Nerds on Earth
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Why did our blockbuster movies not prepare us for the slowpocalypse?

My wife was Zooming with her friends and one remarked, “No one saw this coming.” Which is ridiculous. I’ve read comic books for 40 years. I darned well knew the apocalypse was just around corner!

Joking aside, society has certainly had more than enough warning when it comes to biological outbreaks. Small Pox. Black Plague. Spanish Flu. More recently we’ve seen HIV, H1N1, Ebola, and SARS. Anyone with eyes to see could see that we were living in an inevitability.

Movies should have prepped us for this as well. Apocalypse movies are a staple of pop culture. I’ve even written a gazillion articles on the topic.

Yet the movies have conditioned us for shock and awe. It’s either zombies worldwide in a matter of days or asteroids on an imminent collision course with planet Earth. Now, that’s an apocalypse! Sitting still during two months of shelter in place is more of a slowpocalypse.

So, yeah. Comic books and the movies trained our imaginations toward a type of apocalypse that we aren’t seeing. Fury Road taught us that we would get to go on an exciting trip. Instead we’re sheltering in place.

Thrillers like Contagion and Outbreak showed a rapid outbreak. Instead our days are so long the dishes are piling up and we’re running the washer twice a day.

Some clearly aren’t handling the emotions of this slowpocalypse well. They are showing up armed at government buildings. One would have to assume that at least some of these Wal-Mart Militia members are “preppers,” a term for folks who prepare diligently for disasters. Think about the folks with fallout shelters during the Cold War and you get the idea.

Well, the slowpocalypse has preppers upset. Many of them have planned, prepared, and procured for years, assuming a power vacuum would be created by the absolute anarchy and civil disorder that would be generated by the inevitable apocalypse they saw in movies. They instead got the slowpocalypse which consists of stay at home orders that have given rise to community-minded grandmothers who are working their sewing machines overtime in order to make masks for their neighbors.

Similarly, my wife’s church runs a high-profile and well-attended special needs ministry where nearly all the participants are immunocompromised. In a move the exact opposite of anarchy, the church has mobilized teams to serve as personal shoppers for their immunocompromised friends, checking in regularly to make sure everyone is safe and healthy.

Gosh, neighbors loving neighbors is not the story historically told in now delayed summer blockbusters. Yet, as Endgame taught us, the one thing Thanos didn’t plan for is the intense desire of the survivors to do whatever it takes to help others survive. Huh. I guess when you think of it, it’s the nation’s healthcare workers who are mobilizing like the Avengers right now.

But overloaded hospitals and the exhaustion of caregivers in a senior care facility doesn’t motivate the public in the way that the collapse of two towers will. Yet at the time of this writing, the American death toll from COVID-19 is greater than 70,000, an absolutely tragic number.

For context, I’m writing this from St Louis Park, MN, a Southwest suburb of Minneapolis. The population of the entire suburb of St Louis Park is 49,000, meaning that COVID-19 has killed the equivalent of every man, woman, and child in an entire suburb of a major metropolitan area, plus added an extra 21,000 souls, the population of a small town.

If a giant sinkhole were to open up underneath St Louis Park, swallowing up everything at once, there would be an extreme sadness at the loss. But the loss of an equivalent number of souls spread throughout nursing homes across America simply doesn’t register the same way. That greater loss of life registers so differently, in fact, that some are distantly and dourly rationalizing those deaths with phrases like, “Well, old people die. Maybe that’s an acceptable loss for the rest of us to continue our way of life.”

Another thing that blockbuster movies teach us that an individual’s #1 enemy is certainly the government. Walter Peck was seen as a villain in Ghostbusters, an uptight bureaucrat who tried to kill the fun by investigating unauthorized backpack-sized particle accelerators. Yet, the EPA agent was right! Whether it’s AR-15s or Ghostbusting neutrino wands, basic accountability is both logical and reasonable.

So, while apocalypse tales have taught us that governments are our enemies, you’d have to be endlessly blinkered not to see the need for good, competent government in a time of crisis like this.

And assuming your politics aren’t entirely blinkered, you are likely under the reasonable conclusion that the American federal government’s response to COVID-19 has at the very least been ill-prepared and inefficient. So, as a thought experiment, let’s toss out a conservative estimate that efficiency improvements would yield a modest 5% improvement in outcomes.

5% of 65,000 equals 3,250 which means a modest 5% increase in efficiency in our federal government’s response to our current COVID-19 crisis would have saved a substantial number of lives.

So effective, efficient government matters, especially in an apocalypse. Yet apocalyptic popular media is maddeningly self-fulfilling. They present the story with an assumption that government is the problem, so therefore in the real-world, government must be the problem. While the population is looking for a thoughtful, coordinated response that will bring communities together, anti-government preppers are assaulting capitals while shouting phrases that sound regurgitated from a socially-ignorant speech spoken during the heyday of Ghostbusters.

Meanwhile, government employees like those at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) work tirelessly toward public health while individualistic preppers are ready to highlight their marksmanship skills against the sewing skills of grannies.

If you’ve read Nerds on Earth before… well, I would just like to formally apologize to you. It’s mostly a thinly-disguised series of booger jokes. That’s what we here at Nerds on Earth call “the special sauce.”

Not to be confused with the actual “special sauce” we put on our burgers in the Nerds on Earth cafeteria, which our resident chef denies is really just Thousand Island dressing.

Sorry, Abram; the secret is out.

But if you’ve read Nerds on Earth before you know we don’t make a habit of getting political. And I’d argue, in fact, that I really haven’t. Everything feels so darned controversial in this day and age that the mere hint of a thought that doesn’t fit a predetermined tribal narrative illicits reflexive defensiveness.

But pointing out that our present tribulation doesn’t look like the apocalypse stories in our head – yet here we are in this shared experience together – isn’t controversial.

Pointing out that some have chosen to live out COVID-19 with an eye toward community service – while others have chosen to take up arms against their leaders – isn’t controversial.

Pointing out that government’s competence and efficiency has an impact on our shared vitality and health isn’t controversial.

Besides, even if the previous 1,000 words were highly controversial, the virus wouldn’t mind. In fact, it doesn’t mind anything. It’s agnostic, completely oblivious to our feelings and emotions and desires.

No one can see it coming, not even my wife’s friends on Zoom. Not even comics books or zombie movies. Largely, because the literal virus is invisible to the naked eye.

But what people really didn’t see coming was our collective response to it. Some people like nurses and grannies or stepping up like heroes out of a comic book. Others are behaving more like Thanos. Me? I’m somewhere in the middle, just sheltering in place.

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