There’s a homemade sign planted along Stockdale Highway a short distance from my house that makes what seems like a patriotic declaration: “Stop the Tyranny,” it shouts. “Open California Now.” A small U.S. flag attached to the top certifies the sign-maker’s credentials.
The tyranny in question is apparently that of California Gov. Gavin Newsom and, perhaps by extension, the Kern County Public Health Services Department, whose leaders have said they intend to follow his directives regarding containment of the coronavirus.
What is that little roadside sign saying to Ryan Alsop? Last week the county’s chief administrative officer, though eager to reverse the direction of Kern’s unemployment rate, now up to 18.6 percent, suggested that neighboring Tulare County “recalculate” its recent decision to defy the governor’s cautious approach to reopening the economy.
There’s some irony here as we honor the sacrifice of America’s war dead this Memorial Day weekend: Over the course of the past 245 years, men and women, military and civilian, have invested their trust, and their lives, in leaders compelled to make decisions based on a broader view. Sometimes the generals were overly cautious; other times they were reckless. Sometimes they knew what to expect and let it happen anyway: The U.S. anticipated a Japanese attack in the Pacific for a decade before it happened at Pearl Harbor.
We’ve all heard the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic likened to war, and though it obviously differs greatly, the comparison is not without merit: Both fights require unity, intelligence, commitment.
They also both require trust: We trust that the strategists know where and how the enemy may strike, and how we might defeat it. In America’s conventional wars, those strategists were men like Washington, Grant and Eisenhower, who weighed factors like troop numbers, artillery and battlefield landscape. In this war, they are the epidemiologists who understand how viruses thrive and how their interaction with the social behavior of humans affects their growth or decline. Their soldiers are doctors, nurses and other medical professionals trained to understand and respect science — and have seen the damage this enemy wreaks.
We have so trusted the leadership of American war generals, we later elected 13 of them to the presidency. Epidemiologists get no such respect. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country's top medical expert on the pandemic and a member of President Donald Trump's coronavirus task force, has received death threats for urging restraint. Now the U.S. Marshals Service is protecting him.
I find myself reflecting on the idea of unity, too. A form of that word forms a portion of this country’s name: That’s how much the Founding Fathers — those guys with the powdered wigs we love to quote and misquote — valued the concept. When people are united, all work for the benefit of all. One way they do that is by, as in times of conventional war, trusting the public and private institutions that have proved themselves over time. In our current circumstance, those are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, university research labs like those at Johns Hopkins and Harvard, and, yes, some of the major pharmaceutical companies.
Some Americans have chosen not to participate in this united effort. Wearing masks in stores and hanging back from crowds just a little is, after all, a terrible personal imposition that surely violates some constitutional right or another. Then they wave the flag.
The most courageous Americans among us today, the front line of the medical community, are the same ones urging us to take simple precautions. We disrespect them by criticizing the leaders and institutions that actually listen to them.
Reopening too carelessly and recklessly invites a second wave: Two studies released in recent days suggest the virus is waning in about half the states but primed for a possible resurgence in the South and Midwest.
That also is the case in California, which, according to a Los Angeles Times tracker, has averaged 1,965 new cases and 73 new deaths per day over the past week, with 48 percent of confirmed cases in a county that adjoins Kern — Los Angeles. The number of new cases in Kern is doubling every 31 days, about 25 percent faster than in San Francisco, where the population density is six times greater than that of Bakersfield and 20 times that of Kern overall.
It’s not just science that warns of a second wave, it’s history, too. The Spanish flu of 1918 was devastating, but Americans tired of the government’s impositions and relaxed or revolted, hastening a surge worse than the first. COVID-19 has already played out that way in parts of the world.
Bakersfield and Kern County have largely escaped the pain COVID-19 has wrought elsewhere. The dire scenes depicted on the nightly news do not reflect what we’ve seen here. And now we’re tired of the tyranny of science and history and of governments, local and state, that acknowledge those things.
We want to get back to where we were.
At some point we must.
And this weekend some segments of the local economy started trying.
That’s a good thing. But we must not treat it like a jailbreak.
The noise you hear is history clearing its throat. Sometimes we know what to expect and let it happen anyway.
I'm ready for a platterful of chicken piccata from Uricchio’s Trattoria — and I don’t mean in a to-go container in front of my TV. I am ready for an Esther’s Delight from Mexicali, but not delivered to my door in a paper sack. And I am ready for those businesses to profit again, and profit grandly.
But I want my freedom to last. Two weeks of freedom from the restraints of due caution, followed by another three months of lockdown, isn’t what I’d call an escape from tyranny.