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How to stay thankful when Covid fills the holidays with guilt, anger, and grief

Everyone is to blame for the pandemic. Which also means no one is.
Image: Candlelight Procession Held To Remember Lives Affected By Coronavirus
People hold up electric candles during a prayer vigil for victims of Covid-19 on October 19, 2020 in New York City. Michael M Santiago / Getty Images

Americans are being told that the key to handling this pandemic is “personal responsibility:” Stay home (if you can), work from home (if you can), avoid seeing friends (if you can), don’t dine indoors (if you can.) In this way, everyone is to blame for this pandemic — our individual choices cascade out too far to focus on any one cause as being “the problem.” In effect, this means that nobody is to blame, a collective shunting of responsibility.

This deep into the pandemic cycle, I’m at a loss for where to channel the anger I’m feeling right now.

The Transportation Security Administration checked more than 1 million people flying through U.S. airports on Nov 20. One million is also the number of new Covid-19 cases that have accumulated within six days in the United States, the same number of new cases that piled on top of the rest in just the six days before that, for a total of 12 million since March.

This deep into the pandemic cycle, I’m at a loss for where to channel the anger I’m feeling right now. Am I angry at those travelers? The airlines, for keeping flights in the air even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have urged passengers not to travel for Thanksgiving?

I can’t know how many of those millions of travelers flew because of an emergency; or how many of them flew because they were desperate to see their families after months of isolation. I have no idea how many of them were taking every safety precaution they could.

Meanwhile, small businesses that support dozens of local workers are forced to decide whether to go above and beyond what governments have ordered to keep their staff and customers safe, or stay open and risk losing both. All employees are essentially essential now — there’s no distinction anymore, everyone has to work now — if their job still exists. The divide now is between who can do their job safely at home and who has to risk their long-term health every day.

Could it be that our system is just not designed to counteract American selfishness?

Restaurants have been particularly hard hit. In Los Angeles, officials say that the main risk of spread that comes from dining out isn’t the act of eating at a restaurant, it’s doing so with people from outside your household. But restaurants don’t have the power to check whether their diners are all in the same quarantine pod when they make their reservation. There’s no enforcement mechanism they have aside from turning aside customers, which is an impossible choice when you have staffers to support and you can never fill your restaurant to capacity, eating away at the already slim margins you had set up. And there’s no sign of a much-needed federal bailout coming for the industry.

Who in this calculus deserves the brunt of our anger? Is it the restaurateurs who know they’re potentially acting as a plague den? The diners who want to share a plate of appetizers with their friends, convinced that it's safe, since they’re outdoors? The politicians who haven’t provided the funds required seem like the obvious choice here, but even there I’m not certain.

Republicans in the Senate have blocked aid for months, and yet it seems they're testing positive for the coronavirus left and right. In the last week, Sens. Chuck Grassley, Rick Scott, and Kelly Loeffler have all announced that they’ve tested positive for the virus. Scott and Loeffler have been out among large crowds of unmasked people within their infection window, putting all of them at risk as well. The president’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., has also been infected after managing to dodge that bullet for weeks as people around him contracted it.

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These people have access to some of the best treatment in the world and wear that knowledge like a false armor. It seems to have emboldened them to take risks that they won’t acknowledge are risks. It encourages them to urge their followers to do the same while declining to offer them the same safety net they can readily access. And it gives them the cover to refuse to offer aid that would actually let people take the steps needed to stop the virus. It’s been six months since Congress doled out stimulus checks of up to $1,200 to people around the country. The odds of the lame duck session passing any substantial aid are slim at best.

But, could it be that our system is just not designed to counteract American selfishness?

Anne Helen Petersen wrote in her newsletter on Nov. 15 about the division between collectivism and individualism in America these days. It’s at the core of why some people know the risks and still choose to act as though coronavirus isn’t a threat — they measure the impact on themselves and those closest to them, but don’t feel the need to think about broader communities. That’s part of why New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo’s essay explaining why he was still attending a Thanksgiving dinner with family got readers so upset. And that same “how does it affect me, personally?” ethos keeps me from being sure that pointing my rage at elected officials is really the answer.

This last month has been a reminder that for all its many flaws, whether there by accident or design, our country is a democracy, with government answerable to the will of the people. Those officials I heap scorn on are in their roles because the people of their community chose to elevate them to those positions. It’s hard to tell which side of the looking glass people stand on: for example, people like Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, where rates are some of the highest in the world, and the county leaders in Kansas who rejected the state’s mask mandate in July.

Are the Kansans in those counties — who, following that rejection, saw a 100 percent rise in Covid-19 rates by mid-August — shunning masks for their own selfish reasons because they aren’t being offered proper guidance? Or are those commissioners just reflecting the beliefs of their communities back to them as they act in their own self-interest, opting for inaction over voter outrage?

It’s the guilt of not doing enough when I’m already mad at everyone else for the same reason.

I wish I knew how to break the cycle I just described. As much as I hate to resort to a Winston Churchill quote, the man had a point when he paraphrased some unknown to say that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

I’m forced to wonder, too, whether I’m angriest at myself right now. The anger born from guilt is real. It’s the guilt of not doing enough when I’m already mad at everyone else for the same reason. I got tested last Wednesday at one of the city’s free testing centers. I should be quarantining while I wait for my results. Instead, I’m doing what we’re allowed to do — but nothing more — all but invalidating whatever the test tells me.

New York City officials can only trace where about a quarter of new Covid-19 cases were picked up, the New York Times reported. That leaves a lot of spread in the community untraced. I worry that I’m going to become one of the silent spreaders, girding myself for an eventual positive result and the overwhelming horror that I was the cause of someone else losing a loved one. And for what? The convenience of a bag of chips?

My mask is firmly over my nose and mouth when I weave through shoppers in my local grocery store. I’m not alone in this thankfully, but I’m also not thrilled to see how many people’s usage has slipped over time. Our societal norms keep me from telling every person whose nostrils I can clearly see to tug their mask up. But each time I’m silent, I feel a new pang of guilt weighing me down further.

There’s been no shortage of things to be mad about this year. I know that this Thanksgiving Day, I’ll still have a lot to be thankful for: Nobody in my immediate family has contracted the virus; I haven’t had to attend any Zoom funerals for friends; I’m employed and living in relative comfort when that’s not the case for so many others.

But as we head toward what should be a holiday where we embrace all the things that have brought us comfort and relief, it’s getting harder and harder to put my anger aside. The opposite of anger isn’t being thankful — it’s being forgiving. I can give thanks as much as I want, but I don’t know how I’m going to wind up forgiving anyone for this situation this country is in — or how to decide who’s worth that forgiveness. Including myself.