Jurisprudence

Don’t Be a Coronavirus Narc

America is used to blaming individuals for systemic problems. Let’s try to avoid that this time.

Three police officers blocking a road in NYC.
NYPD officers outside Grand Central Terminal on April 6. Noam Galai/Getty Images

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Last week, my friend’s neighbor—let’s call him Brad—knocked on her door and handed over his apartment key. He wanted her to hold onto it because, he told her, he was fleeing New York City via private jet to Florida, where he was renting a mansion to ride out the coronavirus with a dozen of his friends.

“WTF IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE???” she texted me and some other friends after she accepted the key.

We quickly located his Instagram profile and scoured it for clues as to what, exactly, was wrong with him. He appeared to be a standard-order New York City bro, per the many photos of him posing on yachts, on fancy Tribeca rooftops, or in garish suit jackets, flanked by clones. Every caption was festooned with hashtags like #livingmybestlife and #friends. This guy—he was clearly the worst.

More significantly, Brad was convenient. He was a gratifying receptacle for all of my impotent rage and anxiety about the current crisis. After weeks of reading about the climbing death rate, basic equipment shortages, the daily missteps of a petulant president, and a governor who chose this moment to cut Medicaid and jail more people, Brad essentially became a Voodoo doll. We fantasized about the unspeakable things we could do to his apartment now that we had his key, egging our friend on to use it to punish him for his mind-bogglingly stupid life choices. She did not follow through. It still made for a good fantasy.

This crisis is highlighting all the Brads among us. People, especially Americans, tend to do stupid things in reflexive resistance to rules we are told are good for us. We’ve all seen the stories. Pastors are still holding church services in defiance of shelter-in-place orders. Spring breakers ignored social distancing guidance and clustered on beaches. New Yorkers are fleeing the epicenter of the outbreak for vacation homes in under-resourced rural areas. There was that guy who stockpiled all the hand sanitizer.

Yes, these are all examples of irresponsible behavior in a pandemic that requires drastic and unusual collective action. Because the federal government did nothing to identify or track the coronavirus back in January, when containment was still possible, the most important thing we can do to save lives now is to stay inside and stay away from one another as much as possible, and encourage others to stay inside and away from one another as much as possible, too. The forced separation is a departure from the typical human impulse to grasp for community in the midst of disaster. Instead of coming together, every stranger on the street is a potential vector, or worse, another body that could take up a hospital bed and make it unavailable for you or your own loved ones. No one can be trusted.

That fear has taken an inevitable turn. The pastors are being arrested. Neighbors are reporting on one another and sending photos of illicit gatherings to the police. Some states are prosecuting people for coughing on others.  In Philadelphia, police officers physically pulled a man off a city bus because he didn’t have a mask. Earlier this month, the Intercept reported that NYPD officers arrested a woman for insufficient social distancing while hanging out with her boyfriend in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a predominantly black and therefore heavily policed neighborhood in Brooklyn. Her punishment was to sit in a cell, with more than 20 other people, before being released back into the community:

The woman was taken to the local precinct and then to central booking, where she shared a cell with two dozen other women for the next 36 hours. Only women who already had masks when they were arrested were allowed to keep them. There was no soap and the cell was dirty, but at one point an officer went around distributing drops of hand sanitizer to the women held there.

This arrest is a sign of things to come. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has encouraged the NYPD to further crack down on people who are not sufficiently social-distancing and suggested in a press conference earlier this month that he would deputize police officers from rural areas upstate to provide backup in the city (an agenda he pushed years ago, to the anger of city police and the public).

Everyone can understand that this woman’s arrest does not make anyone safer. Indeed, it likely does the reverse. But maybe the only remaining question is whether we should even be surprised that it’s come to this.

Americans, especially white Americans, already call the police too much. In normal times, policing has been America’s primary response to a host of societal ills that cannot be solved by punishment. Homelessness, mental illness, violence, racism, poverty, and toxic masculinity are all fed through the criminal justice system, rather than getting addressed in any meaningful way, never mind resolved. Now we expect police officers to contain this virus for us, even as they too become infected. Even though trying to arrest our way out of this just puts everyone in more danger. (If you think it is hard to social-distance in New York City, it is impossible to socially distance in jails, which typically lack basic sanitation supplies and cycle people in and out, only exacerbating the spread.)

Here is the thing: Even though I know all of this, I admit some part of me wanted Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to track down Brad and punish him. Even though I know that, as my colleague Mark Joseph Stern pointed out, New Yorkers visiting Florida are the least of Florida’s problems. The state had more than 10,000 confirmed cases long before Brad and his friends arrived.

The problem with the way the government has failed to contain this crisis is that now, stopping the coronavirus has shifted to be a matter of personal responsibility. Telling people to stay inside is the best we’ve got right now. But individuals can’t be trusted to follow the rules, and right now, not following the rules might mean that you end up killing people. And the list of rules gets longer with every new CDC guidance: Everyone should be washing their hands for at least 20 seconds, disinfecting commonly touched surfaces every day, donating their masks to hospitals, but also wearing masks outside the home, and, above all, staying home as much as possible. When others defy these rules, it feels like a personal attack, not only because the rest of us are following the rules, but because the consequences—for older people, for people with compromised immune systems, for essential workers—could be lethal. Which is perhaps why it’s so tempting to become preoccupied with other people’s wrongdoings. But that impulse works in the favor of the real villains of the pandemic.

When the virus first entered the U.S., the people who could have done something to contain it did nothing. They didn’t even bother to track it. Meanwhile, South Korea and Taiwan immediately instituted widespread testing, created “quarantine hotels,” and deployed their robust social safety nets to ensure everyone could have basic needs met while staying indoors. Those countries have seen far lower infection rates than the U.S. In contrast, the Trump administration ignored and denied the problem, disbanded a pandemic response team, lied repeatedly about the response, withheld vital supplies from states, and is now hawking an unproven miracle drug that Donald Trump has a personal financial stake in. Even when it became obvious that the U.S. was being overwhelmed by the outbreak, many governors waited too long to shut down businesses and schools. Which is all to say that other people, even Brad, are not the problem; a spectacular failure of leadership is.

But public fear creates an opportunity for leaders to push their own agendas. Americans have done this before—in past public health crises specifically. In the late 19th century, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe were blamed for a cholera outbreak, even though the culprit turned out to be contaminated water. “With the cholera killing people by the wholesale in the ports whence these creatures assemble to take passage to the United States, there is good ground for the present demand for absolute prohibition of immigration,” the New York Times wrote in 1892. The governor of New York took advantage of the moment to push his nativist agenda and banned ships in order to discourage them from transporting poor European immigrants to American shores.

A few years later, a bubonic plague outbreak in Hawaii and California inflamed suspicions of Chinese immigrants packed into tiny, squalid living conditions. Officials quarantined and even burned Chinatown ghettos and sent the survivors into camps. Fears of the plague also justified an extension of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned all Chinese immigration for an additional 40 years.

Letting fear guide our responses won’t lead to measures that make anyone safer. And when a policy response is designed around the worst of the worst—the exceptions—we get nonsensical and brutal systems. We are already living through another long-unfolding disaster driven by the impulse to deploy the police against people we fear: mass incarceration, which research shows does almost nothing to improve public safety and can actually exacerbate crime. It’s destabilized and trapped vulnerable communities while providing more privileged sectors of society an illusion of security, a talisman against disaster.

The reality of mass incarceration is that every person it touches, victim and perpetrator, has undergone trauma. And traumatized people do not respond well to punishment. What we are experiencing right now, across the world, is also a kind of trauma. People deal with calamity in unpredictable ways. Sometimes that process looks like denial, or joking in a grave situation, or even just going for a run without a mask on. It’s easy to feel alone in our grief and lash out at others who don’t seem to feel the same way when we’re grappling with that. But we can’t possibly know what’s going through others’ heads. Assuming the worst won’t make this crisis go away.

We have a choice now. We can call the police on the kids playing basketball in the street and tell ourselves that doing so will help, or we can decide to put our efforts behind the real things that we know we need to contain this virus—widespread testing and better protections for essential workers. We can recruit more police officers, or we can recruit more health care workers. We can demand tougher punishments for pastors who hold church services, or we can demand a real social safety net to ensure we are never caught off-guard again. The U.S. government has made clear that it doesn’t know how to do both. Most importantly, we can stop blaming others’ hand-washing techniques and instead refuse to forget this truth: Because our leaders failed to rise to the occasion and enact meaningful preventive measures months ago, all of us are now being asked to make extraordinary personal sacrifices to clean up their mess. And for the most part, people have agreed to do the right thing for as long as it takes.

Yes, many people are behaving like selfish jerks. Many more people, right now, are forming mutual aid networks, donating to food banks, and checking in on neighbors. Most people who can are sheltering in place, judging by the massive drops in traffic pollution and transit ridership. Most people are trying their best while staring down a terrifying illness and economic collapse.

We’ll only get through this intact if we can maintain some semblance of compassion for one another. To be clear, yes, I’m still going to mock Brad’s drone-filmed video tours of his mansion every chance I get. But then I will remind myself to just put the phone down and let him #livehisbestlife.

For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to Monday’s episode of What Next.