Ungovernable Little Savages: Belief in a Time of Pandemic

Living mere blocks from the university where I work, it is easy to see the vast generational divide in how we view and are experiencing the COVID-19 virus pandemic.  Online, a colleague made a post to Facebook pleading with others to join in calling Idaho Governor Brad Little’s office to urge for more stringent social distancing measures to be enforced.  Later that same day, I rode my bike past a house full of college kids, music blaring, adorned in swimsuits, some laying haphazardly across the lawn while others toted cases of beer inside; clearly at the early stages of a party.

Among younger generations there is a lack of urgency in heeding social distancing measures, likely due to the fact that most reports show that the COVID-19 virus is most lethal to those in older age groups.  While my young neighbors recklessly throw a party, other neighbors talk nervously over the fence; each of us keeping a good distance from each other. My husband carefully wipes down every grocery item we transport into our house before putting it in the cupboards.  We worry for his parents, both nearing 90, my parents only 10 years younger, and our children’s godparents; one of whom is tethered already to transportable oxygen.

The divide in our generational perception of this pandemic is vast.  On Facebook, the wife of a local doctor has taken to making posts for him, trying to offer a more clinical perspective of the COVID-19 virus that has only made a fledgling appearance in Idaho.  The posts offer the verifiable opinion of someone locally and in the medical field. One begins with “Hey y’all—PSA-amongst the fear mongering, panic, hoarding, paranoia, and general sense of not knowing what’s ahead please remember a few things…” then offers a list of practical sheltering in place advice and why it matters to flatten the curve. Another post warned against falling into the trope that there’s a panacea drug out there like Choroquine or hydroxychloroquine, offering the advice to “be a scientist” and that “emotions will get people hurt if we toss the scientific method into the wind.” Followers respond with praise, “Thank you Dr. Scott. You are my go to for information.”

Watching interactions online it is clear that one thing many are in pursuit of is reliable information.  There is a trend to look for testimonials from people who are viewed as authoritative or those who are verifiably on the front lines of the pandemic, especially if they are from nearby, local places as approximate geography seems to lend more credence these days.  These posts usually begin with some identifying information to establish credibility, “I’m a family doc in Moscow. I’ll try to explain the rationale for our current testing protocols.” Another one begins, “Hi everyone! I’m Dr. Scott Snyder, a neonatologist at St. Luke’s Childrens. I’m your neighbor right here in the beautiful North End.  Hey, I know there is a lot out there about COVID-29 right now…” then proceeds to give calculations of the probable transmission rates for the local Treasure Valley, making it clear why social distancing is necessary. It is clear that as the virus takes hold, the scramble online is to find information about the local situation as accurately and clearly as possible.

This need to filter through the web to find what is reliable or at least verifiable is an interesting experiment and indicative of where we are culturally.  With the sense that there is “fake news” lying in wait, there’s a keen sense that one must work hard to find “the truth” as the web is fraught with virtual landmines of misinformation.  In talking with my brother recently about the climate crisis, he offered the actionless anecdote that “for every article I can find online saying it’s a problem, I can find another saying it isn’t.”  In prodding further, I asked if he had ever researched in a library database where there’s peer-reviewed journal publications, effectively raising the veracity of the information, or if he had visited the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s websites where, again, there is expert-level information from subject matter experts and managed oversight.  He hadn’t and, unlike the COVID-19 pandemic, there was no urgency to actively hunt down reliable information.

One clear impact of the current pandemic is that people are motivated to sift through information and try to discern what is accurate, and to even collaborate in that task.  One local Boise family doctor, Scott Shappard, urged Facebook friends to “Try to approach this scenario scientifically; consult good sources of information – CDC.GOV is our go-to.”  Another friend shared, via Facebook, simulations from the Washington Post with the guidance, “Please read this if you haven’t already.  This illustrates why staying home and social distancing is absolutely crucial right now.”  When faced with dire circumstances, it seems that many individuals in that most-impacted demographic of aged over 30 are highly motivated to distill the masses of online data down to the most reliable and clearly communicated. As they virtually collaborate and guide each other to those sources, the college students down the street continue to party; the number of cars arranged along the sidewalk begins to stretch down the road, impervious, or maybe just arrogant.

And yet, these are the same students who often vent frustrations at the lack of seriousness  older generations take in the climate crisis. One student last year told me that he had to sit down with his father and explain the science of climate change before his dad could really be bothered to pay attention to it.  His father, like my brother, wasn’t motivated to reach hard for good science to guide his thinking and behaviors because the climate crisis is diluted by slow moving impact. Unlike the COVID-19 virus, with its daily death toll, the climate crisis is incremental and harder to perceive, especially when the science has been further complicated with conspiracy theories, misinformation, and over-simplistic thinking.Remember when senator Inhofe brought a snowball to the senate floor as evidence climate change didn’t exist? Or that time when the Trump Administration appointee to the United States Geological Survey, James Reilly, ordered that computer-generated climate models only project impacts through 2040 rather than the end of the century, offering an inadequate perception of the crisis.  This would be akin to the flatten the curve projections only showing a few days of impact.

The frustration of many of my college students at the lack of care or action of their parents’ generation is encapsulated best in the viral meme “okay boomer.”  The saying gained a boost when 25-year-old New Zealander Green Party member, Chlöe Swabrick, shut down a fellow, parliament member who heckled her last November as she gave a climate change speech.  Swabrick dismissively chided “okay boomer”, generating a moment that crystalized the generational dichotomy in how the climate crisis is often viewed. To many boomers it is seen as a hoax, fake news, or overzealous interpretations of a “natural system.”  Conversely, many younger generations fear the far-reaching impacts the crisis will have on their lives.

As COVID-19 continues to snake its way through our community, each new case diligently transmitted via local news outlets, is a warning to my fellow Boiseans to adhere to social distancing in order to cripple the spread. I can see the desperation voiced digitally in hopes that those whose lungs are shielded by the blind luck of youth will pay some heed. There is a level of desperation as those most impacted know their fate is tenuously tied to the ability to get younger generations to buy in and pay attention to the science.  Yet it seems there is some middle ground to be found between these two generations requiring a level of empathy for the other’s fates. Hopefully we will emerge from this pandemic with a newfound trust in science and maybe even a better sense that if we care enough to endeavor for it, we can find highly reliable sources of information and use them to guide our choices. We cannot cite valuable input from projections of what it means to flatten the curve and simultaneously dismiss climate projections identifying the impact if we fail to reduce carbon dioxide and methane emissions.  We cannot praise the CDC and NIAID and demonize NASA or the IPCC if we want to get buy in from those kids whose behaviors during this very moment will determine how many more will die. It isn’t as my brother’s comment suggests that there are competing versions of the truth, rather it is the motivation to seek out the best, most reliable sources of information available. As my local physician articulated so wisely, people will indeed get hurt if we toss scientific methodology to the wind. At this point, neither us, nor those kids down the road, can turn our backs to science anymore.

Lori Michas holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from Boise State University. Her previous work has been published by McNeese Review and the Basic Writing E-Journal. She lives in Boise, Idaho where she teaches First Year Writing, creative nonfiction, and runs a creative writing workshop for Veterans.

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