Last week my cousin started a group text with three other cousins, two childhood friends and myself, as a virtual support group during social distancing and a way to stay connected. At first it was basically for memes and relevant articles we found interesting or informative — but it wasn’t long before the group devolved into sharing screenshots and anecdotes of the frustrating conversations they were having with their boomer/silent generation parents and relatives.
I’d been having similar, exasperating conversations with stubborn loved ones for weeks. I understand that facing your mortality is terrifying and often we react with one of the most powerful mechanisms the human psyche has in the face of fear and death — denial. Realizing you are the next generation in line to crash on the shores of humanity cannot be easy. But what became evident both in my interactions and those in the text group was how much politics has infected every aspect of our lives in America, even the way we view something as bipartisan as a virus.
The left-wing garden variety boomers, guys like my dad, old school Yankees, seemed to take it seriously — but behaved like they weren’t in danger. They paid lip service to the seriousness of it, but the story hadn’t been localized and therefore, couldn’t happen to them. My friend said, ‘Every time I’d talk to my mother-in-law she’d just be getting home.’
My cousin told the story of her dad getting a computer to work from home and then visiting five thrift stores to find a desk. Frustrated she had to explain, ‘Dad you’re not supposed to be OUT.’
Another cousin offered to shop for her parents and told them to stay home and my aunt, a strong Irishwoman responded, ‘Yeah that’s not happening.’ She’s since come around, but it took a day of bombarding her with well-reported science articles.
‘My mom literally said to me you have nothing to worry about if your immune system is strong,’ a friend told me. ‘I told her “mom, dad’s immune system is compromised” and she said, “yeah but he doesn’t go anywhere — I do all the shopping.”’
Americans aren’t alone in their frustrations with their parents and grandparents. In China the young were more concerned about the coronavirus than their older kin in the beginning of the outbreak. The following meme was circulating:
This image became a meme, and was transformed. This made me laugh out loud, as it reflects a bit the transition in my own family and friends. More #gallowshumor related to COVID19 in China. 31/ pic.twitter.com/UNsGEJBrZW
— Nicholas A. Christakis (@NAChristakis) March 13, 2020
As attitudes about the severity of the situation evolved, so did the meme.
The denial from our relatives who leaned right was different. My opinions about ‘The Culture’ have landed me in the thick of right-wing media in the past three years and my cousin explained to the group that I spoke ‘fluent boomer’ — but even I felt hopeless when trying to get through to the MAGA boomers I cared about the most. I always thought my friends on the left were exaggerating when they said Fox News was poisoning their parents’ brains — until my expressions of love and concern were being met with hostility and contempt. Perhaps this is a normal reaction to fear — but this went beyond denial. This was politics.
The opinions ranged from a more center-right ‘wait and see’ attitude to a host of different rebuttals, from ‘the left-wing media are trying to tank the economy’ to ‘the coronavirus is a Deep State plan to undermine Trump’ (one that apparently involves killing people all over the world). Most everyone I knew who identified as #MAGA told some version of a story that Chinese scientists made the virus in a lab with bats that they then took home to make bat soup.
These are some of the most educated people I know. Pillars in their community. And they’re spouting conspiracy theories that are batshit crazy (pun intended). Despite the fact that we were expressing concern for their life, they would ridicule us for staying home and say we were ‘overreacting to media alarmism’.
It struck me that I was having similarly frustrating conversations with my left-wing relatives during the entire ‘Russia hacked our elections’ phase of the news cycle that now feels like decades ago. To boomers who rely on mainstream media as their only way to process an uncertain world, more and more they accept whatever conspiracy theories the media peddles in order to avoid facing their own cognitive dissonance.
Believing the coronavirus is ‘no big deal’ could cost these people their lives. Honestly, thank God for Tucker Carlson, who seemed to be the only Fox News pundit who broke rank early on and told his audience they needed to take the ‘Chinese virus’ very seriously.
I sent his video to the group text to share with their loved ones. Unlike us ‘snowflakes’ who believed ‘lyin’ CNN’, Tucker was one of them. He spoke to them. Until President Trump addressed the nation from the Oval Office, he was effectively the only one who could warn them of the danger without forcing them to admit that Trump might be wrong or lying.
Pandemics don’t care about our silly culture wars. They are the great leveler. They reveal our weaknesses and our strengths as nations, communities and individuals.
A moving video by Giovanni Locatelli of the obituary pages in the Bergamo daily newspaper showed the difference in pages between February 9 and March 13. On February 9, the obituaries took up one-and-a-half pages. By March 10, they were spread across 10. More than anything, this drove the point home visually that this isn’t ‘just the flu’.
Bergamo daily newspaper pic.twitter.com/N3ECABz8dr
— David Carretta (@davcarretta) March 14, 2020
I’m writing through tears because the people at the most risk are our grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, our blood. What’s the proper response? In unprecedented times, no one really knows. But I do know we stand a better chance if we face this crisis head on, rather than deny that it’s happening.
Boomers if you’re reading this: your kids and grandkids aren’t expressing concern because we’re overreacting or brainwashed by liberal media — we’re saying it because we love you.