Is the Cure Killing Us? How History can Help us Rethink our COVID Response
Whenever history changes due to a single event, people often call it a Black Swan Event. A Black Swan isn’t merely a historical event. It’s an event that fundamentally shifts both our behaviors and views of reality – think 9-11; or when Europe discovered North America.
Now, the reason I’m explaining this is because, the Great Quarantine of 2020 will definitely be considered a Black Swan. But the million-dollar question is this: Will we remember it as one of the greatest over-reactions in history? Or will we hang our heads in shame that we didn’t react more? To answer this question, all we have to do is study previous Black Swans.
As a pastor of a sizable church, I’ve been helping hundreds of churches and non-profits process these changes. My church has distributed over 500,000 pounds of food, masks, and other essentials over the past weeks. And in my state, I’ve also been consulting with government officials on both sides of the aisle to prepare to reopen churches in a responsible way.
But, like every leader, I’ve been asking the question: Are we over-reacting to COVID-19? Or are we under-reacting? As a history buff, I recently started reading about previous pandemics (like the Spanish Flu of 1918 or the Polio outbreak of 1952). Yet, here in Minnesota, I was rather surprised to discover just how many people were far more worried about a scarier Black Swan: the fear of city-wide fires.
Now, I realize the “history of fire-codes” doesn’t sound very sexy; [i] (and trust me, it’s not); but, a little over 100 years ago, America was rudely waking up to fire prevention in the same way we are currently waking up to germ prevention. However, they had a shockingly different response to their Black Swan. And as I point out the differences, I think it will cause some of us to rethink how we’re approaching COVID-19.
Back in the late 1800’s, there was a sequence of three giant fires that shocked the world, specifically, the Great Chicago Fire, the Peshtigo Fire and the Great Michigan Fire (all of which happened in 1871). Now, all throughout history, there were historic “city wide fires;” but, these three fires occurred at a moment in history when newspapers sales were exploding. It was also the first time in history when photographs and artist images were “going viral.” And when people saw pictures of Midwesterners burning alive, it suffices to say that fire-safety was on everyone’s minds.
And the terrifying news of city-wide fires remained steady: In the 1880’s, Vancouver burned to the ground (1886), then Seattle (1889). Then, the East Coast began burning: Jacksonville (1901) to Baltimore (1904) and back to San Francisco in 1906.[ii]
And yes, millions died in the Flu Pandemic of 1918; but, people were far more terrified by the Halifax Explosion (1917) or the Great Cloquet Fire that burned over 500 people alive, and left 52,000 homeless (1918).
As a result, American ingenuity was kicked into high gear: In the coming decades, America came up with hundreds of new fire-fighting inventions: Architects started designing fire-walls. Flame retardant materials were made. Cutting-edge plumbing systems were designed.[iii] Fire-fighters became a common city employee. Fire-codes were invented and enforced for the first time in history.[iv]
And similar things are happening today: I recently read an article about how architecture and engineering can have a huge impact on the spread of viruses. For example, on airplanes, if engineers simply reversed the air (to suck air above us instead of blow air down) it would reduce community spread by 50% or more.[v]
But here was my revelation: just like the 20th century woke up to Fire prevention, the 21st century is waking up to germ prevention. But there is one disturbing difference: They took decades to implement these changes. The government didn’t shut down “life as we knew it” until we could figure it all out. They never fell prey to the illusion that they could stop all fire deaths in a matter of a few short months. And the solution started with the people not the politicians.
Indeed, it takes money to innovate in fire-prevention. So, shutting down the economy was not the way forward. As we’re re-learning now, the global death rate is deviously connected to the economy. And with each tragedy, they created larger coalitions of big thinkers: Not government; but, scientists, engineers, inventors, & architects. They changed hearts before changing laws. And THEN, Policy makers could bring about RESPONSIBLE legislation.
And here’s the deal: I’m not trying to idealize the history of fire-codes as some sort of road-map. And in some ways, I’m comparing apples and oranges here. Yes, the metaphor breaks down. But, it’s still important to ponder the question: When it comes to our current Black Swan, why do so many people feel that government holds all the answers? Without getting partisan here, I noticed a few other critical differences about our Black Swan: Specifically, (1). Our event is happening during an election year; (2). Our event is happening in the age of “Unverified Information.” And (3). Our event is happening during a predictable and cyclical era of polarization.[vi] Let me explain:
(1). COVID-19 is taking place in an Election Year: There are literally BILLIONS of dollars being spent to politicize our current events. And like many election years, the energy of our democracy is often put into the blame game instead of the solution game. In some ways, it’s terrible timing for almost any leader (regardless of your political party). And the constant barrage of political ads causes Americans to falsely think that the answer is found in politicians, instead of the people who normally solve Black Swan problems. “We the people…” has always been our strength. But in election years, it’s unfortunately, “You the politicians.”
(2). COVID-19 is taking place in an Age of Unverified Information: Conflicting information is happening at an unprecedented rate: The W.H.O. and C.D.C. told us: “Masks don’t help us;”[vii] And after several confusing flip-flops we eventually turned to partisan news media outlets [viii] who sadly chose to advocate based on political preference. (As if our trust in media could possibly get lower) [ix] So, in sheer desperation, we turned to social media platforms, plagued by foreign bots[x] and mysterious censorship algorithms[xi] And we listened to Aunt Martha rant about why she’s making her dog wear a mask. And then we wonder why we have #Plandemic & #5Gcorona Conspiracies?[xii] Let’s be honest: America has
never had more information and less truth. In many ways, our access to unverified information is almost a Black Swan on its own. And when the giant Black Swan of COVID meets the Giant Black Swan of Unverified information, it turns into an old Godzilla movie: Most of us just want to avoid getting stepped on! Should I get a stupid mask? And the internet literally told us: “It depends on your nationality, and maybe even your political party?” Huh?
(3). COVID-19 is taking place in a Cyclical Era of Polarization:[xiii]
When COVID-19 hit America, we became unnaturally obsessed with it. News sites across the world hired web-designers to create “COVID death tickers.” And to avoid sounding stupid, every politician was forced to find their very own rock star Epidemiologist: Dr. Fauci replaced Dr. Phil – And we all started talking as if the COVID curve was the only curve that mattered. Not surprisingly, these doctors informed our panicked politicians (both Republican and Democrat) “If you really want to put out this viral fire, then destroy the giant dam and flood our city with water. Fire hates water” – which is technically true. Besides, this news sounded amazing, at first.
But it’s safe to say, our culture has become obsessed with the flattening of one curve to the exclusion of the other curves.
And if you don’t believe me, allow the following stats to wreck you:
Over-dose deaths are spiking.[xiv] Suicide calls are spiking.[xv] Domestic Abuse calls are spiking.[xvi] Indeed, one woman recently confessed: “I would rather kill my baby than give birth in a pandemic.” And apparently, this woman is not alone. Abortions are still skyrocketing despite attempts to slow them[xvii]. And similar life-altering behaviors have been seen in Cancer and Stroke screening (which have dropped dangerously low)[xviii] This means we will unfortunately see a sharp spike in cancer and stroke deaths over the next year. Sex-crimes[xix] and Alcohol abuse is spiking. Murder is ironically surging in many US cities during lockdown.[xx] Obesity is spiking – which shouldn’t surprise us when we close fitness gyms nationwide under the irony of “health” – as if obesity “never hurt nobody.” Racial hate-crimes are spiking.[xxi] Millions of people are postponing life-threatening surgeries out of fear of hospitals.[xxii] Hundreds of thousands of at-risk teens are dropping out of school at unprecedented rates because they lack internet access.[xxiii] And four days a week, my church has several hour lines of people who are standing in food lines because they can’t afford to eat. And yet, despite this flood of problems inundating churches and non-profits everywhere, I’m still reading hundreds of articles a day designed to shame anyone who objects to our current “Safer at Home” policies.
Quite simply, our culture has become obsessed with the flattening of one curve to the exclusion of the other curves.
And if you’re considered high risk due to your age or occupation, I get it: I’m one of them.[xxiv] But, what a lot of people fail to understand is that, “social distancing” and “shelter-in-place” orders are actually idealistic luxuries more than they are functional policies for huge segments of the minority population. Government leaders have valiantly attempted to put a positive spin on these sledgehammer-like regulations by calling them “Safer at home” orders; but, for half of the world, these orders should be more appropriately called: “Sexually abused at Home;” “Suicidal at home;” “Medically neglected at Home” orders.
And don’t misunderstand me: I’m not blaming any politicians for this. Eight weeks ago, when we still knew very little about this virus, these policies felt like the only sane solution. But, it’s become quite clear: Shelter at Home strategies are great for white-collar people of privilege. I don’t believe that the people who push them are being intentionally racist either. But, it’s clear, these stay at home orders are great for people with big homes, functional families, flexible jobs and great internet. And do they slow COVID-19? Yes. But how many other death curves are we willing to surge to achieve this?
To show how extreme our national obsession has become, consider these stats on starvation.
There’s a non-profit in my city who normally packs and sends out food to eight hundred thousand starving children every day.[xxv] Yet, due to Shelter at Home orders, they’ve been forced to shut down. For some reason, it’s not “safe or essential.” Yet, it’s both safe and essential for Home Depot to have 2000 people show up for their lawn and garden sale? I make this comparison because, it highlights how unfair and unscientific our COVID rules have become. Yet, consider this: the number of starvation deaths globally is spiking into the hundreds of thousands a day. The World Food Program estimates we will soon hit over 300,000 starvation deaths per day (up from 21,000/day) due to the world’s obsession with a singular COVID curve [xxvi]. To put this in perspective, this would mean, for every COVID death we prevent through Shelter at Home, we’d be unintentionally causing at least 300% more additional deaths.[xxvii]. And I hope I’m wrong.
In my own state of Minnesota, there’s been a spike in people calling the police on churches for “disobeying shelter orders.”[xxviii] My own church got hate mail from people in our community because our church was distributing groceries to people in poverty (which, according to the writer, was “killing people” by refusing to be non-essential). Even worse, a well-known meteorologist in my city tweeted that, “anyone who protests Shelter at Home policies is a Nazi sympathizer. [xxix]” What? How did our COVID response ever get so myopic and unscientific?[xxx]
But I know the answer already: It’s fear plus a rare convergence of fire-breathing black swans. But it’s not too late to pause this Godzilla remake.
America: I beg you to reconsider how we approach this virus. We cannot trade one curve for another. We cannot throw churches and non-profits away as though they are mere entertainment [xxxi]. Because, we literally change mortality curves for the better when we meet. [see the research here] [xxxii] Indeed, research shows that churches even transform economies.
And equally important: We must learn from our previous Black Swans: We can’t afford to fit decades of change into one election year. And we must embrace the hard reality that mortality curves will spike no matter what. The majority of us will get COVID-19.
Don’t misunderstand me: We can still manage this in a responsible way. I’m not against “stay at home” orders. Merely, I’m against stay at home orders that unfairly target minorities, non-profits and businesses…regardless of their size, architecture, or any scientific evidence of increased community spread. I’m merely calling for more sophisticated and scientific laws… orders that don’t exacerbate comorbidities.
And there are millions of innovative things we can do to slow this pandemic (and prep for the next one). The day will certainly come when, just like fire-codes, we will have germ codes, germ architecture, perhaps even germ inspectors? (My inner germaphobe rejoices).
But, if we continue to obsess over a singular curve, the history books will say: “There once was a great fire… and they miraculously solved it, …by drowning everyone.”
Peter Haas – Lead Pastor of Substance Church – an international multisite church based in Minneapolis. Peter is also a dj-turntablist who produces & tours with Substance Variant. He writes comedy books on spirituality: “Pharisectomy: How to Remove Your Inner Pharisee and Other Religiously Transmitted Diseases” (2012) and Broken Escalators (2015). See www.SubstanceChurch.com – @peterhaas1 (twitter & instagram)
[vi] Based on the best selling book: The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy – William Strauss; Neil Howe – See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strauss–Howe_generational_theory
[xii] Keep in mind, fringe conspiracies usually take about eight months to gain steam. During COVID-19, one study found this time has shortened to fourteen days. See https://techcrunch.com/2020/04/10/coronavirus-5g-covid-19-conspiracy-theory-misinformation/
[xiii] According to historians William Strauss and Neil Howe, wars and political upheavals tend to happen in predictable cycles (called Saeculum). They postulate that every 80-100 years, society goes through a 4th Turning (aka., a tearing down of institutional norms) that ultimately creates a tumultuous political environment. And according to their generational theory (put forth in 1997) they predicted that America would head into a “turning” right now. They forecasted, using a fascinating history of war-cycles, that we would enter into a traumatic phase of politics: See, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strauss–Howe_generational_theory
[xv] Recently, someone argued that: “Some of these stats are talking about “potential” suicides not “actual suicides” as if they matter less. But, the same could be true about the COVID-19 stats. The majority of them are “projections of death” not actual death. Indeed, that’s half of the problem in this whole debate. It’s all theoretical. But, here is some compelling evidence to consider: https://loudwire.com/suicide-rates-could-increase-covid-19-how-seek-help/
[xx] See NYC: https://www.foxnews.com/us/murders-nyc-surge-second-week-in-a-row-coronavirus-lockdown-continues or https://www.foxnews.com/us/gun-violence-fuel-murder-rise-in-some-cities-even-in-the-middle-of-coronavirus-pandemic
[xxiv] I validate the fear because, I’m one of those high-risk people: As I write this, I’m prepping for possible spine surgery. And my immune system is seriously hindered by my Rheumatoid Arthritis medications.
[xxvii] Since COVID-19 began (around Jan 15th), the global death toll of COVID-19 is around 300,000. I.e., It took around 119 days to produce 300k deaths. Yet, based on starvation mortality curves, we will see over 300,000 deaths per day if we don’t seriously change course.
[xxviii] This was told to me by the Commissioner of the Minnesota Dept of Public Safety, John Harrington.
[xxix] Sven Sundgaard, a meteorologist for KARE-TV reposted that, anyone who protests Shelter at Home policies are: “white nationalist Nazi sympathiser gun fetishist miscreants.”
[xxxi] See, the New York Times article: “The Road to Coronavirus Hell Was Paved by Evangelicals” by Katherine Stewart. The article was so outrageous that, the editors finally changed the headline – as if, somehow, it softened the ignorant prejudice they were promoting.