Mixed messages and conflicting ideas in our pandemic age

Our politics may be paranoid, our society paralyzed by pandemic, and our skies ablaze, but don’t fear! We Californians receive an avalanche of advice about how to behave in crisis. All we have to do is follow it. Easy-peasy, no?

For starters, go outside. Avoid the indoors, because COVID spreads best in enclosed areas. The outdoors is good for your health.

Also, don’t go outside. Don’t you know there’s a pandemic on? Plus, with so many fires burning, you’ll just be breathing smoke. The outdoors now is bad for your health.

Instead, see family right now. Particularly if they are elderly or in a facility. Because loneliness is the biggest killer right now.

One caveat: don’t see your family. Public health officials say family gatherings are where the virus spreads. Haven’t you heard the latest PSAs? If you visit your grandmother, it’s murder.

Speaking of life-and-death, you shouldn’t call the cops unless you’re absolutely sure there’s an emergency; try to deescalate matters yourself. Cops carry dangerous biases, so your call puts vulnerable people at risk.

Of course, you should call the cops. Violence and property crime are up. This is an armed society. If something suspicious occurs, a trained law enforcement professional—not you—should be the one responding. We already have too many vigilantes. Haven’t you seen the signs? “See something, say something.”

Speaking of say something: You must speak out. In this moment of reckoning, silence is complicity in injustice. Whistleblowers must call out wrongdoing. Whites must challenge racism. We need to hear from people of color, whose truths have too long been ignored. And mass protest is essential for change.

Still, don’t speak up. White people need to stop talking about the cultures and histories of others. People of color shouldn’t have to keep explaining themselves. And mass protest is dangerous in a pandemic.

In raising our voices, don’t attack people personally. We must focus on replacing systems of oppression, not individuals. That’s how you get unity, which is vital.

Never forget that this is about individual morality, not systems. When people say something wrong, call them out, make them accountable. If that’s divisive, so be it—unity is overrated.

Because this is a moment to choose sides and rally your base.

Because what better time to reach out to people who disagree with you.

In this pandemic, it’s essential that we trust our scientists. But we can’t trust our scientists, who are compromised by politics and corporations.

If you’re in a dense city, leave for head somewhere with fewer people, and less COVID, especially if you’re in an at-risk category. That said, you shouldn’t move to far-out or exurban places on the urban-wildland interface—you’re just putting yourself in the path of fire. Instead, embrace the density of our cities!

Wherever you’re living, your kids need to be back in schools. Pediatricians say getting back to class is crucial. Kids are losing educationally and socially when they’re at home. Kids who miss months of school end up less educated, less wealthy, and less healthy. You don’t want to shorten kids’ lives, do you?

But be careful: sending the kids back to school is a rotten idea. Look at the outbreaks at universities that reopened. Kids can be spreaders, too. And we have to protect our educators, who didn’t sign up to risk their lives. You don’t want to shorten teachers’ lives, do you?

If you’re a parent, now is the time to step up and prioritize your kids; find ways to collaborate with other parents to make up for the lack of in-person instruction and socialization, maybe even hire teachers so kids can gather in small groups.

But don’t do too much, and don’t just focus on your kids. When privileged parents intervene, they worsen inequality.

And kids, you really need to avoid sitting in front of your screens for hours. Screen usage is up, and it’s bad for your eyes, your body, and your mental health.

Kids, you must be diligent about distance learning, and you need more time with your teachers online—even if it means sitting in front of your screen for hours.

Remember, we’re all in this together. We have to stay connected and help one another.

Don’t forget, to survive this, we must isolate ourselves. Keep your distance.

In these unprecedented times, we must comply with all of these clear directives, in service of stopping disease, preventing catastrophe, and insuring justice. When you don’t follow all these messages, you are putting everyone else at risk.

In these unprecedented times, it’s impossible to comply with so many mixed messages. Whatever you do, you will be wrong. So prioritize taking care of yourself. All anyone can reasonably demand is that you do the best you can. 

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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