have a responsibility for the effects our actions cause to others.
In this time of pandemic, of the novel coronavirus, of covid 19, I cannot get a song out of my head. It is not a long song or a complicated song; just four lines. Written by Stephen Sills, you can find it on Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s album “So Far.” If you are old enough to remember the deaths at Kent State and in Vietnam, it should certainly be familiar to you. Maybe younger readers of this column have heard it too.
“Find the cost of freedom
Buried in the ground.
Mother Earth will swallow you
Lay your body down.”
Here is one thing I know: The mound over our graves is usually planted with green grass.
Michael Saltz is an award-winning, long-time, now-retired Senior Producer for what is now called “PBS NewsHour.” He is a resident of Hillsdale.