Sense of Decency

Listening to others, seeing things through their eyes.

Broadway, between Canal and Howard, Manhattan, Friday April 10, 2020 at 11:50 a.m. Photo by Eric Tortora Pato.


By the summer of 2020, America seemed to be roiling in escalated conflict after an unrelenting Spring of Coronavirus sacrifices. From the Friday the 13th shutdowns in March, the pre-pandemic planning failures, crisis healthcare responses, sluggish research, inconsistent governmental policy decisions to the widespread commercial and educational interruptions, there seemed to be little relief to our existential struggles. The growing economic crisis and tragic mortality tolls set a grim stage when the temperatures began to rise, and the tumult of civil unrest began. 

Americans had been asked to bring functioning society to such a screeching stop that the ripple effects will take decades to comprehend. The hallmarks of modern life were unceremoniously canceled. No school. No work. No church. No public transportation, No social events. No weddings. No graduations. No sports. No salon visits. No leisure shopping and no clear sense of when the restrictions would lift. 

For a couple of months, a wave of charity seemed to unify Americans around service to offset the terrifying daily numbers of infected, dead and intubated. People spent their days researching preventive measures to battle the deadly virus, socially distancing and stockpiling cleansers and paper products. The mental impact was devastating, and the collective consciousness turned to admiration for the most valiant among us.

Towns posted signs cheering on healthcare workers. Shoppers in surgical masks and rubber gloves tipped their grocery cashiers. They dusted off grandma’s forgotten sewing machine and got to work mass producing face masks to distribute to their neighbors. Internet groups formed to connect people with needed items that were in short supply. Families began connecting by digital screens in order to avoid spreading the virus. The nation’s school children recorded musical performances by Zoom to soothe our grieving souls. 

Supportive signs in Fayetteville, NY, March 29. Photo by Jim McKeever.

But as months passed, the realities of widespread hardship under a record-setting unemployment rate and a slowing ticker of both deaths and the spread of disease fomented a call to return to work. Loud voices called to reopen the American way of life. In phases, communities unlatched their doors to invite the public back into their marketplaces with a few requirements. The avoidance of closed, confined spaces unless each customer wore a protective face mask and maintained a six-foot distance, certainly seemed a small request if the alternative could contribute to an increase in deaths. 

You would think. 

As it turned out, the time that had been spent sequestering people into a forced isolation with nothing but fearful news alerts and the toxic friendship only Twitter can provide had taken a toll on the emotional well-being of too many Americans to count. As people stepped out of their shelters, there seemed to be daily cellphone videos documenting abusive interactions between people who appeared stunted and frozen in the anger stage of their grief for the “normal life” that had been placed on pause.

Then, at the end of May, when a cell phone recording of a Minneapolis police officer killing George Floyd in a nine-minute show of sadistic brutality emerged, the dam that had held any reservoir of civility broke. The other deadly epidemic of black deaths by cop had tragically claimed another life. 

In the fog of reactive protests that were mostly peaceful, some found a new combat theater to act out on all the frustrations of the past months.  When riots and looting in cities broke out, the foundation of American lives cracked at all the well-worn politicized fault lines. Raging intolerance kept communities segregated in parallel ways to those that had been unjustly red-lined. Political parties bunkered to their sides ready to pin blame for the unrest on the opposing ideologues. Those most marginalized by the lasting effects of America’s racially oppressive history were, by far, suffering more severely under the lock down measures. The virus had been ricocheting through densely populated communities that had less access to mitigating services. Daily demonstrations were being met with increasing push back and under the leadership of President Trump, military tactics were used to disperse public crowds. 

I like to think that the choice to open vacation resorts and bars in states like Florida, Texas, Nevada and Arizona was less a failing empire’s attempt to distract the plebs, and perhaps a hopeful invitation for raging Americans to go out, pour a cold one and take a stress break. At least, the economy could advance some first rehabilitative steps.

You might think.

One of many New York State signs asking for cooperation.

Unfortunately, Coronavirus had other ideas. Throughout the summer, infection numbers continued to rise, and the country sprouted new epicenters of the pandemic. Defiant citizens who seemed to have had enough of other people, in every possible way, took to social media to announce what was canceled. This time it was not just Junior’s two weeks at summer camp but also greedy corporate brands, bloviating public figures, racist monuments, and generally anybody who disagreed with a burgeoning Tik Tok star.

The way this mood manifested itself in real life was not to be believed.  People engaged in heated public arguments, invoking Jesus Christ about how wearing masks was a loss of their civil liberties. Others joined white supremacist human shields under the auspices of rising to defend fully riot-armed police forces. Organized boycotts spread in all directions and cell phones recorded more outrageous behavior around the map. All the while, the virus infected more than three million people and claimed upwards of 135,000 lives.

The nation stayed stuck in the ANGER stage of grief.

By July, fireworks events were canceled but tensions around Independence Day felt combustible. Those of us sidelined by caring for the vulnerable in our families despaired of a return to decency. If the pandemic had exposed the places in our society in most urgent disrepair, where had that original spirit of sacrifice and heroism faded to now that the cure relied on a communal sense of responsibility? The virus hitched rides on young people to wreak havoc on the frailest among us and the country was sorely lacking a moral voice to unify the mission. 

In the absence of more contemporary counsel, I found solace in the advice of American scientist, George Washington Carver, who was born into slavery, survived the 1918 flu pandemic, contributed to the field of environmental sciences and died in 1943:

How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these.

It is my hope that Dr. Carver’s wisdom reaches new minds, now when we need it once more. 

Ana Morley is a freelance writer and editor living in Fayetteville, NY.

One thought on “2020: The Summer that Cancellations turned into a Culture

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