People here in Oregon, as elsewhere on the West Coast, have been wonderfully generous with their time, money, and effort in helping others affected by the massive wildfires burning in our forests.
The nightly local news is filled with stories about meals being prepared for firefighters, livestock being cared for after homes were destroyed, donations of clothes and other household goods being used to aid the newly homeless, and other acts of kindness.
Such isn't surprising. Most people are generous. They feel empathy and concern for those in need. They want to make things better when suffering is rampant.
I've been wondering, though, how it is that our nation's response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been so splintered and controversial when the response to West Coast wildfires has been so cohesive and praiseworthy.
How is it that Americans are so willing to risk their lives to save homes threatened by wildfire, yet often so reluctant to wear a mask in indoor public spaces or outside when six feet of physical distancing can't be maintained?
Covid has killed hugely more people than the wildfires have. The cover of the current issue of TIME magazine contains a large 200,000, the number of those killed by COVID-19 since the virus started to ravage the United States.
The cover story is called An American Failure. There are many reasons for the failure to contain the virus, including the willful incompetence of Donald Trump. But other factors are at play, according to the story. Such as:
Americans today tend to value the individual over the collective. A 2011 Pew survey found that 58% of Americans said "freedom to pursue life's goals without interference from the state" is more important than the state guaranteeing "nobody is in need."
It's easy to view that trait as a root cause of the country's struggles with COVID-19; a pandemic requires people to make temporary sacrifices for the benefit of the group, whether it's wearing a mask or skipping a visit to their local bar.
...Absent adequate leadership, it's been up to everyday Americans to band together in the fight against COVID-19.
To some extent that's been happening -- doctors, nurses, bus drivers and other essential workers have been rightfully celebrated as heroes, and many have paid a price for their bravery. But at least some Americans still refuse to take such a simple step as wearing a mask.
Why? Because we're also in the midst of a epistemic crisis. Republicans and Democrats today don't just disagree on issues; they disagree on the basic truths that structure their respective realities.
Half the country gets its news from places that parrot whatever the Administration says, true or not; half does not. This politicization manifests in myriad ways, but the most vital is this: in early June (at which point more than 100,000 Americans had already died of COVID-19), fewer than half of Republican voters polled said the outbreak was a major threat to the health of the U.S. population as a whole.
So how is it that Republicans, along with Democrats and independents, are so willing to work hard to help evacuees threatened by wildfires, yet so many aren't willing to wear a mask or do other things to prevent people from suffering the nasty effects of COVID-19?
One reason is that it isn't possible to deny the reality of the wildfires, while there is plenty of misinformation circulating about COVID-19. If it were possible for Trump to spew falsehoods about wildfire damage being "fake news," likely a quarter or more of the population would agree with the Liar in Chief.
Instead, reporters here in Oregon have been doing a great job communicating wildfire news via newspapers, television, social media, and other ways. This shows the importance of local journalism, which is more trusted than national news outlets. (I trust both, but I'm a news junkie.)
Another factor relates to the American individualism cited in the TIME cover story.
Volunteering to help those displaced by the wildfires is up to each person. Nobody is forcing them to do this. But orders to wear masks in public places come from elected officials. So there seems to be a reluctance by many to do what should be done to save lives just because someone else is telling them to do this.
That reminds me of a childhood retort. "I'm doing it not because you told me to, but because I want to." It's disturbing that adults would extend that to "I'm not doing it because you told me to, even though it is the right thing to do."
At any rate, I'm hoping that the compassion evident in the response of people to wildfire victims -- both those who lost their homes and those who had to evacuate -- will carry over to an increased willingness to wear a mask, physically distance, avoid crowded indoor places like bars, and do other things necessary to prevent death and disease from COVID-19.
With life, it's a truism that we're all in this together. And while no one gets out of life alive, death coming to everyone, we should do our best to help others get through difficult times in their life, whether this be dealing with a wildfire or avoiding infection with the coronavirus.