COVID-19 Cops & a Culture of Denunciation

A local news anchor reported that law enforcement was looking for someone who was posing as a sheriff’s deputy by pulling over drivers and accusing them of violating Georgia’s stay-at-home order – and I said a quick prayer that none of my friends would appear on the TV screen as a suspect. Most folks haven’t put a siren on their car or flashed a fake badge, but we have suddenly become a nation of hall monitors.

Before you report me to the authorities, let me be clear: COVID-19 appears to be the greatest public health threat in several lifetimes, and its havoc could flood our hospitals and morgues unless we do everything we can to stop its spread. I have unwavering faith in the generalship of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director Anthony Fauci, and believe experts who say our staunchest weapons against this virus are washing our hands and avoiding contact with others.

I’ve spent most of my days during the last month at my apartment, alternating between jigsaw puzzles and porn (and I just finished my last puzzle). However, my job stayed open two weeks after much of the city shut down, and it was hard to leave home without feeling like a reckless, infectious idiot who had no concern for the public’s health.

I’ve seen folks wag their fingers at others who they believe aren’t isolating themselves sufficiently, even when the targets of their judgment are adhering to the ever-changing guidelines on social distancing. There’s been outrage over a photo of people at a park on the northeast BeltLine, accusations that MARTA buses are filled with passengers going on joy rides since the agency stopped charging fares, and my roommate was recently chastised while riding his bicycle.

I understand folks’ fear and anxiousness to have this crisis behind us, as well as the resentment that festers when you see others flouting rules you are obeying. Genuine worry becomes self-righteousness when you use your keyboard to scold people for being outside, then click your mouse to order glitter glue off Amazon without any apparent concern for the human links in that supply chain.

More importantly, the vulnerability of our country now expands far beyond our health: we are in an economic coma that history has taught us is ripe for social upheaval or government overreach, and a culture of denunciation has previously accelerated the downfall of goodwill and customs. It’s worrisome to see television news offer hotline numbers where people can report their neighbors or others they believe are violating the stay-at-home order, or to think about a seven-year-old chastising his mother for not following the government’s directions.

We can protect ourselves and advocate adherence to safety recommendations without becoming a country of narcs. Because we don’t know if the people on the overcrowded MARTA bus are going to work (even though several in the photo are wearing a uniform), or if the folks clustered in pairs at the BeltLine park are quarantined together and simply enjoying the outside while staying six feet away from those with whom they don’t live.

We are still at the beginning of this pandemic, and I expect some folks’ restlessness and other folks’ intolerance to rise. We should continue establishing new norms around sanitation and social distancing, but not get in the habit of assigning bad-faith intentions every time we see someone with fresh air around them.