The virus, the distance, the smoke
I was fortunate to have been able to squeeze in one last congenial visit to my favorite Manhattan smoking bar, Karma, on March 14, the Saturday before everything shut down due to the Corona-virus. I cut it even closer with my last haircut, making it into the barber the last day before New York State declared all “non-essential” businesses closed. They had the great wisdom to designate liquor stores as “essential.”
So thereafter all actual social life came to halt. People stayed home and worked from home if they could. Others, who were in essential sectors did work, while a good many others became unemployed. Smaller businesses were not sure they would survive an indefinite closing and so laid off workers accordingly.
Work and social life revolved around the computer. People held online parties and concerts, in lieu of the real thing. Of course, all sporting events and other gatherings, such as concerts, were cancelled. So was most travel.
Towns, even large cities, took on the atmosphere of abandoned places, as you’d see in a science fiction movie about a zombie apocalypse. In places people did go, like stores, increasing numbers wore face masks, adding to the unreal, dehumanized feel. At the time, the masks were only “recommended” by the public health authorities who also recommended that everyone and everyone be considered as contagious and spreading the disease. “Social distancing” meant that one was to maintain a distance of six feet between oneself and everybody else, except those one lives with. As contrary to human nature as these measures sound, large segments of the population took to them, many almost eagerly.
What, you ask, has any of this to do with smoking? Well, one bright spot is that smokers appear to contract the virus at much lower rates than the general population. There has been speculation that the tobacco plant may be the key to a treatment. The antismoker community has made contrary claims, and, never slow to exploit fear, have in some places (specifically the UK) called for further bans.
We smokers were not as shocked to see social life disappear overnight; we’d seen it before when bans were imposed. Nor is social distancing a novel concept: “No smoking within 50 feet of the entrance.” The antismoking movement encourages nonsmokers to treat smokers as if they were lepers and pariahs; the Covid-19 recommendations are that EVERYONE treat EVERYONE as possibly contaminated.
And since we never do anything by halves here in the USA, a “Covid culture war” has further polarized the populace, ranging from those who consider the virus a complete hoax, to those whose panic buttons are fully pushed. The first and hardest-hit states were the Northeast, states which tend to vote Democratic and have restrictive “public heath” policies. They implemented lockdowns. The rest of the country pretty much remained open, or closed and reopened quickly–too quickly for the health experts, who constantly warn of second and third waves. Lately, rates have dropped in the first group and risen in the second, so now there is a lot of “told you so” and a certain smug sense of Schadenfreude. Typically, news stories show reveling beachgoers or crowded bars and counteract the good feelings one might usually derive from them by intoning ominously that public health officials warn against gatherings, etc.
There were anti-lockdown protests in some of the “Red” (i.e. Republican) states. President Donald Trump encouraged them and there was speculation that they were “astroturfed”–made to appear “grass roots” but actually funded and directed from above. Both sides engage in these accusations. Many people may be skeptical of lockdown measures, but were turned off by the spectacle of protesters with guns invading statehouses, often with racist symbols and, worst of all, shouting abuse at health care workers, who are universally considered front-line heroes nowadays.
The mask has lately become extremely symbolic of our polarized society. On one side are protests against mandatory masking, calling them an assault on individual liberty and maybe even a harbinger of even greater restrictions. On the other are those who insist that masks are indispensible in preventing spread of the virus and that those who refuse to wear them are selfish and irresponsible. There are instances of both masked and unmasked individuals being publicly insulted for their choices, again, depending on regional politics. Once a matter of personal choice, masks are now considered by many to be a sign of virtue and humanitarian concern and social media is rife with criticism of the unmasked and even expressions of desire to do them physical harm. Again, very much like the War on Smokers. (See Michael J. McFadden’s excellent “Wall of Hate”.)
In late May, a black man was murdered in public by a police officer, who knelt on his windpipe for almost nine minutes, until the man died of asphyxiation. This was the latest in a long line of instances of police brutality and wrongful death, with a disproportionate majority of victims being African-American. Just in March, and emergency medical technician was shot in her own apartment in a botched police raid. Huge protests broke put across the country and overseas. For a while, everyone forgot about Covid. Despite large numbers marching in the streets –not all of them masked and virtually none of them maintaining six feet of distance between them–there was very little hand-wringing by the same media experts and officials who decry parties and religious services. Nor were there any scare headlines tracing any infections to protests as there were to other gatherings. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio even proclaimed that while other large gatherings (parades, festivals, etc.) were banned, protests, specifically these “Black Lives Matter” protests would be permitted!. This has not escaped the notice of critics, who say that obviously the pandemic can’t be that serious, or wondering what magical power protects protesters but not wedding guests or teenage basketball players. (Authorities in one California town destroyed a popular skateboarding park when it couldn’t keep enthusiasts from using it.)
Currently, antismoking activists can’t say smokers are likely to get Covid-19, so they’ve resorted to saying that if they do get it (and they never say smokers get it at lower rates), it’ll be harder to recover. There have also been proposals for casinos to ban smoking.
Who knows what the future holds? It seems new barriers between people have been erected and new reasons for intolerance introduced, despite the slogan that “We’re all in this together.” This is not to say that a great deal of good hasn’t been brought out in people in response to the crisis, but, as always, it’s mixed with less desirable things.