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Career Health

None of the Above

This is a follow-up to the previous post, Sickness Begins in the Mind.

At the end of May I took a much-needed break from virus-related psychological stressors at work and spent the week with my family, hiking the wooded hills surrounding our neighborhood and planting some fruits and vegetables at a community garden down the street. On my first Monday back at “work” (the physical set of coordinates where I was required to exist in exchange for a paycheck) I got some tragic news: one of my closest friends had died over the weekend at his home in Dallas, Texas; a victim of depression, alcoholism, and isolation, having been furloughed from his job and locked down for many weeks. The news hit me extremely hard.

In the following weeks I thought a lot about the state of things in America, again comparing the way the virus had been handled in Japan to the way it continued to be handled so miserably in the States. How had wearing masks become a civil liberties issue? This was where the battle lines had been drawn in America’s Coke versus Pepsi existence, and one side got to have their “I told you so” moment. But how did “masks versus no masks” become an issue in the first place? In Japan, masks were not a civil liberties issue because there was no law requiring people to wear masks. There was no law locking people down. Nobody was forced to do anything. For the most part Japanese people wore masks out of respect for other people, not because they were afraid of getting the virus themselves. Even now, in mid-July, everyone in Japan wore a mask. Even if it was acknowledged as merely symbolic support, for the health of the nation as a whole, everyone wore a mask. The Japanese government was equally as incompetent as the American government. But in Japan, the Japanese people stepped up and saved the day.

This kind of civic responsibility was totally absent in America, where it seemed everyone only saw one of two sides, and in this case one side happened to dislike masks. (It seemed that all Americans only saw one of two sides because that was how the media portrayed it, but there were a lot of folks who understood the insanity of framing issues into two distinct choices, when neither choice made sense.)

In America there was no such thing as taking a rational and nuanced approach to anything, which was too bad, because every problem in the world required a rational and nuanced solution. Instead, the American approach was emotional and dogmatic, either this or that, thumbs up or thumbs down, my team or yours. And the kicker? Neither choice was ever totally correct.

For example, on immigration: “Should we build a giant wall separating US and Mexico, OR should we let everyone across the border?” Answer: Neither. None of the above.

Police brutality: “Should we pretend there’s no problem, OR eliminate the police?” None of the above.

Pandemic: “Should we lock everything down OR open everything up?” None of the above.

Every problem always required a “this AND that” solution. Nothing was ever “this OR that,” but that was how advertising worked best. (Thanks, Facebook, for the thumbs up / thumbs down turd you dropped on an already divided Western world.)

This Coke-OR-Pepsi worldview was killing America’s ability to function as a nation, but it was easy to see why the powers that be (and the powers that wanted to be) were intentionally divisive. This was the best way to control people, to get them on one of two clearly defined sides. The power-grabbing was more vicious than ever; in America there were trillions of dollars at stake. This problem did not start with the current American president; he was a symptom of a bigger problem, not the cause.

If American discourse continued to be filtered through this intentionally divisive paradigm then we were in for a very rough ride. The answer, of course, was to reject the divisiveness, and to be critical of how important issues were framed. There wasn’t much difference between Coke and Pepsi anyway. One was slightly sweeter. It just depended on one’s personal taste.

In confronting the virus, Japan didn’t ponder “mask OR no mask,” “lock everything down OR open everything up,” because only a mentally ill person (or nation) would frame the problem in those terms. The problem required a nuanced approach. If America’s answer had been “none of the above,” (for example, “wear masks AND open some businesses”), then my friend might still be alive.

Postscript

July 18, 2020

Welcome to Japan’s monsoon season. We’ve had six weeks of more or less continuous rain, and I’m beginning to wonder whether the tomatoes I planted back in May are ever going to ripen. We’ll see.

In the past few weeks Japanese news outlets are reporting an increase in virus cases. As noted in Sickness Begins in the Mind, I’m surprised that so many people seem to take a daily tally of “number of cases” at face value, without really examining what’s behind the numbers, because by itself “number of cases” is a useless number, other than to keep people in line. I suppose if anything “number of cases” serves to encourage people to keep their guard up, reminding them that this thing isn’t over yet, and that’s probably for the best.

Still, “number of cases” annoys me a bit because there’s never any indication of what the number means, other than the obvious, that someone tested positive for the virus. But so what? The meaning of “number of cases” depends entirely on context, right? Were all of these cases people who sought medical attention? What percentage of these cases were hospitalizations? If all of the cases were hospitalized, then that would mean many more unreported cases out there. But what else was new? A couple months ago there was a news story about Japan conducting a nationwide effort to test large numbers of healthy people, for the purpose of detecting antibodies, people who had already contracted the virus, and (I think) asymptomatic cases. I’m not sure what happened to this study, but I’m curious. I’ll try to find out.

Still, there are rumors of another ROCK-DOWN in Tokyo, though I think this rumor may have been started by people who take “number of cases” more seriously than they should. (I love the way Japanese pronounce rock-down, and the way they pretend like emulating America is the thing to do.) There never was an official lock-down in Japan, only advisories, and a docile “state of emergency”.

What the Japanese news outlets never seem to report is number of deaths, because that number might convince people that the virus is nothing to worry about. The number of deaths is effectively zero per day in Tokyo, in a metro area of thirty million, and has reached a grand total of just under one thousand deaths for the entire country since January, a number that is much lower than the death rate of the seasonal flu of any given year.