The rich-and-safe pandemic
2 min read

The rich-and-safe pandemic

People aren’t banding together; they’re hunkering down. Why? Because they can afford to and because most people’s lives are so safe it’s hard to rationally assess risk.
Snow day, Plattsburg, MO, 2007. About 10 minutes after shooting this, I totaled my car after hitting a patch of black ice.

Across COVID-19 news stories and conversations, there’s a theme: Our response is different because, for the first time in human history, we can afford to respond this way.

And whether you think there’s a storm on the way or it’s all a big nothingburger, that’s important.

Some changes are good – it’s hard to argue with the value of real-time global communication in a pandemic. But, particularly in America, we’re a rich, safe society with a rich-and-safe response: Working-class people spending hundreds or thousands of dollars prepping for isolation. Inventories of masks and other protective measures cleared out. Multi-billion-dollar businesses deciding thousands of workers should do their jobs from home.

People aren’t banding together; they’re hunkering down.

Why? Because they can afford to and because most people’s lives are so generally safe that it’s hard to rationally assess risk. (If you think people are being rational about risk, check your local Costco’s bottled-water inventory.)

Thought exercise: Try and recall a community, neighborhood or multi-family COVID-19 response you’ve heard about.

We’re probably not at the stage where such responses would be meaningful. But if worst-case scenarios play out? We will be, and our social connective tissue may not be up to the task.

The idea of robust individualism and self-reliance is baked into our self-image. But it exists at the pleasure of a world where disease and privation are kept at bay. Any major shock to the system – whether it’s a public-health crisis, a war, or something else – would force big changes in behavior. If they’re needed, I hope we’re up to the task.

Rich and safe isn’t bad. But it’s worth taking stock of what we’ve lost – and might soon need – alongside what we’ve gained.