The Twilight Zone

“The Twilight Zone” was originally a television series launched in 1959 by host Rod Serling. The stories were often pure or partly science fiction. Many reflected social challenges of the times. Some stories predicted where our current trajectories would take society if attitudes and practices did not change in the near future.

In one episode, a typical middle class neighborhood experiences inexplicable disturbances in its electrical supply. One street loses power to all but one house. Appliances and vehicles switch on and off for no apparent reason. People come out of their houses confused and suspicious. Conspiracy theories spread throughout the community, and neighbors take up arms against their neighbors, as longstanding suspicions and jealousies grow into deadly confrontations.

As the camera pans away from the bedlam in the streets, it focuses on an alien spaceship high above the town.  The apparent leader of the extraterrestrial landing party is explaining to his subordinates that an attack on these humans is unnecessary. He points to the chaos down below and explains that all we need do to conquer the planet is to disrupt what they have come to expect. Flash some lights on and off, stall some engines and in short order they will be at each others’ throats and will destroy their own societies, communities, and nations.

This episode came to mind when I heard that Amber Elliott, a Missouri health director, had resigned. This health professional (a nurse) had advocated a mandatory mask statute to help stem the rise of  Covid-19 infections that was rapidly filling all of the available hospital beds in Missouri.  Many citizens inside and outside of Missouri recognized this as an insufferable impingement upon their God-given right to infect whomever they wanted.  They saw through this sham legislation as a first step to take away their lives, liberties and pursuits of happiness. 

With the wisdom that comes with mob mentality, they urged Nurse Elliott to change her position or die.  They showered her with death threats, and when that failed they targeted her family. They sent her pictures of her husband and children in settings that established that her family members were being stalked. With the pictures came assurances that if she did not retreat from this horrible mandate that people wear masks, her children would be killed.

Many other health professionals and politicians in other states have faced similar threats. Quite frankly, I do not understand.  Their lives are being threatened for trying to save lives.  Even if you have been convinced by friends, family, or demented pundits that this whole pandemic thing is a hoax, why would you threaten to kill someone for advocating as innocuous an activity as wearing a surgical mask? 

Even if you believe those refrigerated trucks sitting outside your local hospital to hold the dead bodies that are inconveniently accumulating are merely props to further the pandemic hoax, haven’t you heard about the flu epidemic on the horizon? Do you think that is a hoax as well? News Bulletin — surgical masks will help protect you against the flu. Surely you do not doubt the veracity of reports going back more than 100 years that the flu kills people. If the people sitting beside you at church, at the movie theater, at the bowling alley, etc., are wearing masks, they are less likely to infect and kill you.

I acknowledge that I am preaching to the choir, but the choir has friends and relatives. Judging from community practices I have observed around my town, I must conclude that many of my fellow citizens would rather offer death threats than observe social distancing, hand washing and mask-wearing.  In previous columns, I have acknowledged the desire, indeed the need for members of our species to assemble.

We want to see if our fellow citizens are smiling or grimacing. We do not want to wash our hands every time we pull on a door with our bare hands. We want to be surrounded by hundreds or thousands of like-minded citizens so that we do not seem peculiar when we scream in praise of a man who just threw a ball through a hoop or a teenager who defied gravity while doing a back-flip on a narrow beam.

But the death-threat advocate will ask,”Can you point to any place where doing these inconvenient things has made a difference?” Well, there is Taiwan. Its 22 million people have not had any cases of Covid-19 for more than 240 days. There is New Zealand, where life has returned to normal without a second or third wave of infections.

The places with overflowing hospitals and morgues are generally those with the densest population denying the existence of a pandemic or the need for precautions. I heard from a physician just outside Albany, N.Y., who objected to admitting a 93-year-old man who became symptomatic for Covid-19 after attending a Thanksgiving Day dinner with more than a dozen family members.  The doctor’s position was that the limited hospital resources should not be provided to someone who refused to abide by even the most basic of public health instructions. The dying man had ignored months of widely publicized warnings against doing precisely what he did.

The patient chose to risk his life to have dinner with family members who chose not to protect him, and now society was expected to spend the time, effort, medications, and manpower to retrieve him from the brink of death. His family claimed they had no idea this disease was real or dangerous. Where have they been for the past nine months? One must wonder if the unfortunate situation faced by their 93-year-old patriarch motivated any of them to call up acquaintances and demand that they stop threatening to kill the children of healthcare workers.

The old man was admitted to the hospital, and he will receive the increasingly costly and limited resources available at that hospital, but the end of such largesse is in sight. We can borrow money and build more hospitals, but that will not suffice to manage the obstinacy that is infecting our society. Even if a vaccine becomes available over the next few months, our supply of healthcare providers will have long passed the limits of sustainability. We have a nationwide shortage of healthcare providers, and that will translate into avoidable deaths. Those who would intimidate, harass, frustrate or even take for granted these workers are accessories to murder.

We need rational healthcare measures applied vigorously and uniformly across the country. We need to silence those who would threaten violence against healthcare workers or their children. We need to stop buying into conspiracy theories that are setting us against each other. There are not and will never be any vaccines against recklessness, arrogance, and prejudice. Indeed, we have entered the twilight zone. There is bedlam in the streets. I hope we have enough time left to find our way out.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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