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Shawn Vestal: Our pandemic response balances the tension between the cowboy and the community

| By Shawn Vestal

Highly personal reflections on life during the coronavirus from photographer Brian Plonka and columnist Shawn Vestal.

Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review

In September 1918, a flu pandemic arrived in Philadelphia.

It had sailed home from Europe with U.S. servicemen returning from World War I, and was soon raging through the city’s Navy Yard.

As it began to creep into the civilian population, health officials raised alarms about a potential citywide outbreak. They urged the cancellation of the upcoming Liberty Loan parade, meant to honor the troops and sell war bonds.

Instead, the city’s public health officer, a gynecologist under intense political pressure to allow the parade, assured the public that all was well. The sick soldiers, Dr. Wilmer Krusen assured the public, were just ill with the ordinary flu. People could protect themselves, he told the public, by staying warm and “keeping their bowels open.”

Public sentiment was on his side. The newspapers urged a more positive attitude about the flu pandemic – enough with all the gloom and doom!

“Talk of cheerful things instead of the disease,” the Philadelphia Inquirer urged, according to Smithsonian Magazine. “The authorities seem to be going daft. What are they trying to do, scare everybody to death?”

The parade went forth on Sept. 28.

Two hundred thousand Philadelphians thronged the streets.

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What does it mean to say that we are free?

Simply to do whatever we wish, whenever we wish it? Merely to be untaxed and unregulated, unchecked in every impulse and desire?

Is it to live as a cowboy, untaxed and unshaven, liberated from obligation, with a squint and a pistol and nothing but 360 degrees of possibility, 24 hours a day?

We have all given up freedom this year, some of us more willingly than others. We have all sacrificed, some of us much more than others. We have all accepted – or have grudgingly gone along with – limits on our activities that don’t square with our desires. We have all suffered consequences, personal, economic, physical, even fatal.

We have all had to face the frustrating reality about our much-vaunted freedoms, as Americans, as members of communities, as human beings. Our freedoms live in balance with our obligations. They live in conflict with our responsibilities. They live in a continual, shifting balance with our morality. They exist not as the only value, the pure virtue of the patriotic anthem at a parade, but as one in a series of competing values.

Everyone’s a cowboy until they need a neighbor.

Everyone’s a cowboy until they get sick.

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Wallace Stegner, one of the wisest men to write about the American West, loathed the cowboy.

“I would obviously like to bury him,” he once said. “But I know I can’t. He’s a faster gun than I am.”

The iconic figure of the cowboy is the main character in the mythology of the white West. The rugged individual. The free agent, dispensing instant justice with a gun. The man unhindered by society or family or badges, making his own way, riding away from the comforts and constraints of home.

It makes for a good movie character. But the cowboy has far less to do with the “settling” of the West than those characters who often live on the fringes of those movies – the lawman, the clerk, the family, the merchant, the madam.

What Stegner objected to was a blinding falsehood about individualism and the West. The West – the white West, that is – was built far more on cooperation than individuality. It grew from neighbors helping neighbors, from cooperative effort, from the large-scale government programs.

He knew that the triumphal narrative of the cowboy omitted the genocidal undercurrent of westward expansion, and that “taming” the land had resulted in environmental degradation.

Still, the frontier mythology thrives – in all times and during the pandemic, too. It thrives in the anti-government movements that have long been a feature of this region. It thrives in inaction of public officials around the region who refuse to set responsible public health standards.

It thrives among those who are stubbornly proud of their refusal to wear a mask, as if that sad, puny cry of liberty were a badge of honor – those who arm themselves and head to City Hall to holler, “Freedom is the cure!”

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The tension between public health and individual freedom is not new. It plays out in issue after issue, from smoking to seat-belt use to obesity. None of us has lived through a conflict quite this deep, though.

It’s playing out differently in different places. Politicians who complain about a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the pandemic seem to be paying no attention. Across the nation and the globe, we’re trying every size in the book.

Consider Washington and Idaho. Washington has taken a much stricter line on business closures and limiting public activities, and implemented a statewide mask mandate long ago. Idaho’s leaders have taken a much laxer approach, and even the leadership of health districts have found themselves unwilling to take a forceful stand in favor of mask wearing.

Across the country, conservative rural areas, which initially had much less illness and likely more incidence of frontier thinking, have been less rigorous than cities. Now, as many of them find themselves with soaring case numbers, their leaders continue to suggest that they are different, that small towns should be free to ignore public health guidelines, that the government shouldn’t tell people what to do.

The New York Times published a state-by-state comparison of infection rates and statewide health measures in late November, and found that the laxest states are generally being hit the hardest right now.

In Idaho, in Montana, in the Dakotas – soaring case numbers, hospitalizations and death counts.

The same in Wyoming and across the Midwest in states with few or no restrictions.

And while numbers are spiking everywhere, in states with stricter guidelines, the pandemic’s growth is generally slower.

The COVID cowboy way isn’t working.

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The Liberty Loan parade stretched for nearly 2 miles along Broad Street in Philadelphia. Boy Scouts and uniformed troops and ladies aid auxiliaries and marching bands – a grand procession that ended with a concert by John Philip Sousa.

People packed the streets. War widows helped pitch the sale of war bonds. But the day’s most successful participant was the flu virus. Within three days, the city’s 31 hospitals were completely full and the city was facing what Smithsonian Magazine called “a deluge of death.”

Hundreds of people died every day. Twelve thousand perished in a matter of weeks.

Krusen tried to catch up, but the viral spread at the parade was essentially uncontrollable. He found himself pleading with the federal government to stop drafting his city’s doctors and ramped up spending to hire medical workers.

In one of the grimmer results of the very grim result, he had to mobilize the city’s sanitation department to clear bodies from the streets.

At least nobody had been scared to death.

More stories in this series: