American Exceptionalism and the Coronavirus
Like many Americans who live in Rome, my inbox has suddenly been overloaded with emails. New message alerts have been popping up more frequently on the various social media apps I use. And recently, people have been trying to reach me for a phone or video chat several times each day.
Most of these are friends and family from the United States. They are checking in to see if we’re safe. Or is to satisfy a morbid curiosity about what life is like in Italy, currently the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic?
It doesn’t matter that I live in Rome, where there have been relatively few cases of infection compared to the northern region of Lombardy where the virus is ravaging the people of cities like Bergamo and Milan.
“I’m great,” I tell them. “I don’t have the virus, as far as I know. At least I haven’t had any visible symptoms,” I say, reciting the same response of the past two or more weeks since all of Italy went into lockdown.
Thank God I can still repeat myself.
Then I assure them that I’m not really bored or going stir crazy during this virtual house arrest. In fact, I’ve never been busier with writing and editing. And since I usually work at home anyway, this is not that much of an inconvenience. But not being able to go to the gym each afternoon sure is! However, I’m managing with that, too.
Then, probably less tactfully than intended, I tell my American friends that I am much more worried about them. And they should be, too. I try to explain that soon the United States will outpace Italy in infections—which, in fact, actually happened just as I sat down to write this piece…
I watch both CNN and Fox News each evening to see how people in my native country are reacting and responding to the spread of COVID-19. And this merely verifies my fears that the United States is so deeply divided into roughly two substantial blocs, and people cannot even agree anymore on what is black and what is white.
Yet, the coronavirus crisis has shown me—painfully—that most of them do agree on one thing: the United States is different and better than all other nations of the world. And if anyone can beat COVID-19, it is the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Belief in American exceptionalism will not immunize people in the 50 states from the current pandemic. Yet the behavior many of them are displaying suggests that they believe this—or something else—makes them less susceptible to contracting the disease than folks in Italy, China or anywhere else on the planet.
Selective adherence to the social distancing and self-isolation directives (where they even exist) is proof that people in the United States have not understood that they are just as vulnerable—and probably more so—than we in Rome.
We see this happening every single day, beginning with the people who are applying the measures to stop the spread of the disease. The U.S. president begins his press briefing as members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force huddle, shoulder-to-shoulder behind him. “This is serious, so remember to practice social distancing,” they warn us. But the optics signal to the American people that it’s not really that dangerous, at least not for everyone. Not for people of importance, those in authority.
The president calls this a war and promises that America will be beat it. He proclaims his hope that the country will “be opened up and raring to go by Easter.” Maybe Easter 2021… This pandemic has just arrived in the continental United States, and anyone who tries to make you believe it’s going away soon is nothing but a snake oil salesman. The crisis has only just begun.
Unfortunately, Catholics won’t find much guidance from their national spiritual leaders. The U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference tweeted “five spiritual tips for you to live out at home during the #coronaviruspandemic.” They included getting to know your next-door neighbor better and taking walks with friends! That is not social distancing. And when it was pointed out, the USCCB quickly removed the tweet and replaced it with one offering more sober advice.
The conference does not inspire confidence. But neither do so many of the individual bishops. Almost all of those who have seminarians and priests studying in Rome called the young men back to the United States because of the coronavirus outbreak in Italy. Most of them did so in early March, but the rest scrambled to get the seminarians out just as the pandemic was exploding in the United States and the president was closing the borders to people arriving from Europe.
God only knows what these bishops were thinking. No doubt, they were guided in part by that sacrosanct creed: American exceptionalism. They don’t seem to be fans of socialist Italy’s single payer healthcare system (which doesn't work, according to Joe Biden!). The bishops—who opposed the American Health Care Act (Obamacare) on ideological grounds that would make the most rigid of Pharisees blush—obviously think their men needed to be rushed back home where, if needed, they could get the best health care and be treated by the greatest doctors in the world.
These seminarians will not be returning to Rome for a very long time. They’ll be lucky if they make it back in time to serve the pope’s Midnight Christmas Mass. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
Certainly, the bishops wanted to make sure their men got out of Italy while they could, especially so they would be back in their dioceses for spring and summer ordinations. But if the United States continues to try to deal with the pandemic in the current haphazard, piecemeal fashion, the virus will continue to spread like brushfire, and there will be no ordinations—except, perhaps, in the cathedral sacristy. Then only a few people would risk getting infected instead of an entire congregation.
The coronavirus is extremely contagious, and it does not discriminate. Rich or poor, famous or unknown, nobility or peasant stock, cleric or layperson… It makes no difference. Anyone can get it. But it is extremely dangerous for those over the age of 70 and people of any age with preexisting health issues (including obesity, asthma, diabetes, heart conditions, psychological problems, etc.). Most of the people who die of COVID-19 are in these categories.
And that should deeply worry Catholics in the United States, at least from a Church point of view. Because a good many of their priests and bishops fit into those categories, as well, and would be in grave danger if they were to be infected.
We in Italy appreciate the messages of concern and encouragement our friends in the States are sending our way. But, honestly, we are more concerned about folks in our native land, which could very well become like northern Italy 50 times over. Fortunately, many Americans share our concerns. And, hopefully, they still have enough time to convince those in the country who don’t.
Robert Mickens is the English editor for La Croix International website.