Oakland, California — Americans have done so much screaming at each other to avoid panic over the novel coronavirus that they’ve arguably grown complacent. Last week’s ferocious Wall Street sell-off aside, there are few signs of the panic we keep being exhorted against. At this point, shrieks of “don’t panic” are a bit like a morbidly obese man being told you to “eat something, you look skinny!”
That’s true even here in Northern California, the location of the first known locally transmitted case of the deadly virus, which has in a few short weeks sickened tens of thousands across the globe and killed around 3,000.
Restaurants and farmers’ markets are packed across San Francisco, Oakland, and the suburban East Bay stretching down to San Jose. On the region’s creaking Bay Area Transit System, train cars are full and only a few stray passengers don masks. Sure, one San Francisco Mission District Walgreens was out of hand sanitizer on a recent weekday, but it was easily obtained down the street at Whole Foods (for the handsome price of $5 deposited into Jeff Bezos’ overflowing pockets).
The coronavirus barely figured in last week’s Democratic debate, and many Americans seem blithely unaware that in just a few short weeks their lives could be upended with lockdowns, shuttered workplaces and schools, and canceled public events. President Trump has played down the risks and his Democratic opponents, politically obtuse as usual, have failed to make hay on the matter.
The distinction with the rest of the globe could not be more glaring. China, whence the outbreak sprung, has locked down tens of millions of people and virtually shut down its economy, the world’s second-largest. (Tellingly, these draconian measures seem to have worked in at least stalling the rate of growth of the spread.) Japan has closed schools for a month. In France, which has so far seen fairly minimal numbers, the Louvre was closed. Switzerland, also fairly minimally affected, won’t allow gatherings that draw more than 1,000 people.
The U.S., however, is taking no such preventative measures. Our country only just this weekend announced new restrictions on travel from highly infected countries like Korea and Italy — also announcing a bold new plan to close the barn door now that the horses have gotten out. Sports events continue unimpeded and President Trump and Sen. Bernard Sanders are still holding mass rallies where thousands gather in tight quarters in enclosed spaces. But the complacency now could lead to worse outbreaks down the road. Preventative measures work best.
America’s undeniable natural advantages — two massive oceans on either side of us, friendly neighbors to the north and south, a wealth of natural resources, none of the thousand-year-old blood feuds that characterize older parts of the world — have always risked breeding complacency.
The Pearl Harbor attacks shocked not only because of their deviousness, but also because the U.S. did not experience frequent attacks on her homeland. Ditto for the 9/11 atrocities, which were characterized not only by their viciousness but also the utter shock of seeing Americans dying by the thousands in, well, America.
Two decades after 9/11, many Americans once again seem to think “it can’t happen here.” But as we’ve learned more than once, it can.
⦁ Ethan Epstein is editorial editor of The Washington Times. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ethanepstiiiine.