Lately I’ve been feeling like we’re living through a particular Star Trek: The Next Generation episode.
No, not “Contagion” – that’s about a computer virus.
Not “Thine Own Self” either, but that’s a good guess.
I’m thinking of “The Ensigns of Command.”
That’s the episode where Data, the android character, must convince a bunch of stubborn colonists that they need to immediately pack up and leave the colony they worked so hard to build. The human colonists must leave because thanks to a treaty, the planet where they’ve built their colony now belongs to an alien race called the Sheliak.
The Sheliak are all business and are coming to colonize the planet themselves. While they were willing to negotiate a lengthy and complex treaty with the humans to procure the planet, they otherwise regard humanity as a lesser species and would have no qualms about wiping out any human stragglers they discover upon arrival. The colonists are absolutely no match for the Sheliak.
The Enterprise must begin evacuating the colonists ASAP, and Data is beamed down to the planet to help them start packing immediately.
However, the colonists are very resistant to the idea of leaving, especially their leader, Gosheven. That isn’t surprising since Data did show up out of the blue to basically say, “Surprise! Now you must pack up and leave!” The colonists had been living on the planet for many years and sacrificed a lot to establish their thriving colony.
Gosheven tries to reassure everyone that there’s nothing to fear and that they’ll all be fine. He denies that the Sheliak are a threat (which sounds very much like the idiocy of saying “it’s just the flu” in our current situation). Others join him in their firm stance against fear. But are they being brave? Or just stubbornly irrational?
Here’s a scene from that episode where Data is speaking to the colonists, trying to get creative in convincing them to leave. Everyone in this scene other than Data is a colonist.
DATA: You know of the Sheliak threat. Starfleet wishes to evacuate you for your own protection. Yet Gosheven has decided otherwise. That is his right, and I will not waste time trying to reverse that decision. I admire your conviction in the face of certain defeat. Though doomed, your effort will be valiant. And when you die, you will die for land and honor. Your children will understand that they are dying for a worthy cause. Long after the battle is over, their courage will be remembered and extolled.
ARD’RIAN: Remembered by who?
DATA: Yes, that is true. There will be no one left alive to remember.
GOSHEVEN: (applauding) A valiant try, android, but what a low opinion you must have of us.
DATA: I was simply attempting to describe your inevitable destruction in a manner that would have an emotional effect.
HARITATH: And he describes it pretty damned well.
GOSHEVEN: Are you ready to follow this machine? Give up without a fight? He says we’re going to lose, but I think that’s just his cowardice talking!
KENTOR: What if he’s right and you’re wrong? Shouldn’t we consider that possibility?
GOSHEVEN: This colony exists because generations gave their lives for it. Many people died before we found a way to adapt to the radiation. And many more died bringing water to the desert. My grandfather –
ARD’RIAN: Is buried on that mountain. Well, who’ll be left to bury you?
GOSHEVEN: Have you considered what this evacuation means? Everything we have, we abandon. Everything that we have built turns into dust. Everything that we have accomplished means nothing. Well, I say no. You elected me your leader. Follow me now. I don’t think our chances are as hopeless as he says. And I’m willing to stake our lives on it. Any objections? Good, because here we stand.
ALL: Aye, We stand with you.
(The men slap Gosheven on the back, the women look worried)
DATA: Then here you die.
This episode reminds me of what we’ve seen in many people’s response to the coronavirus. We’ve seen it in Italy. We’ve seen it in Spain. We’ve seen it in France – throughout the week leading right up to the moment the French went into full lockdown yesterday morning.
And of course we’re still seeing it in the USA now.
How well does this approach work?
Let’s check a first-hand report from a doctor in Bergamo, a city in Northern Italy:
The results of the swabs now come one after the other: positive, positive, positive. Suddenly the emergency room is collapsing. Emergency provisions are issued: help is needed in the emergency room.
Exams, radiology always with the same sentence: bilateral interstitial pneumonia. All to be hospitalized. Someone already to intubate goes to intensive care. For others, however, it is late. Intensive care becomes saturated, and where intensive care ends, more are created.
And every reorganization of beds, wards, staff, work shifts and tasks is constantly reviewed day after day to try to give everything and even more. Those wards that previously looked like ghosts are now saturated, ready to try to give their best for the sick, but exhausted. The staff is exhausted. I saw fatigue on faces that didn’t know what it was despite the already grueling workloads they had. I have seen people still stop beyond the times they used to stop already, for overtime that was now habitual. I saw solidarity from all of us, who never failed to go to our internist colleagues to ask “what can I do for you now?” or “leave alone that shelter that I think of it.” Doctors who move beds and transfer patients, nurses with tears in their eyes because we are unable to save everyone and the vital signs of several patients at the same time reveal an already marked destiny. There are no more shifts, schedules.
Social life is suspended for us. I have been separated for a few months, and I assure you that I always have everything possible to constantly see my son even on disassembly days at night, without sleeping and postponing sleep until when I am without him, but for almost 2 weeks I have voluntarily seen neither my son nor my family members for fear of infecting them and in turn, infect an elderly grandmother or relatives with other health problems. I’m happy with some photos of my son that I regard between tears and a few video calls. So be patient too, you can’t go to the theater, museums or gym. Try to have mercy on that myriad of older people you could exterminate. It is not your fault, I know, but of those who put it in your head that you are exaggerating and even this testimony may seem like an exaggeration for those who are far from the epidemic, but please, listen to us, try to leave the house only for the essential things. Do not go en masse to stock up in supermarkets: it is the worst thing because you concentrate and the risk of contacts with infected people who do not know they are higher.
Oh yes, thanks to the shortage of certain devices, I and many other colleagues are certainly exposed despite all the means of protection we have. Some of us have already become infected despite the protocols. Some infected colleagues in turn have infected family members and some of their family members already struggle between life and death. We are where your fears could make you stay away. Try to make sure you stay away.Source: Corriere della Sera (translated from Italian)
That was from March 7, when the death toll in Italy was 230. Fast forward just 11 days to today, and now there are about 3000 dead – 475 of them just in the past 24 hours. In that same time they went from about 5800 reported infections to about 36,000 now. And this is still speeding up.
Soon this will be the situation in Southern Italy too. France and Spain are quickly following suit. More countries are following just days behind.
Of the nearly 36,000 reported infections in Italy, more than 2600 are medical personnel. A number of doctors have already died from this virus while trying to save other people’s lives.
This is a glimpse of what we’re about to see in the USA shortly. Very likely by the end of the month, we can expect hundreds if not thousands of medical personnel to get infected as well, even as they work to exhaustion trying to treat people. And that will still just be the tip of the iceberg with so much more to follow. We are nowhere near the peak yet. In fact, we’re not at Base Camp yet. (Incidentally, Mount Everest is closed too.)
A full lockdown in the USA is inevitable – I’d say almost a certainty before month’s end at the rate things are going. The sooner we reach that point, the better. All 50 states have infected people now, with West Virginia being the last holdout to join.
Each day we’re seeing different cities and states making bigger and bigger sacrifices while the virus makes even bigger gains. We’re progressively locking down, and as fast as it seems, we should actually be moving even faster.
Yesterday night the Governor of Nevada announced the closing of all casinos, hotels, bars, and more statewide, joining schools which were shuttered on Monday. The Las Vegas Strip has gone dark. And yet as extreme as this seems, especially for a city that runs on 42 million tourists per year, it’s still just another intermediate step among more to be taken.
When a full lockdown does happen, and it will, it will likely endure for at least two months, and realistically we may be looking at well into the summer or beyond.
Some are projecting as long as 18 months of this kind of disruption (which may involve full and partial lockdowns), as there may be multiple waves of the virus.
When you see businesses announce they’re shutting down for 2-3 weeks, don’t believe that for a second. As I noted in Sunday’s post: This Will Not Be Over Quickly. When I wrote that post, the U.S. death total from the virus was 63 with 3300 reported infections. Three days later we’re at 8300+ infections and 133 deaths, so both numbers have more than doubled. And this is going to speed up significantly in the days and weeks ahead.
Meanwhile many people are still going out partying and gathering in large groups, such as was reported at the Clearwater Beach in Florida yesterday. Under the current circumstances and given what we see happening elsewhere, this behavior means more painful deaths for many more people, including the deaths of doctors and nurses trying to save lives. Not shutting down sizable human gatherings is ludicrous at this point. The sooner we take action, the more lives will be saved.
Let’s return to our Star Trek episode to see how Data eventually convinces the colonists to leave for their own good.
After his other attempts to convince the colonists to leave fail, Data goes to the colony’s pumping station for their aqueduct, which is the colony’s only source of water. He pulls out his phaser, first using the stun setting and then using a higher setting after he says his first line in this scene.
(The elders are on a raised platform to the side, and four security guards are in front of the pool. Data fires at them)
DATA: Stop. That was the stun setting. This is not.
(There’s a big bang, then energy is seen racing up the pipeline to the mountain)
DATA: I can reduce this pumping station to a pile of debris, but I trust my point is clear. I am one android with a single weapon. There are hundreds of Sheliak on the way and their weapons are far more powerful. They may not offer you a target. They can obliterate you from orbit. You will die never having seen the faces of your killers. The choice is yours.
KENTOR: There are other places, other challenges.
(The security guards recover from their stuns)
GOSHEVEN: I really was willing to stay here and die for this.
DATA: I know that. This is just a thing, and things can be replaced. Lives cannot.
That approach worked. The colonists, including Gosheven, finally agreed to evacuate. So they lived.
Data is an android programmed for politeness and manners. He’s one of the kindest and gentlest characters on the show. He’s willing to accept and befriend everyone as they are, like an android version of Mister Rogers.
And of course Data is very rational, so he starts by greeting the colonists warmly and offering them a rational explanation about what’s happening and why they need to evacuate – a sensible place to begin.
When that doesn’t work, he appeals to their emotions since he knows something about human psychology too.
And when that doesn’t work, he pulls out his weapon but still uses the stun setting initially. Now having good reason to conclude that this too will be insufficient, he quickly bumps it to a higher setting and demonstrates at that level as well. And then he immediately threatens to bump it higher still, to a setting which would effectively destroy something the colonists have been trying to protect. Fortunately he doesn’t seriously hurt anyone, but he does keep escalating until he finally succeeds. Moreover, he accelerates the pacing of his escalations to match the increasing urgency of the situation.
This is a rational approach, isn’t it? For a mission that’s important enough, keep escalating until you succeed, even if you must stretch your character to do so. Data had to stretch his character to succeed in his mission, yet he was able to do so while still honoring his rational core.
And we must continue to do the same. When the stun setting is ineffective, ratchet up your efforts more to help get people off the streets and to stay the fuck home.
Is it rational to continue using the stun setting if it isn’t working quickly enough?
Is it rational to avoid stretching our characters due to fear of criticism or social pushback, knowing by sticking to our comfort zones and refusing to go any higher, we sentence more people to death – including more medical personnel who will soon give their lives trying to save others?
Or is it rational to ratchet up our actions towards the stun setting and beyond until we achieve what’s needed?
If you’ve been trying to help people behave more rationally during this time, yet they’re still behaving irrationally, ratchet up your efforts and attitude, just as Data had to do to accomplish his mission.
This isn’t the time to get stuck at your personal stun setting. This is the time to do what it takes to save more lives and reduce suffering because the actions you take now can and will make a difference.
CLOSE THE BEACH, YOU FUCKING IDIOTS!!!