Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The COVID Conundrum

Yetev Lev D’Satmar  last October (Tablet)
The question of what the pandemic has done to us as a people still plagues me. (No pun intended.) And by a people. I mean any of a number of groupings into which we can fit. Whether we are grouped by region, age, race, religion, politics... or any other grouping one can think of, there seems to be an increasing COVID war between us in how we each react to the pandemic within each group. And the repercussions of that. 

Armin Rosen  has an excellent discussion of this in a  recent Tablet Magazine. Which brings me to the recent Satmar funeral with which Rosen begins his discussion. 

My instinct was to once again condemn the lack of any caution with respect to COVID on the part of these Chasidim. Indeed anyone that attended that funeral would never know that we are in the midst of the  deadliest pandemic of the last 100 years. The room in building in which the eulogies took place was so packed with people that it was impossible to enter it. And no one there was masked. 

People with my perspective are appalled at an event like that. As I have noted the past, I believe it is combination of social isolationism, ignorance, and sense of entitlement that leads these Chasidim to behave this way. I still believe that’s true. 

But yesterday, I was informed of the following by an Orthodox Jewish friend of mine vacationing in Florida. She had decided to purchase dinner at a popular Kosher Restaurant there and was shocked to see how packed that restaurant was. People were dining together indoors in close proximity to each other. 

All kinds of Orthodox Jews from Chasidic to Modern Orthodox. No one was wearing a mask. They were all just enjoying each other’s company without a care in the world. Just like the Satmar Chasdim in Williamsburg it was as if here was no such thing as COVID. It doesn’t exist. Even though not that long ago Florida had the highest rate of infections in the country. Government guidelines there are intentionally not enforced. They are therefore all but ignored. Restaurants can and do stay open with impunity. 

I keep asking myself how can intelligent people act this way? Is the quality of life more important than life itself?! And how much sacrifice should there be anyway? Is there such a thing as too much? ...too little?

The answer to the second question is, it depends. In some cases it involves great sacrifice which makes it difficult to choose what path to take. What path will lead to the most successful overall outcome? And what should be factored in when making those decisions? Should educational needs override the dangers? What about the need to support your family? What about emotional needs that might lead to serious mental issues like depression, drug use, and even suicides? Is losing one’s livelihood permanently a reason to throw caution to the wind? What about spiritual needs?

As is the case with many things in life, compromise seems to be the most prudent course. The $64 question is, what do we sacrifice that will alleviate some of these problems with an acceptable degree of risk. And what is that acceptable degree - exactly?  

As difficult as these question may be to answer. The attitude by much of the civilized world seems to increasingly be to just throw in the towel. This is what scares me. In my view attending a funeral is not a reason to abandon all caution. Even if the deceased is as important and deserving as was that individual in Satmar (based on Rosen’s  description of him). He deserved that kind of tribute. But at what price? 

That said, taking a risks for purposes of eating out unmasked in a packed restaurant does not even come close to taking the same risk in paying final tribute to a deserving individual. While in my view both are wrong, there is not a scintilla of doubt about the altruism motivating Satmar versus the lack of any on the part of people  to eat out at a restaurant.  

So what gives? Why are there so many people that have just said, enough! …despite the fact that people are still getting seriously ill and dying in record numbers? They must know that many of our own people have died a horrible death - all alone in hospitals without any close member of the family present. No wife. No husband No child. No parent. Perhaps there was a caring heath provider all dressed up in their PPE ‘spacesuit’. But that’s it! 

They must know how many prominent people  - both religious and secular - have died from COVID that would otherwise still be alive. How can they not think of these things when deciding they’ve had enough?! 

I have thought about this many times and I still can’t figure out why they don’t have the same fear I do - as unprecedented numbers of hospitalizations keep happening. It sure keeps me on the straight and narrow – as it does many others like me. 

I can only speculate. But I think  what generates the kind of laxity on increasing numbers of people is a combination of the following. 

First there is the fact that the vast majority of people that get the disease survive quite nicely - without any after effects. They do not see what goes ion in hospitals. They look around and life seems normal. Same as it has always been. People are out and about doing their thing as usual. 

No one they know is seriously sick with COVID. They also know the majority of people that get seriously sick and/or die have an underlying health condition. Or are elderly. One statistic I saw is that 40% of COVID deaths in this country were by nursing home residents.  There are also the above-mentioned legitimate quality of life issues that can have serious consequences if ignored. 

When death and illness doesn’t surround and overwhelm you the way it does front line health care workers you begin to feel like the whole thing is overblown if not altogether nonexistent. Especially after nine months of all those restrictions on the quality of life. You are just sick and tired of behaving like it’s the end of the world. And you are just going to stop behaving that way. 

What about the repeated warnings from health experts? I guess they just ignore them too just like they do all the people dying or ion ventilators in ICUs right now.. 

I understand that feeling very well. I am well past being sick and tired of the pandemic and all of its restrictions. But every night when tuning into the evening news, I am reminded of just how serious this pandemic is. And I refuse to submit to my frustrations. 

Even though all the rationalizations against taking precautionary measures have some truth to them, the inescapable truth is that healthy young people get sick too. And in a few cases they will end up in hospital ICUs breathing through ventilators. Some of them will die. And some will recover after lengthy hospital stays with a variety of long term serious side effects.  No one knows if they are going to hit that jackpot. Rare as it may be, It is there and can hit any of us. 

Meanwhile each side looks at the other with increasing enmity. And as I have said in the past, I don’t know if people on opposite sides of the fence will ever be able look at each other the same way we did before COVID. Perhaps a little bit of understanding by each side of the other can help.