Sixty years ago on March 4, 1960 one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes first aired: “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” I find similarities between what happened in this fictitious account of disruption in America and events transpired a few weeks ago on March 4, 2020.
On this day, Italy closed all of its schools and universities trying to contain the coronavirus outbreak. Global cases of the coronavirus worldwide hit 92,943 with 3160 dead. Saudi Arabia banned the traditional annual pilgrimage to Mecca and Iran cancelled Friday prayers. March 4 was also the day for signing of a $8.3 billion bipartisan agreement reached in Washington, DC to finally address the outbreak after some in the government dismissed the scientific and biological evidence. The first case reported in the U.S. was January 21, and by March 4 we had 111 cases. We didn’t have a pandemic on our soapy hands yet but it was declared to be the case by the World Health Organization several days later. Like most Americans, trying to follow and understand the virus pandemic has occupied much of my day and night and uprooted my routines, expectations and customary way of life.
For most people, days just happen, and roll up together, one after another. I’m not saying the days of our lives are like Bill Murray acting in the movie “Groundhog Day”, but there is a regular routine, a customary or unchanging and almost mechanically performed set of activities that characterize our American lives. You can count on the fact that the sun rises. The sun sets. You go to work and you come home. You have three meals a day. You go out on the weekend with family and friends.
March 4, 2020 was the day I started reading of panic buying and possible manipulation of markets. There were concerns first raised this day that protective medical gear might not be available where needed the most. In ICUs, in ERs. There might not be enough ventilators, or masks or hospital beds to care for patients diagnosed with COVID-9 in America, the land of the free and home of the brave. This notion of scarcity reminded me of the “death squads” salvo promulgated by Sarah Palin about a decade ago starting with her Facebook post. Not enough to go around? Not caring for the elderly or mentally retarded and letting them die? Scarcity in America? That’s not the world we’re accustomed to. That may be the existence for other countries and people, but not for America.
During this time Donald Trump was continuing to traffic in falsehoods , denials, and delusions as he downplayed the seriousness of the virus. He contradicted the facts voiced by infectious disease experts and epidemiologists around the world. He told Americans to go to work. This is not such a big deal as we’ve closed the borders. On January 21 he said containment of the virus “is totally under control”.
The scarcity is all around: no hand sanitizer, no rubbing alcohol, no aloe Vera gel and no toilet paper too! I was in a Walgreens last week looking for rubbing alcohol (as I decided to make our own hand sanitizer) when the hapless store clerk had to hold her phone away from her ear as a customer screamed at her because there was no toilet paper in stock. At Staples, the office supply store, they’re receiving inquiries for toilet paper not typing paper.
So with that as a backdrop, let’s pivot to the Twilight Zone.
Maple Street, USA is a tree-lined little world of children playing, and adults barbecuing, mowing the lawn, hanging out together, until a shadow passes over it accompanied by a roar and a flash of light. Everyone notices but they assume it’s a meteor or something else that’s entirely reasonable though admittedly uncommon. The adults quickly resume their activities until the residents soon discover that not everyone’s appliances, lawn mowers, cars and phones are affected. As darkness descends, neighbors start pointing fingers at each other, blaming and questioning each others’ behaviors, attitudes and motives. Using each person’s peculiar idiosyncrasies as evidence that they are an alien, some residents become more aggressive and unruly than others. One neighbor panics, grabs a loaded shotguns and shoots a shadowy figure in his midst. A crowd gathers and reaches the fallen figure and discovers its one of their own. Dead. Anger and more accusations and counter-accusations of neighbors being aliens ensues. Pandemonium breaks out. Neighbors turn on one another. Hysteria follows. House and car windows are smashed. Panic takes over the street.
The camera pans away as Rod Serling speaks:
“The scene cuts to a nearby hilltop, where it is revealed the shadow that flew overhead is, indeed, an alien spaceship. It’s crew are watching the riot on Maple Street while using a device to manipulate the neighborhood’s power. They comment on how simply fiddling with consistency leads people to descend into paranoia and panic, and that this is a pattern that can be exploited. They also discuss their intention to use this strategy to conquer Earth, one neighborhood at a time. They then ascend a stairway into their spaceship”. Episode 22 of season one concludes.
Fiddling with consistency, disrupting the routine, the usual, the accepted, the norm sometimes brings out the worst in people. The fringe elements, the underlying fears and prejudices take over instead of being held in check by rational deliberations, credible evidence and analysis.
But there doesn’t have to be panic buying and nasty accusations and scapegoating.
What happens on Maple Street need not happen today with us. It’s up to us to control what we can control: our attitudes and our actions. Marc Scott Zicree writing in my copy of “The Twilight Zone Companion” explains:
”With few exceptions the characters inhabiting The Twilight Zone were average, ordinary people: bank clerks, teachers, petty hoods, salesmen, executives in the rise or decline. It took no great leap for us to identify ourselves with these frail and vulnerable souls and imagine that perhaps in some flight of fancy, some slight tangent from the reality of the ordinary routine, what happened to those characters might very well happen to us”.
I know we don’t have to descend into the madness and despair of Maple Street.
I’m reminded of one other thing during this disruptive time when stock markets are gyrating, panic buying and incivility is occurring and while science and truth are questioned and even repudiated. It’s a quotation by English writer Aldous Huxley author of “Brave New World”: it’s not what happens to you. It’s what you do with what happens to you that matters.
We all have choices. Follow the advice of the CDC and and infectious disease experts and other trustworthy sources. Wash your hands. Attend virtual meetings to stay connected with community. Sanitize. Stay indoors, communicate with friends and family. Do some soul searching. Meditate. Take care of yourself and others in need.
Practice what you preach. Use this time to re-invent yourself and show empathy for others in need.
We all have a short-term focus right now, but to quote someone else from the 1960s: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” – — John F. Kennedy.