authority vacuum

Every morning I wake up and I look at the damn map. Every night, before I go to sleep, I look at that damn map. Montana updates its numbers at 4:30 pm, and I find myself clinging to the computer, even after I’ve finished my work for the day, waiting to see what it’ll say. I’ve bookmarked the page, something I never do. The updates in Idaho, where my mom lives, are more sporadic, so I’ll refresh throughout the day. I yell out to no one in particular: “would you look at those numbers in Gallatin County” and “another death in Nez Perce County.”

Part of reporting locally is knowing counties and their profiles, like when you hear “Toole,” in Montana, you think “what if it’s in the Hutterite Colonies.” But the numbers — especially the numbers indicating confirmed cases — are increasingly meaningless. Nate Silver has a long, thorough explanation for why over at Five Thirty Eight, but the simple version is that the amount of testing we’re doing is wildly inconsistent, and “confirmed” cases, at this point, tells us very little about how many people are actually sick in an area. Confirmed deaths is a “better” indicator, but also doesn’t tell you that much. Right now, there have been 6 deaths due to COVID-19 in Montana. Three of those were in Toole County, whose population is just under 5000. Is the county a hotspot, or is it the nursing home where the mini-outbreak originated?

I listen to the science journalists at BuzzFeed tell me the same: don’t pay attention to the confirmed case numbers. But we keep tracking them, just like the Times and so many other places do, and people like me keep compulsively checking them. How else can we manage all this fear and anxiety, other than to obsessively monitor what feels real and tangible, despite so much evidence that it’s deceptive and distracting.

The lack of testing — and the lack of “confirmed” cases — is what led so many states to delay closing down. It allowed others to ignore cautions to socially distance, because “it hasn’t gotten here yet.” But one confirmed case simply means it’s about to be in a lot more places. By the time the first person tested positive in Blaine County, Idaho, dozens of people were sick. Today, there are 410 confirmed cases in a county of 22,000, giving it one of the highest per capita case rates in the United States. But that high number of cases likely just indicates that a whole lot of people were able to get tested, as they had “confirmed” contact with someone else who’d tested positive, which, in a lot of places, remains a criteria for getting tested. One positive test can beget a slew of additional positive tests. Tens of thousands of others, like my colleague Shannon, have symptoms and are denied tests unless their symptoms worsen to the point of requiring hospitalization.

We share stories with each other of people we know who have it, how they’re doing, what’s scary. We read remembrances of the people who’ve died, their unique lives, their solitary deaths. We attempt to personalize what’s happening outside of our closed doors. But none of it, not the maps, not the personal stories, feels adequate. None of it makes anything make sense. And I don’t mean death, death never really makes sense. And I don’t mean the disease itself, that actually makes perfect (scientific) sense.

I’m talking about how this pandemic — the phenomenon of a virulent disease making its way through society — and how we’re responding to it. The complete lack of medical supplies in a country that’s supposed to a top world power? Doesn’t make sense. Cutting pay and staff at hospitals right now? Nonsensical. Allowing states to outbid each other in a frantic play for supplies? Lack of tests when every other country seems to have them? Truly what the fuck. Everything to do with ventilator supply. Fucked. The shifting wisdom on masks. On what age groups are vulnerable. On why there’s no toilet paper. (This actually explains that one; why couldn’t anyone give us this explanation sooner?) On the number of false negatives (up to one third!!!!) from the test we are using.

When I listened to this episode of The Daily earlier this week, breaking down the unique (unregulated capitalism-caused) reasons why there’s no masks or ventilators, I felt a palpable sense of relief: this is fucked, but at least I fucking get why now. Same for this piece in The Atlantic about the testing delays. But then I read pieces about the various scenarios for how this will end(ish), and all of them, all of them, seem contingent upon widespread testing, antibody tests, and an eventual vaccination. How can I put faith in any of those scenarios when the governor of Georgia — and the mayor of New York City — are admitting that they didn’t even know the virus could travel through asymptomatic carriers until this week?

I don’t trust anything anyone, save medical professionals, say. I certainly don’t trust a word that comes out of the daily presidential briefings. I only trust what I see happen. I trust local officials who say they can’t get supplies over federal ones saying everything’s fine. I trust the people I talk to while reporting, saying that they couldn’t get a test, or that they had the exact same symptoms as their partner who tested positive, but their test came back negative. I trust the small business owners saying that the process for applying for government assistance is incredibly labyrinthian and discouraging. I trust the people saying that a $1200 check won’t be nearly enough.

I don’t trust our government to get anything in order in time for a fair presidential election that doesn’t disenfranchise millions of people. I don’t trust Joe Biden’s campaign to figure out how to effectively message everything that’s gone wrong, and who’s responsible. I don’t trust congress to not bail out massive corporations, enriching the already ludicrously wealthy, at the expense of the already suffering. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is an often pompous asshole who’s still set on massive statewide cuts to Medicaid, but people are treating him as a savior who should run for president. That, at least, makes sense: sure, he’s no progressive, and his childish feuds with DeBlasio are ridiculous. But at least he’s leading, which, in our current moment, means being incredibly visible and refusing to bullshit.

Other states, like Washington and here in Montana, have found that sort of leadership in their governors. In Blaine County, Idaho, that leader has been Ketchum mayor Neil Bradshaw. On Lummi Nation, it’s Dr. Dakotah Lane. But the solace of local leadership can only do so much. The dark reality of our national mishandling reasserts itself, again and again. “This has been a real blow to the sense that America was competent,” the former chairman of the National Intelligence Council told the Washington Post.

There are all sorts of people who have known that American was not, in fact, competent. People with whom the American government has broken promise after promise, whether in terms of civil liberties or treaty obligations. This pandemic only feels scandalous because everyone in America is being faced with the reality that many have known for some time: that the system is broken and untrustworthy, with a massive vacuum of authority, or integrity, or responsibility at its center.

So we do what we can do. We make bad an ugly bread, we give our phone numbers to people down the street, we try and care for ourselves and others who’ve become sick, we tip and donate and save and hope against hope for the best instead of the worst. We distract ourselves, we get mad online, we map our fear and sadness onto other people in our lives when what we’re really mad about is that it didn’t have to be this way. It really didn’t.

I’ll keep checking those dumb maps, even though they mean nothing. I have to give shape to the nonsensical suffering, in whatever way I know how.

Ways You Can Help Those Most in Need This Week:

Some Recipes I’ve Made This Week to Distract Myself:

The Most Compelling COVID-19 Reading of the Literal Billion Things I Read This Week:

If you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can subscribe (and link to it) here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and Instagram here. Please excuse typos or weird sentences; inattention to detail is what allows me to make the mental space to get this thing out in the world for free. Best gentle on yourself and generous towards others in your life — this week and in the weeks to come.