In the past few weeks, many Covid-19 hot spots around the country have seen their case counts surge and then begin to turn back down. The result of these fresh outbreaks is a large and growing cohort of Covid survivors who now have antibodies that grant them some measure of immunity.
You’d think a major increase in the number of people who can safely go back into society would be an unalloyed good. From my vantage here in Central Texas, home to one of the largest groups of the newly Covid-immune, I’ve noticed that all these wonderful antibodies are actually making our existing, pandemic-related social cohesion problems considerably worse.
In short, the antibodies have in some regions produced a class of people who see no further need for any type of precautions and are ready to get back to normal, immediately. These YOLOers, as I call them, are both literally and figuratively over this whole pandemic thing, and they’re fast losing patience with the people who aren’t.
The conflict between the YOLOers and their still-locked-down opposites, the Distancers, grows more rancorous by the day. As unpaid bills pile up, school buildings stay closed, and eviction notices arrive, each side blames the other for the rapidly spreading catastrophe.
Magnifying the problem is the way that social distancing is inscribing a quasi-geographical separation onto this ideological separation. YOLOers and Distancers aren’t merely fellow citizens with different views about how society should respond to this moment. No, these two tribes are so physically isolated from one another by the pandemic that they may as well live in distinct parts of the country. The online “filter bubble” has moved into the offline world, and the resulting fragmentation is threatening to tear our country apart.
Origins of the Split
While this “happily immune” vs. “unhappily still distancing” tension is new, the actual split it’s exacerbating has been with us since the start of the lockdowns. The Covid-immune are just the latest addition to a preexisting, rapidly expanding YOLOer camp that includes a number of distinct subgroups.
“Just the Flu” YOLOers: The original members are the folks who are convinced that the entire world is freaking out over nothing. These people believe we should all just tough it up and let the novel pathogen chips fall where they may. Some are motivated to downplay the virus by red-vs.-blue tribalism and political animus, others simply look at the fatality risk for their own age cohort and decide it’s a risk worth taking to return to normal life.
“Deaths of Despair” YOLOers: Then there are the YOLOers who have some inkling that the virus is considerably worse than the flu but who are for whatever reason anti-mask and/or anti-lockdowns. Often they offer up the theory that the lockdown “cure” will ultimately turn out to be deadlier than the disease, due lives cut short by economic hardship.
“My Body, My Choice” YOLOers: Related to and often overlapping with the “deaths of despair” crowd, these are usually people who haven’t quite grasped the communicable part of communicable disease and who think controlling a widespread virus outbreak is purely a matter of individual freedom and personal responsibility.
Reluctant YOLOers: Finally, there are those who’d rather be Distancers but who are forced out into the world by work or other obligations, so they fall in with the YOLO camp by default.
Apart from the fact that they’re running around YOLOing, these subgroups increasingly have one major thing in common: They’re mad at the Distancers.
Your kid’s school is going remote-only this fall, putting you in a major bind with regard to child care and work? Blame the Distancers.
Your business is tanking because the customers are all shut into their homes, spending money on Amazon while you barrel toward financial ruin? It’s clearly the Distancers’ fault.
Forced to miss the funeral of a loved one or to tune in to online-only mass because your local church is considered “nonessential” and forbidden from opening? Those Distancer hypocrites are keeping you from exercising your rights, even as they no doubt cheer the Black Lives Matter protests and consider casinos and liquor stores “essential” enough to remain open.
Not only are the Distancers wrecking the school system and bludgeoning the economy, they’re also actively campaigning for a second nationwide lockdown.
In the minds of committed YOLOers, all this Distancer foolishness is threatening everyone’s ability to educate their children and keep a roof over their heads.
The YOLOers aren’t the only party with serious grievances. The Distancers, a group that I’m a charter member of, have their list of complaints about the YOLOers, starting with the basic fact that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is still nowhere near being controlled in the US to the degree that it is in other countries.
We Distancers don’t want to get Covid-19, partly because we’ve lost seemingly healthy friends, acquaintances, and loved ones to it. We know first-hand that this virus can kill people who are well under 70. Many of us also know Covid long-haulers, people who’ve suffered severe symptoms for months after they’re technically “recovered.”
Why, we wonder, are the YOLOers asking us to risk our health, when a whole host of other countries at various stages of wealth and development—from Vietnam to Germany to Singapore—have all used testing, tracing, and isolation to get the virus under control to the point where people can safely pack into restaurants without wearing masks? Why won’t these YOLOers do the right thing and support a nationwide second lockdown that gets the spread down to a level that we can manage with test-trace-isolate?
Once the virus is contained, so the Distancer logic goes, then we can all open up, together, and begin settling into something that looks closer to pre-pandemic normality.
Like the YOLOers, we Distancers are also keen to get our kids back into school. If only the YOLOers would cooperate with getting the spread down!
Distancers, too, have businesses that are hurting and jobs that are at risk from the economic slowdown. So let’s do a second lockdown the right way, and then reopen with a nationwide test-trace-isolate program on the model of Singapore or Germany.
Many of us Distancers would also dearly love to be able to go back to church, attend concerts, eat in restaurants, and do all the things the YOLOers are making impossible with their obstinate disregard for science and public health.
It’s not like we’re enjoying sitting at home while our YOLOing, Covid-immune friends are flooding social media with happy scenes of late-summer vacations and parties. To a Distancer whose nerves are frayed from months of isolation, each sun-filled photo or new tale of adventures in the outside world comes as a gut punch.
The Scope of the Problem
It’s hard to say exactly how widespread the divisions outlined above are. Our staff at The Prepared is spread across a number of Covid hot spots, and this divide has been a hot topic for us in recent weeks. Anecdotally, friends from other parts of the country have reported similar conflicts. These dynamics are splitting families and putting friends at odds with each other in places as distant as New Mexico and Wisconsin.
Recent AP-NORC polling shows a fairly stark partisan divide on a variety of coronavirus-related issues. Democrats are dramatically more likely than Republicans to support measures like mask wearing (31-point gap), limiting gathering sizes (36-point gap), closing bars and restaurants (41-point gap), and curtailing all non-essential trips outside the home (36-point gap). Polling from FiveThirtyEight also finds a partisan split on most questions of coronavirus restrictions, with Democrats being consistently more concerned about the virus than Republicans.
The Impending Collision
As the US approaches the fall season, the YOLOer and Distancer camps can both clearly see the same set of massive social disruptions bearing down on us all.
We’re facing a potential wave of evictions, as homeowners miss mortgage payments and renters miss rent. Kids will essentially miss school en masse, and the remote-learning schemes we’re now getting in our inboxes from teachers and principals are clearly an improvised joke. We’re all still struggling with a historically high rate of joblessness and with empty store shelves brought on by supply chain problems and financial woes.
Both camps can agree that all of these problems are urgent, and they can also agree that they’re all the other side’s fault. And that’s what’s truly dangerous about the present moment.
Kids out of school, parents out of work, and whole families headed toward imminent financial ruin and potential homelessness—this is about as serious as social problems get short of war and famine. This is the stuff violent civil conflict is made of, which is no doubt the reason why the viral video clips of public confrontations between mask wearers, who are more likely to be Distancers, and anti-maskers (i.e., YOLOers) have been so ugly and widespread. These little outbursts of violence are likely to stay sporadic, but to the extent that coronavirus attitudes continue to overlap with our existing partisan political divide, the potential for the violence to take a more organized, endemic form is always there.
The real problem isn’t so much these particular divisions but the compressed timetable we’re all working under for trying to resolve them. Sorting out the kinds of jobs, housing, education, and the like is typically done over the course of decades—generations even—as we argue, vote, pass laws, and work through the courts. But we don’t have that kind of time, and we all know it.
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