Staying Sane in an Insane Time

You know this guy. The mayor from Jaws who, in this scene, is explaining to a local television reporter that the beaches are safe, the sun is out, and the water is warm. Look at all the people having fun, he exclaims. Time to come to our wonderful island and enjoy our beautiful beaches and all that Amity offers. We know he’s wrong, we know what’s lurking, and we know what happens. More on him later.¹

This is a difficult time to remain sane. The attempt alone is exhausting. There are only so many movies, television programs, podcasts and sports reruns. Only so many books and magazines. Only so many online newspapers. Only so many people we’ve lost contact with whom to reconnect. Not to mention the need to work from home and, possibly, the responsibilities of home-schooling children. Even so, staying sane is a worthwhile goal (or so I was taught in graduate school). The question is: How?

We offer a few suggestions:

  • Binge-watch a television series filled with evil, horror and death. Afterward, when you return to our present-day reality, you’ll think, ‘We’ve got it better than they do. Lucky us.’ (Our recommendation to achieve this lofty goal: Ozark.)
  • Similarly, avoid television series and movies that are uplifting, with optimistic, happy endings. The return to reality will not be comforting; the landing won’t be soft. You may be more depressed than before.
  • Choose a date in the not-too-distant future when you’ll put on regular pants. No need for it to be a special occasion or have someplace to go. Just get out of your sweats and wear some real pants. It will do you a world of good, assuming they still fit.
  • Get involved in something, anything. Find someone or a nonprofit that needs your help, any organization working to help people, especially during these challenging times. They’ll welcome your energy, even if you provide it while sheltered in place.
  • Make a sign to express your appreciation and gratitude for those who are keeping things reasonably normal. You, know, our heroes: the mail carrier, the local delivery people, those who work to keep stocks shelved in stores, first responders, healthcare professionals. Use large, colorful letters and post the sign in a prominent location. It will make someone’s day.
  • And consider what I do: Stay angry. Anger is a terrific emotion, especially if focused. It’s motivating, energizing and, if it’s sufficiently powerful, highly satisfying. It’s difficult to maintain for long stretches, but when it’s good it’s very good. Most importantly, it wards off insanity.

There is no shortage of things to fuel one’s anger. As a public service, let me provide several:

On Saturday the United States became the world’s leader in COVID-19-related deaths. As of Sunday, 20,608 souls have been lost in the U.S. since this nightmare began. We took the lead from Italy, a country no doubt eager to fall to second place in this dubious category. One might ask, why are we now the world’s ‘leader’?

As of Saturday, despite what we’ve been told, the United States trailed just about every major industrialized country in the number of COVID-19 tests conducted per million residents.²

  • Germany: 15,730 tested/million residents, 1.6% of population tested
  • Italy: 14,114, 1.4%
  • Israel: 13,557, 1.4%
  • Australia: 13,269, 1.3%
  • Canada: 9,812, 1.0%
  • South Korea: 9,812, 1.0%
  • Spain: 7,593, .8%
  • United States: 7,181, .7%
  • France: 5,114, .5%
  • United Kingdom: 4,392, .4%

These numbers represent an important way to look at testing, as it’s not the sheer volume of tests that is the most useful indicator but, instead, the percentage of the population that has been tested. In this regard, we are far from leading the world, given that we’ve tested only .7% of our population. Point 7 percent, as in less than 1%. Further, the oft-repeated claim that tests are readily available throughout our country is simply not true. This, alone, is enough to generate anger. The lack of systematic testing may also have something to do with the world-leading number of deaths we’ve endured. A total that grows relentlessly by the day without any signs of abating.

Need more? Both South Korea and the United States reported their first confirmed case of COVID-19 on January 20, 2020. Since then, as of Sunday South Korea has reported 214 deaths to our 20,608 Yes, the United States has many more people than South Korea, so more deaths here might be anticipated. But our population is not 96 times larger, which is what our number of deaths represents in comparison to those in South Korea. The population of the United States is 6.4 times larger. So, all things being equal (which they are not), our number of deaths would be in the 1,370–1,400 range had we acted as decisively, as aggressively, as has South Korea. And please note that there is no evidence to suggest that the virus is more virulent here. It just has a much easier time infecting and killing us because of our late and insufficient actions to curtail it. Apparently, 96 times easier — and counting.

Anger still not there? Let’s turn to Kansas, where a group of Republican lawmakers on the state’s legislative council last week revoked the governor’s executive order to limit gatherings to no more than 10 people, thus inhibiting church-going on Easter.⁴ While this issue is complex in a country like ours, where the right to assemble and the right to practice religion are protected, the legislative council’s actions are in direct conflict with public health experts who are adamant about our need to practice physical distancing as if our lives depend on it. Which they do. All of our lives, not just the potential church-goers in Kansas. Especially on Easter. [The issue was taken up by the Kansas Supreme Court on Saturday and ruled that the legislative council did not have the authority to make the revocation. Even so, it is likely that there were groups throughout the state that violated the governor’s order, which remains in place.]

Not enough to get your blood boiling? Then consider what happened last week in Wisconsin. They had a primary. Yes, during a pandemic. The state’s Supreme Court blocked the governor’s effort to delay voting until June, when it might be safer to hold a primary. Subsequently, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s ruling that would give voters six extra days to return their ballot by mail. The outcome: the courts and the Republican-controlled state government mandated that people vote in person. Which, to be sure, is a prelude to what we’ll face as we approach the November election. If it wasn’t completely clear why voting was conducted in this unsafe and highly-inefficient manner during a pandemic, the president explained out loud for everyone to hear that:

1. Voting by mail is fraught with fraud (despite that numerous studies have demonstrated conclusively that it is not), and

2. Republicans have a more difficult time when everyone is allowed to vote.⁵

Yes, he actually said that, in front of television cameras. Forcing in-person voting during a pandemic with the express purpose of lowering voter turnout. Is there no concern for our health? Is there no shame? Count on efforts to continue this practice in November wherever possible. Like in every Republican-controlled state. If you can’t win fairly, stuff the ballot box. Or, in this case, prevent voters from getting to the ballot box.

If that wasn’t enough to elevate your blood pressure, then there’s the possibility being discussed about ‘opening’ the country in the next few weeks. Most Americans are doing what we can to protect our friends, family and neighbors — both close and distant — from contracting the deadly virus by staying sheltered in place. This is an important sacrifice, not without undo hardships. It’s the best and possibly only way to prevent the spread of the disease. Without a significant decline in new cases — like, say, to zero — and without free, readily-available, near-instant testing available to every person in this country, we would be insane to attempt to return to what had been our normal way of life. Absolutely insane. Yet, it’s being suggested daily by the administration and its press secretary, Fox News. Until appropriate safeguards are in place, and a clear, data-driven, step-wise plan is developed by public health professionals and shared with us, we must resist. If there ever was a time to rely on data and public health experts, this is it. Moving too quickly is sure to doom hundreds of thousands to the disease and thousands to their death.

Which brings us back to the beaches of Amity Island. We know the story: a voracious, human flesh-loving shark of immense proportions is on the prowl, interfering with summer tourism and the livelihoods of nearly everyone on the island. As it turns out, sharks are decidedly bad for business. So, what’s the good mayor to do when confronted with the eternal conflict: the possibility of some deaths by shark OR the certaintyof lost tourist revenue. He opted, of course, to gamble with the lives of those who trusted him, despite the plea of the scientist on-site. He chose badly, as did those who believed him. (The movie would have been far shorter and much less entertaining had he chosen wisely. But you get the point.)

Keep in mind that the only sure way to avoid being eaten by a shark, no matter how ravenous it may be and how delicious you might look, is to stay out of the water. According to my sons, who are experts in not getting eaten by great white sharks, it’s foolproof. Works every time.

The parallel: Want to avoid being infected by COVID-19, no matter how inviting we might be to the novel coronavirus? Stay away from each other. It’s that simple — and there are no viable alternatives. Don’t let anyone suggest otherwise. If they do, they do not care about your health, like that mayor in Jaws. It’s that simple.

So, if anger isn’t your preferred sanity-maintaining method, try getting involved. You’ll feel better. And you’ll be helping others, which is a perfect way to celebrate this important, holy time of year. In the meantime, stay strong, stay healthy, preserve your physical distance from others, keep your hands washed, and stay informed. You might also stay out of the water.

We will get through this.

¹ A bit of film trivia: the reporter interviewing the mayor in this scene was none other than Peter Benchley, the author of the book on which the film is based.



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