OPINION: ‘Us versus them’ mentality won’t stop COVID-19

There was a moment during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when it seemed like the majority of Americans might be able to finally shake the “us versus them” mentality that has gripped this nation for far too long and actually help each other out.

We collectively agreed to confine ourselves to our own homes, avoid our own family members, forego preventative medical treatments, halt all travel, file for unemployment benefits, arrange grocery pick-ups for our most vulnerable neighbors and somehow help our children jump into distance learning while trying to work from home ourselves.

“We’re in this together” we wrote in chalk outside our homes so folks savoring a short walk around the neighborhood might feel that sense of community humans not only desire but need for our survival. 

We agreed to set aside the “I” in favor of the “we.” Do you remember? It’s only been a few weeks, but it already feels like an eternity ago. 

The cooperation that seemed so strong in early April began eroding slowly. By May 11, Washougal City Council members were starting to get restless and push for a faster reopening than Governor Jay Inslee had deemed safe for the state and for areas like Clark County, where COVID-19 cases continued to rise. 

“It seems like some of these restrictions are for the Seattle area and not Clark County and Washougal,” Washougal Councilwoman Julie Russell said during an early May workshop. 

At that point, Washougal had the fourth-highest number of COVID-19 cases in the county. 

Other councilors agreed with Russell. They decided to write a letter to the governor: 

“Our local economy is suffering,” the councilors told the governor in their letter. “Businesses are closing for good, and those that are attempting to remain open are faced with escalating debt and no clear idea when things will return to ‘normal.’”

Since then, Clark County has flown through two phases of reopening. Retail shops have opened for in-store shopping. Restaurants are serving diners at tables spaced at least six feet apart. Churches have resumed in-person services with physical distancing. 

But it wasn’t enough for most members of the Washougal City Council. On June 8, councilors Brent Boger, Ray Kutch, Julie Russell and Mayor Molly Coston approved a resolution asking the governor to help fast-forward Clark County’s move into the much less restrictive Phase 3 — the final phase before a nearly full reopening.

Councilwoman Alex Yost, herself a small business owner who runs a restaurant nearly single-handedly in downtown Washougal, was the only voice of reason. 

As was the case this month, when Yost cast the sole “nay” vote on another Washougal City Council resolution shutting down any discussion about whether taxpayers might want to reallocate their dollars away from the police department and put that money into social programs designed to prevent the need for police intervention, the councilwoman said she couldn’t support the push to jump into an early Phase 3. 

“I’m concerned if we’re just trying to jump ahead like nothing happened, we’re making some pretty big assumptions. I would hate to see us have to roll back if something did happen in Washougal. I know it sounds, some may say, paranoid, or reactionary, but I just think there’s not enough information out there, not enough hard data out there, not enough time has gone by for scientists to accurately track this and figure out how it moves through society,” Yost said. 

Yost said she understood the frustrations of many business owners and residents who had been impacted by the months-long shutdown, but worried moving into Phase 3 sooner than health officials had deemed appropriate would be “too much, too quickly.”

The councilwoman is absolutely correct, of course. 

As we’ve learned this week, Clark County is now recording its highest COVID-19 numbers since the pandemic began and public health officials are now urging Clark County residents to stay home over the Fourth of July holiday weekend to help prevent even more cases. 

Meanwhile, we have local politicians — including a three-term state legislator from Camas who is again running for an elected position and a current Camas City Council member — railing against a new statewide mask mandate meant to curb the state’s continued increase of COVID-19 cases. 

It doesn’t seem to matter that the vast majority of public health experts now agree that wearing cloth face coverings is our best chance of stopping a pandemic that has, in just four months, killed 23,000 more Americans than those killed in the Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq wars — plus those killed in U.S. terror attacks and mass shootings — combined. 

It doesn’t seem to matter that public health experts have gone out of their way to prove that face coverings do not pose risks to the vast majority of people, but actually prevent people from passing and contracting COVID-19.

It doesn’t seem to matter that other countries have been able to control the pandemic and reopen safely while much of the United States is — four months into this crisis — is still experiencing surges of COVID-19 cases. 

It doesn’t seem to matter that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious-disease expert told a Senate committee last week that “it could get very bad” in this country if people do not immediately shift gears and go back to physical distancing and wearing protective face coverings.

It doesn’t even seem to matter that several states have had to roll back their “too much, too soon” reopenings and re-close bars, beaches and restaurants in the face of escalating COVID-19 cases and hospital systems dangerously close to their breaking point. 

No. Instead of banning together even more in the face of a crisis that now threatens to overwhelm our entire country, many have shifted back to the same-old, boring “us versus them” mentality that pits right wing against left wing, neighbor against neighbor, town against town, country against country, public health experts and actual scientific research against random Facebook memes.

Unless we can all immediately get back on the same page — a page devoted to following the guidance of public health experts; relying on the most up-to-date scientific research; fighting back against social media posts that are more focused on “owning the Libs” than on helping community members stay safe and healthy during a pandemic unlike anything any of us have ever experienced; and showering public health officials with letters and comments showing strong disapproval of tactics that might help increase the spread of COVID-19 and impede businesses’ reopenings — we can pretty much guarantee Fauci’s words of caution will come true, and life as we know it will “get very bad” before it ever starts to get better again.