Coronavirus is a significant public health issue, but the response to it, in many quarters, has been hysterical. Events of various kinds are being canceled or modified: schools are closing or going online, the NCAA basketball tournaments will be played without fans in the stands, New York’s St. Patrick’s Day parade has been canceled, countless businesses (like my old law firm) are closing their offices and telling employees to work from home. I think there are several reasons for this, beyond legitimate concerns about spreading the disease.
First, a fear of liability that is probably misplaced. If other schools send their students home, and you don’t, and coronavirus makes some of your students sick, might they sue you for negligence? It would be a lousy case, but since anyone can sue anyone for anything, the fear of litigation is not wholly misplaced.
Second, many want to create a crisis that they can blame on Donald Trump in hopes of electing a Democratic president. This one doesn’t need any explanation.
The third reason is most interesting to me: I think many people are using coronavirus as an excuse for not doing things they didn’t want to do in the first place.
People who may have been exposed to the virus are being urged to self-quarantine, which means staying home and interacting with other people only virtually, or failing that to strive for “social distance,” which means not getting into close physical proximity with others. A great many people are self-quarantining, in part because they have been liberated by their employers to do so. But isn’t staying home and interacting with other people only virtually pretty much where we have been headed for the last 20 years?
Why go out? You can save a lot of money cooking at home, you’ve got a giant flat-screen TV (or several), there is beer in the fridge, you would rather spend time with your wife and kids than attend boring business or social events. So why not stay home? To the extent you want to keep in touch with other people, you can do it via email and text. You can post photos on Instagram to let them know what you are up to (i.e., staying home). You can Face Time, Tic Tok, or whatever. “Social distance” is much what most of us are increasingly used to. Why risk personal contact?
A further note on sports crowds: today it’s the NCAA basketball tournaments; tomorrow, who knows? I have long said that attending a professional or major college sports event means being part of the studio audience, like at a sitcom or game show. They aren’t playing the game for you, they are playing for the people watching on television. You are just part of the colorful background to the game. If you doubt this, go to a pro football game and observe how much time is spent with the players standing around while the crowd in the stands waits patiently: TV time outs. In the future, they could do away with live crowds altogether. They easily could create a pretend crowd and fake crowd noise via CGI, and who would know the difference? Meanwhile, an overwhelming majority would rather watch the game on television, the medium for which the event has really been created, rather than attend in person.
Maybe I’m crazy, but I think a great many people welcome the opportunity to self-quarantine, or at least achieve social distance, as the apotheosis of a trend that has been going for quite a while. In today’s world, with electronic communication everywhere and pretty much everything ready to be delivered to your door, there is arguably little reason to go out. I think this is part of the reason why so many people and institutions are ready to embrace staying home. Perhaps, in years to come, coronavirus may be viewed as a tipping point on the way to a world of social isolation.
UPDATE: A friend forwards this tweet which humorously sums up the attitude I think many have toward self-quarantining and social distance: