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COVID-19 Fatigue Kills

Updated: Jun 27, 2020

Beachgoers in Britain defied social distancing on hottest days of the year this week. (By PA)


The heady aroma of coffee carried us up a hilly boulevard in Asmara, called Piccola Roma (Little Rome) in the 1930s because of its modern Italian architectural look, and now the capital of Eritrea.

My friend, Debbie, and I were taking our Christmas break from the American University in Cairo in what was then Ethiopia. We planned to see ancient Coptic Christian sites in the Ethiopian Highlands. While in the city, we stayed with the family of a friend, Mohammed, whose sisters, Nur and Zaharah, were stepping out with us and several other friends on our way to a cafe.

We heard the gunshots before we saw the tanks heading down the street in our direction. Immediately and calmly, our companions did an about-face and walked back to the apartment of Mohammed’s family. We followed their example. Eritrea had been fighting for independence from Ethiopia since 1961. After a military coup in September 1974, the Ethiopian Army had taken to regular forays into Asmara. Three months later, our friends had been through this before.

None of us were hurt that night. But the army occupied the city. Soldiers committed atrocities. They killed the baker, who operated on the ground floor of our building. They poisoned the water supply. They cut off a breast of, at least, one woman and stole her gold jewelry.

It was a horrific time. Everyone in the apartment stayed quiet, especially when we heard two soldiers in the stairwell outside our apartment door. We sat in a circle around the coffee pot, two little girls who had been on their way to school with us. But after a few days, Debbie and I could not withstand the containment. We were desperate to go outside. And, so, we did.

A gauzy traditional netela shawl draped over our clothes, we walked across the street to a grocery store. A soldier stopped us and asked us about our business. We answered in Arabic and, then, walked on.

How illogical was it for us to go out? How illogical is it to break COVID-19 quarantine, to not observe social distancing, or not wear a mask?

Was it -- is it -- youthful boldness and naivete?

Perhaps the sentiment of living forever explains some of these actions. However, it is not only the young who refuse to comply with health guidance. Debbie and I were not thinking clearly. We were not thinking. We were tired of being restricted as are some today after several months of restrictions.

There are colorful stories such as hundreds, some armed and most unmasked, in Michigan’s state capitol building protesting quarantine in late April. However, those beachgoers this week on Britain’s hottest day this year are not members of civil liberty organizations. They, simply, are enjoying the sun. They are passively resisting the government’s call for social distancing and mask-wearing. They are not thinking clearly. They are not thinking.

Yet, know that you are fortunate if you are alive and well enough to be tired of restrictions. In this pandemic, I depend on you to keep me safe, and you depend on me.

Countries around the world are reopening their economies, and they are grappling now with increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases. The Christian Science Monitor wrote on June 24:

“How successfully – how safely –they’re able to deal with new surges is likely to hinge on two other factors: trust and fear. Trust, meaning popular trust in government. And fear? In authoritarian states, fear of the consequences of not doing what you’re told; in democracies, fear of the virus itself.”

Trust in government, in some countries, seems to be lacking. Clearly, fear of the novel coronavirus is not an effective deterrent.

People are not computers. We are not machines. The information that is inputted does not result in the same output. Behavior depends on many factors, including cultural background, individual experience and personality.

In the AIDS epidemic, San Francisco faced a similar quandary of how to get people to change their behavior for the sake of public health, according to The Castro by Frances Fitzgerald, an excerpt of Cities on the Hill in San Francisco Stories. Dr. Mervyn Silverman, the city’s public health director, said:

“Fear does not seem to have a very long-term effect on people’s behavior.”

A medical condition that seemed to target gay white men was unbelievable, at first, in San Francisco’s Castro District. Was AIDS created by the FBI? Was it exaggerated? Was it a way to curb civil liberties? Was the medical establishment blaming AIDS patients for contracting the condition “because of their assumed sexual behavior and/or use of illicit drugs”? read an article by the city coordinator of lesbian-gay health services read in the 1983 gay parade program.

Rather than, initially, close the bathhouses, where anonymous gay sex would increase transmission of the AIDS (Acquired Immunity Deficiency Syndrome) virus, Dr. Silverman chose to ingratiate himself with the relatively new gay community and gain its trust. However, when he did order closure in October 1984, he did suffer a backlash, including death threats. The following year, he resigned from his post.

Today in the COVID-19 crisis, seven California county public health officials have quit or announced their intention to retire after opposition to their imposed health measures, according to the Ventura County Star on June 20.

Dr. Nichole Quick, the public health officer in Orange County, resigned in early June after receiving threats about her order for residents to wear masks in public, said the Los Angeles Times on June 9. The Orange County Deputy Sheriff’s Department provided her a security detail after a death threat at a county board meeting.

A woman echoed what other critics had said about face coverings posing a danger to oxygen levels. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that children younger than 2 and anyone with a breathing issue should not wear a face covering, according to the Ventura County Star.

“When people start dropping like flies, and they will,” the woman said at the meeting, “I am going to ask every first responder in a 30-mile radius to roll lights and sirens to her front door, and you had best pray they can revive whoever went down because if they can’t . . . I will be asking the O.C. D.A.’s office to charge it as murder.”

Orange County revoked its mask law. Instead, it strongly encouraged wearing a mask.

One week later, the state required the wearing of masks in public.

Masks have been controversial before.

One hundred years ago during the flu pandemic, an “anti-mask league formed in San Francisco. The “Sanitary Spartacans” fought for the repeal of a mask mandate, believing that the masks were unsanitary, useless and a threat to constitutional rights, according to Business Insider on June 3. They won, and San Francisco became one of the hardest-hit cities in the United States. About 45,000 residents were infected by the disease, and 3,000 lost their lives in the city of 500,000.

Less than one week after Debbie and I heard our first shot, the United States Consulate flew us, other Americans, Italians, Eritreans and others from Asmara to Addis Ababa for asylum.

Today, there is no safe place to go in the world.

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