Reliving the Same Nightmare
I recently watched the new movie Palm Springs on Hulu and found it oddly relatable. I also don’t seem to be the only one. The film set a streaming record on Hulu, netting more hours watched on its opening weekend then any other film in the same period. It’s a time-loop romantic comedy, which is a concept that has been tried frequently in the past. Between Groundhog Day and all the movies inspired by Groundhog Day, it would seem to be a concept that has been overused. Except, in 2020, it has never seemed more relevant.
While we are not stuck in a time loop, 2020 has felt like the same time period repeating itself over and over and over and over. For the past couple of months, America has been reliving the same nightmare.
The sensation that my life is stuck on a hamster wheel is not just because of stay-at-home orders. I mean, a lot of it is due to the fact that since March, every day has been the same. I cannot leave the house without donning a mask and doing a risk assessment of the activity I am choosing. These past four months have been some of the most stagnant and also stressful time periods of my life. This is because it is not just my days that are repeating itself, it's also that the world seems to be stuck in a time loop.
In January of this year, China's Wuhan Province reported its first death from the novel coronavirus and entered into stringent quarantine. To deal with a massive outbreak of a brand new virus, the Chinese government took what at the time were unprecedented measures to keep people at home and secluded from one another. China still reported (from what we can trust) 2,548 deaths by mid-March in the Wuhan region, but a number of experts suspect there very likely may have been a major undercount of deaths resulting from COVID-19—something the Chinese government has addressed—as mass deaths from flu-like symptoms went unlogged as coronavirus-related ones. Nonetheless, the world could have learned from China's imperfect response and worked to make sure that other countries did not have such severe outbreaks.
Yet, Italy did not learn from China. In late February, Italy saw a major outbreak of COVID-19. In its northern region, the government implemented a lockdown and put into place stringent stay-at-home orders for its residents. The hardest hit region in Italy, Lombardy, saw over 15,000 deaths and over 20 percent of its residents positive with the virus. Italy saw its obit sections in newspapers grow from three pages to over ten. As with China, some people were hopeful that the rest of the West could learn from Italy’s mistakes and suppress their outbreaks faster before they got as bad.
Except, just as Italy did not learn from China, the United States did not learn from Italy. New York City was the largest outbreak of the virus for most of the year. In early April, at the peak of New York’s outbreak, they averaged over 7,000 cases a day and almost 1,000 deaths a day.
Checking the news out of New York City in the month of April was like checking into another world. They were using refrigerated trucks to hold bodies because there was not enough capacity to store the recently deceased people; they sent some bodies to be buried on Hart Island as morgue capacity was overwhelmed. It was terrifying, but there was hope that the rest of the country could learn from New York City’s mistakes in the spring and keep the summer from seeing increases in the outbreak. A trio of leaders, all from New York—Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and President Donald Trump—could have prevented this, but their stubbornness and ego got in the way. They wasted time blaming each other and not confronting the virus head-on. It was terrifying, but there was hope that the rest of the country could learn from New York City’s mistakes in the spring and keep the summer from seeing increases in the outbreak.
For May and June, it seemed like that could be correct, that the rest of America learned from the terrifying news that came out of New York and was working to ensure that that did not occur in their state. Yet, just as Italy did not learn from China, and New York did not learn from Italy, the Sun Belt has not learned from New York.
On July 17, the United States recorded 74,000 news cases, setting a single-day record from the 10th time in 10 days, mostly concentrated in the South and West. While the increased number of cases could be attributed to increased testing, hospitalizations and deaths have started to increase as well. Hospitals in Texas are reaching full capacity, with Houston hospitals having to hire more nurses and turn areas previously designated for other purposes into ICU units.
Texas Governor Greg Abbot still refuses to issue a stay-at-home order, but as issued mandatory mask orders. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick gave a very simple explanation as to why saving the economy is more important than saving lives. At the time he said this, there were almost 500 fatalities in Texas due to COVID-19. As of today, there are over 4,500.
Lt. Gov. Patrick stated that an increase in coronavirus cases was worth it, if it meant that the economy would stay strong and people would not be unemployed. It’s an interesting argument, except the economy is still cratering in Texas. Even though Texas has not issued a stay-at-home order, weekly unemployment claims are rising again, and nearly two times higher than the peak of the Great Recession. More than half of the temporary business closures on Yelp are now permanent, with Texas being one of the states with the highest closure numbers. Instead of working to crush the virus and protect small businesses, the Texas government threw them to the wolves.
In Georgia, as deaths, hospitalizations, and cases are increasing, Gov. Brian Kemp is not only not issuing a mandatory mask order, he is also suing Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms for instituting a mask order in her city. Mayor Bottoms currently has coronavirus and is not the only mayor who instituted a mask order. However, she is a black female mayor who has criticized him in the past and happens to be the only one being sued.
Gov. Kemp would rather score political points with his base by targeting a black woman, than work to protect his citizens. Between the actions of him and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, it seems obvious that the incentives that kept the New York leadership from acting are consistent across the country. Currently, the states with the highest coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have the same spurring factor in common: they opened their economy before they had adequate testing and contact tracing infrastructure intact, and now are facing another economic downturn.
Not only are the outbreaks repeating, the country is no more prepared for them now than we were in March. In the first couple months of the pandemic in the United States, there was a shortage of masks and personal protective equipment (PPE). Nearly five months later, hospitals are still struggling to find enough PPE. In April, there were stories about a rent crisis caused by an unemployment boom, and no help has come. Similar stories were running in July. This could have been prevented. The President could have used the Defense Production Act to ramp up the production and availability of PPE and the Senate could have passed the Emergency Relief and Housing Act that the House of Representatives passed in June.
The past six months have felt like a revolving door of bad news, and not just about COVID-19. Between President Trump having the United States kill an Iranian military leader, bringing us to the brink of war, Arctic wildfires producing more carbon emissions than any other fire in the nearly two decades of monitoring, and the president sending in unmarked federal officers to detain and brutalize protesters in Portland, Oregon, 2020 has been one horrific news story after another, all caused by ineffective or cruel governing by our leaders. The United States is stuck in a time loop of horrific news. Every day has the same news: more protestors being beaten up, more coronavirus cases concentrated in states that refuse to learn from the mistakes of earlier outbreaks, and a worsening climate change problem, with no solutions in sight.
In Groundhog Day, the main character breaks out of his time loop by becoming a better person. In Palm Springs, the main characters break out of their time loops by blowing themselves up.
When we come out of the coronavirus, the systems that put us in this situation in the first place must be rebuilt with kinder, better alternatives. The systems that allow petty squabbles between leaders to put lives at risk must be changed so that leaders are incentivized to work together. The systems that dehumanize people and treat the economy as more precious than human lives must be rebuilt to value people more than money. In 2020, we have a chance to create a government that is truly by, of, and for the people.
Anna Hickey is a third-year C.L.E.G. major in the School of Public Affairs. She is the Chief Editorial Columnist for the Agora.
Image courtesy Texas Housing and Human Services