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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Waite


Updated: Jul 22, 2020

If you’ve ever flown across the country on a clear day, you might have noticed how the land below resembles a quilt. Seams of rivers occasionally cut across the plains, but, mostly, there are squares of green, yellow and brown farmland stitched together by a grid of roads. America is very much a patchwork of settlements connected simply by the fact that we share a single wide-open space between oceans.

This patchwork approach is exactly why we are struggling to contain this virus. Kathleen saw something on Facebook that basically said if we’re only wearing masks and keeping our distance in parts of the country, we might as well be telling people it’s OK to pee in the pool, so long as we all relieve ourselves in the shallow end.

The New York Times this week ran a piece about how fax machines are stymieing public health departments’ responses to outbreaks. Yes, some labs and doctors’ offices can send results digitally, but many are relying on outdated technology that can lead to hundreds of pages stacking up in paper trays and even spilling onto the floor. Some offices are even sending test results via the mail.

Patchwork. The New York Times article used that word explicitly.

If you’re an NBA player, you may have been tested for Covid-19 dozens of times—and received results almost instantly. If you live in South Florida, you may have to sleep in your car overnight for the chance to get tested. And the results? A week might be wishful thinking. There are statistics, too, that show Black and Hispanic populations making up extremely disproportionate numbers of cases in given cities.

Of course, we’ve long known this, that we live in a land of have and have nots. Our country is divided along so many lines, but there is something about mounting death tolls that makes it all seem especially stark.

Even within families we’re seeing discrepancies in our handling of this virus. Perhaps one spouse feels comfortable going into stores and taking walks, while the other prefers the safety of the home? Our family experienced a bit of this last weekend on an excursion to the Olympic Peninsula. The trip involved six adults and three children staying in separate cabins on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, looking out at Canada’s Vancouver Island. It was a lovely, relaxing weekend spent grilling on the shore and swimming in the clear aquamarine waters of nearby Lake Crescent.

But a hike to a waterfall revealed how our anxieties are set at different levels. Everyone in our family wore masks, but many of our fellow hikers didn’t. This unnerved some, upset others and left some of us unbothered. None of us was wrong. We’re simply individuals relying on our own experiences. In Washington State, some counties are still in Phase 1 restrictions, while other counties have loosened to Phase 3. So, in a place like Olympic National Park, which draws visitors from all over the state, everyone sharing the same trail was following their own set of rules.

Patchwork. (To be sure, masks are required in all public places in Washington State. But, for a long time we were all told that masks weren’t needed when you were outside and could social distance—it’s all so confusing.)

I listened to a podcast awhile ago (I think it was a This American Life, but now I can’t recall) in which a historian explained how America has always worked because, despite our differences, we all believe in the idea of democracy above all else. The only time this wasn’t the case was during the Civil War, when brothers were said to have fought against brothers.

The historian explained that the most troubling reality of our current moment is not just that people are losing faith in our democratic institutions, but that people are losing faith in each other. Data from the Pew Research Center published in 2019 says that nearly half of all Americans think our country is being dragged down by the fact that we aren’t reliable. In other words, we’re worried about our inability to trust each other. (Perhaps this mistrust is justified, given that so many people aren’t even willing to wear masks in public to help protect one another.)

In times of struggle, we need leaders to unite us. Instead, we have a president sowing discord, tearing up the very fabrics on which our country was founded. It strikes me that Trump, with his doom and gloom messaging, speaks often about crumbling infrastructure, about the deep cracks already destroying the bridges and roads—the same roads that, from above, appear to connect us. —Andrew Waite

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