open old book

It’s dangerous to contemplate history when a historical moment remains ongoing, but when your days stretch to infinity under quarantine, what else do you have to do? 

Lately, I’ve taken to pondering this: Once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, how will we argue about it for the next century or so?

Because let’s be real: Argument has replaced baseball and football as our national pastime.

As I write this, the U.S. has more than 840,000 coronavirus positives and nearly 47,000 dead. Arizona has reported about 5,500 cases and 231 dead.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s national projection for the Fourth of July—which they warn has a high degree of uncertainty—is for about 68,000 dead across the country. The worst-case national scenario for Independence Day? More than 123,000 dead.

The IMHE’s model for Arizona predicts the number of daily deaths in the state falling throughout May and reaching zero in mid-June. The model for Arizona predicts close to 600 deaths by July 4, with a worst-case scenario of 1,700 lives lost.

While it feels gruesome to me to talk purely in mathematics about dead human beings, it surely will be essential to our future arguments—which will likely break down, as does everything in America these days, into three camps:

“What a tremendous waste of time!”  These folks are already out protesting the lockdown outside the state Capitol. They’ll point back to the CDC’s initial worst-case estimates of 1.7 million American deaths and argue that they were deprived of their freedom for nothing. 

Signature quote, offered by a guy in a MAGA cap waving a Don’t Tread On Me flag: “For the same number of dead as a really bad flu season, we let liberal wussies crash the whole freaking economy!”

“Social distancing worked!” These optimistic arguers will point to America and Arizona having fallen short of the CDC’s dire death estimates and congratulate themselves for having sheltered in place while using massive stashes of Charmin’ as impromptu end tables.

For them, spending two months at home watching Netflix and washing their hands raw ranks as a sacrifice alongside the Greatest Generation sending 16 million soldiers to fight World War II. Signature quote: “I’m going to celebrate with a spa day and some red, white and blue acrylic nails during the best mani-pedi ever!”

“Imagine if!” The imagine-ifers will start every argument with that phrase, to detail why all of us have blood on hands. For them, our response to the pandemic, from the White House to the Copper Dome, has been a series of screw-ups that can only be measured by lives lost. 

“Imagine if people had taken social distancing seriously?” Or: “Imagine if Trump hadn’t been out there lying about testing?” Or: “Imagine if Doug Ducey had closed every business in the state back in February?” Their signature quote: “One life lost is one life too many.”

So where do I stand? 

It’s too early yet, but I believe I will end up in all three camps simultaneously. Our response to COVID-19 has been erratic and marked by some worthless gestures—and many intelligent, noble actions.

Social distancing has saved lives, though not as many lives as might have been saved by a more comprehensive, less screwed-up response.  I imagine I’ll make the only point that matters: Arguing about COVID-19 is a luxury, because the alternative is not being alive to argue.