I don’t know about you guys, but I’m exhausted. My sleep patterns feel like they were designed by Jackson Pollock. My jaw feels like I have spent the last seven months guzzling test tubes of tetanus. I currently have the physique of that last Lucky Charm you find floating in the milk at the bottom of the bowl.
I don’t know if the City of Philadelphia is making the right decision in allowing 7,500 people in Lincoln Financial Field for this Sunday’s Eagles game. I don’t know if the Eagles are making the right decision in taking the city up on its offer. I don’t know if season-ticket holders will be making the right decision in taking advantage of this new policy.
What I do know is this: We are currently living in a society that is in desperate need of any semblance of normalcy that can be achieved while treating the reality of our circumstances with a commensurate level of regard. We are creatures of habit and routine, innately wired to derive our comfort and security from our sense of control over our environment. Here in the United States of America, we have fashioned that environment to operate in a certain manner. As kids, we develop the majority of our close interpersonal relationships while attending school. As adults, we do so while attending work. The kids attend school so the adults can attend work. On the weekend, we bring our cortisol levels back down to baseline and bathe our brains in dopamine and attempt to return our minds and bodies to something that approximates homeostasis. We do this by congregating with friends and engaging in activities. Often, these congregations and engagements revolve around sports.
The last seven months have delivered a broad and unprecedented disruption to this routine. It will take years before we are able to fully evaluate and comprehend the reach of that disruption, but preliminary reports offer a good indication of the impact on an acute level. A recent study by the CDC found that nearly a quarter of surveyed adults had reported symptoms of anxiety disorder in June 2020, a fourfold increase over the rate reported a year ago. Twice as many respondents reported considering suicide in the previous 30 days as did in 2018. About one in 10 reported starting or increasing substance use.
These are preliminary data points. With any luck, they will prove to be isolated, and impermanent, and unreflective of broad, long-lasting change. I offer them not as the basis for policy-making, but as a concrete example for an abstract claim that many will reject out of hand due to its contradictory nature. Optimal public health is a holistic objective that cannot be achieved without full consideration for and accounting of all of the downstream impacts of the strategies we pursue in its name. This is a difficult thing to accept, given our innate bias toward the present moment, our aforementioned desire to exert control over our circumstances, and our struggle to reconcile conflicting realities.
The current political moment only exacerbates these hardwired blind spots. I suspect that it would further the greater good if all of us would acknowledge that the fault lies chiefly with the pandemic, along with whoever or whatever designed the rules and processes by which our current public health battle lines exist. It was and is an unavoidable disruption. Life was going to shut down, either from the top down or from the bottom up. The sheer chaos of these last seven months — and, I suspect, many of those downstream effects referenced in the CDC report — are the result of inept and cynical leadership and messaging at the federal level. But it would be counterproductive to allow our resulting anger and frustration to taint the litany of ground-level decisions that will continue to determine our future well-being.
I’m sure that some will find it laughably arcane and disconnected to use such a rationale to justify the ability of 7,500 of us to gather for a sporting event. Two hundred thousand people are dead. Why is anybody talking about sports? But therein lies the point. That sort of logic sows the seeds of its own defeat. From that perspective, why is anybody talking about doing anything? Why go for a run? Why go out to eat? Why gather with friends? The answer is that these are all of the reasons why the number 200,000 is so disturbing. They are all of the things that make it better not to be dead.
Life is nothing more than a series of calculations of risk vs. reward. In a pandemic, the risk of most of our activities is more conspicuous. But that does not mean we should make it any more exclusive a consideration than we do in normal times. We must account for it accurately and prioritize the total risk to society over individual risk to ourselves. But if the City of Philadelphia and the Eagles and the 7,500 people who are willing to be on hand for a football game are comfortable with allowing that to happen, there is no fundamental reason why it should not. We have seen an NBA season and an MLB season play out without any significant adverse consequences. We have seen a summer play out without anything that approached the fears we all held in March. We are in a much different place as a society than we were the last time fans were in the stands in this city. We have a much better understanding of the disease, and of the steps we can take to mitigate its spread.
I don’t know if this is the right move to make with regard to containing COVID-19. I do know that we need a sustainable normal to carry us through the winter months. If this helps lead the way, the risk is worth taking.