Friday, November 20, 2020

Plague diary -- security theater

I don't know what it's like in your neighborhood, but here the coronavirus is getting closer and scarier every day.  Our governor has put in new lockdown orders, a couple of friends and relatives are awaiting the results of covid tests, and this morning a contact tracer from our local health department called to say a visitor to PYRO Gallery on Saturday just tested positive.

The person taking the gallery shift this afternoon said she would make a point of wiping down all the doorknobs, light switches, furniture and fixtures.  I had a disconnect when I read her message.  A few hours earlier I had read in the New York Times that the public health people now have concluded that there is "little to no evidence that contaminated surfaces can spread the virus."  

In other words, all the ostentatious deep cleaning, all the guys in hazmat suits spraying down airports, all the washing of cans and bottles from the grocery, all the three-day quarantining of mail, probably didn't accomplish much in the way of keeping us safe.  

How does this happen -- the conventional wisdom from March turns out to be mostly wrong in November?  I think there are two elements in play.

First is that in March we knew so little about the coronavirus and how it operates, so we seized upon the few things we could pin down and measure.  Somebody in a lab somewhere determined that a virus particle could live on a surface for days, so it seemed like a no-brainer to splash bleach on all the surfaces you could think of.  Couldn't hurt, right?  And then when later scientific experiments and observations realized that the real danger comes from the airborne particles from sneezing, coughing, singing, yelling and otherwise breathing hard, it's hard to make people forget the terrified response that used to seem like a good idea.

But second, wiping down surfaces quickly became security theater.  You know, like making everybody take their shoes off to get through airport security, even though there never has been another shoe bomber since that one nut job was caught in 2001, even in all the countries of the world where you don't have to take off your shoes.  

It's one thing when those in power deliberately use security theater to put on a show of concern and action, even while they're doing very little about the real dangers.  I'd put taking-off-shoes in that category.  And I'd put some of the hazmat disinfection efforts by businesses in that category as well, as if wiping down the doorknob or the assembly line makes up for failure to have employees keep proper distance, failure to enforce mask wear, or failure to test and trace infections among workers or customers.

But what's really unfortunate is when we use security theater against ourselves.  When we spend lots of time and money on Clorox wipes and think our families are safe because we scrubbed the sink twice since breakfast.  Or the flip side -- when we persuade ourselves that masks don't stop the virus, that it's only security theater; when we persuade ourselves that a big Thanksgiving dinner is OK because we're only inviting our family members, and canceling festivities is only security theater; when we persuade ourselves that God won't let us get sick when we go to church, and online or at-home worship is only security theater.

I know it's hard to keep up with the changing dos and don'ts of the pandemic.  In March they were telling us to scrub the canned tuna but don't bother to wear a mask.  In November they're telling us to wear a mask everywhere but don't bother with the bleach.  It takes time and energy to keep up with the changing advice, and people who don't trust scientists may not follow it anyway.

So as a result, here we are today -- 57 million people sick around the globe, 1.3 million dead, more sick and dead in the United States than in any other country.  I say there's a particular place in hell for those who mislead us into doing the wrong things, or who urge us to do whatever we want, as if there were no pandemic at all. 

Wear your masks, people!  But probably don't bother with the Clorox.  


  1. You are so so so right! Theater...scrubbing vs wearing a mask. This is becoming closer to me...three [former, I am now retired] colleagues have had COVID19, two died, and one's husband will probably not make it. All three live in states that will NOT deal with wearing masks...What is the big deal??? thanks for your emails...I like hearing from you!!

  2. Thank you for this column, Kathleen. How I wish everyone ... everyone would read it and pay attention to the truth. Good luck, stay healthy!

  3. Firstly let me thank you for something. Last month you mentioned someone who had got in touch with you about text. A good friend I had not seen in a while. All our Arts get togethers here in Oz have been cancelled so it made me get in touch with her and have a meet up. A lovely friend.
    Back to the plague. I am so sorry for what it must be like for you. Who can you trust? Who do you listen to? I think the UK is the same boat. At least here in Victoria (Oz) we have have strong leadership, strict rules and we seem to be out the other side for the time being. But boy it’s been tough for some. All I can say is I just tried to relax and go with it. And set small goals.
    The world’s recovery also depends on recovery in the US

  4. Yes to all of that Kathleen. When I think about what was required from our country during WWII, I don't think we could win that war now because we are unable to act for the common good. The willfull ignorance is appalling.

  5. That comment was from Patty, not Bruce. Patty

  6. Very well written. You should send it the New York Times, or better yet, other outlets where more will see it, those who need to pay attention.

  7. Theater is such an apt description. Our local grocery did not make employees wear masks until about 2 weeks ago, only had little plastic shields at the registers. Yet I'm being overrun with plastic bags that can't be returned for recycle (stores took out the bag recycle bins months ago) because they won't let us use our reusable bags. Makes NO sense. I guess the good thing about cleaning theater is that maybe it will prevent other illnesses transmitted that way, like norovirus.