Editorial: What George Saw
By Richard Gaw
Upon receiving the news that his job has been furloughed for the foreseeable future, George immediately applied for unemployment compensation, and although his wife is still employed, her hours have been cut drastically. The coffee cups rested on the table beside a growing stack of bills, and for the last few weeks, the scenario at the family’s kitchen table is one that has been duplicated all over the United States -- the shuffling of bills in the order of their due dates, a nightly game of three-card monte, one that now involves the fear of unlocking their investment portfolio and digging into a once untouchable nest egg.
George drained the last of his coffee, kissed his wife and began the drive to the state capitol in Harrisburg, to join the hundreds of other protestors who, like him, were opposed to the state shutdown. He drove alone, armed only with his voice, which he knew would be muffled behind a protective mask, and the conviction that his presence, melded with hundreds of others, would send a clear message to Gov. Wolf, Secretary of Health Levine and elected officials that their remedies will lead to the financial collapse of the state.
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In a press release announcing the event, its organizers wrote, “We will have endured nearly seven weeks of lock down when May 1 arrives and the end of these restrictions has remained indefinite. Business owners are being forced to layoff employees while the unemployment system is failing those laid off and the economy free falls. Pennsylvanians deserve more than just endless extensions. It is not sustainable to continue the shut down as the economic and societal consequences may be irreversible.”
Later that morning, George arrived in Harrisburg. He parked his car and walked several blocks to the capitol building on North Third Street, and quickly, he disappeared into the welcoming scrum of our nation’s civil disobedience. American flags were everywhere, and so were rising and chanting voices, and signs that read, “My Constitutional Rights are Essential,” and “All Business Is Essential.”
George was now a soldier in an unarmed militia, emboldened by the presence of other like-minded souls who had driven to their state capitol that morning on the strengths of the freedoms given to them by the U.S. Constitution’s boldest amendment.
Within the beat of a moment, however, George saw that the scene had a deliberately anti-pandemic message to it; throngs of protestors were not wearing protective masks, in reckless defiance of orders from the state’s health department and every other source of medical expertise in the world. He heard a speaker tell the crowd, “We will not sacrifice our freedoms for our safety.”
George stood in the thicket of vulnerability. He overheard someone say that the state government is overreacting to COVID-19, that it’s a hoax whipped up in order to manipulate the public. Before he left his home, George read the statewide statistics: as of April 20, there were 33,232 positive cases of COVID-19, and over 1,200 people had died.
This is a giant petri dish for the coronavirus, he thought. I cannot remain here anymore. Have they not seen the numbers? Have they taken leave of their senses?
George returned to his car, began to maneuver his way out of the city, and eventually pulled onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike and headed east.
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As George drove back to Chester County, he recalled two stories from the book he had begun reading recently, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, by John M. Barry, which documented the Spanish flu that killed an estimated 675,000 Americans and a staggering 20 to 50 million people worldwide in 1918-19. One story took place in his native Philadelphia, when in September 1918, despite the fact that the Spanish flu was raging through army and naval installations in the city and could lead to an epidemic, Wilmer Krusen, the city’s public health director, refused to cancel the upcoming Liberty Loan parade.
On Sept. 28, 200,000 attended the two-mile-long parade that featured a patriotic procession of soldiers, marching bands, scouts and dignitaries. Three days after the parade, all 31 of Philadelphia’s hospitals were full and 2,600 people were dead by the end of the week.
The other story in the book took place on Nov. 21, 1918 in San Francisco when, at the urgency of protestors, city officials lifted a one-month ordinance that forced residents and visitors to wear protective masks. It was time, they thought; the city was recording a drop in the number of positive cases of the Spanish flu.
Soon after, as the calendar flipped to 1919, the number of positive cases of the Spanish flu in San Francisco skyrocketed to 45,000 and resulted in more than 3,000 deaths.
Later that evening, George sat at his kitchen table, and told his wife about what he had seen in Harrisburg that morning. As tough as it is, he said, the only way we’re going to get through this is with logic, patience, and time. I want to go back to work. Every one of those people I saw today wants to go back to work…but we cannot risk our lives in order to do so. There’s other people’s lives involved, not just us.
George told his wife that as he was leaving Harrisburg, he saw healthcare workers standing alone on the side streets near the capitol building, dressed in their hospital scrubs and peering at the drivers from behind their protective masks. One worker held up a sign for every driver who passed by her.
George told his wife what the sign read. “My life is on the line. Go home.”