Our “Splendid Isolation!”

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught at the University of San Francisco, Berkeley and Golden Gate University, is a regular columnist for the Marin Independent Journal and was Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors, 2017-2019.

Californians alive then and others on the East Coast can still remember the black-outs that were ordered after the infamous attack on our troops at Pearl Harbor which cost thousands of lives. 

As a nation far removed from the wars already long raging in Europe we did not see a need to bunker down in our homes. 

Still fears of a potential mainland invasion were real and in San Francisco’s Bayfront Presidio—once site of the largest West Coast military base in the nation—canon embattlements remain erect as reminders until this day.

We felt relatively safe and living in what came to be called “splendid isolation.”

The phrase originated in early 19th Century Great Britain which made it a point to avoid forging alliances with other nations that could draw it into wars.

When World War I broke out 100 years later, we continued to believe our security was not threatened and that view was reinforced during WW II which claimed a total of 5 casualties on American soil.

The fatalities were attributed to a bizarre incident in Oregon when a pregnant woman and four children were killed after accidentally detonating a hydrogen “balloon bomb” that landed after its pilotless three-day journey from Japanese home islands 5,000 miles away.  

Californians and all of us felt certain that a foreign enemy would never attack us. 

9-1l disrupted that comfortable view and found us exposed. There were hundreds of casualties and over 2,000 deaths including some California residents.

That catastrophic event turned out to be a mild precursor to a far more deadly event that is ravaging every corner of the nation and now threatens our state. We are seeing Ebola on steroids!

We are once again in isolation—but this time is is forced and there is nothing splendid about it.

Now we are all being urged to go into full lockdown—total self-isolation which might last for months. The U.S Surgeon General is saying, “we are facing the worst week in our lives.”  The U.S. death toll has now exceeded 10,000–easily doubling 9-11 and Pearl Harbor together.

As a nation we were neither philosophically nor physically prepared for this moment.

Our hospitals are bracing for the overflows as we seek every method possible to “flatten the curve,” and reduce the number of those who will be contaminated and may die.

California is learning what New York and other places experiencing utter devastation already know. Near total isolation is not an option. Staying at home to the extent possible is an absolute human imperative. 

A few days ago mainly to break the grim monotony of “sheltering in place” I took a brief tour of some of the North County towns that neighbor San Francisco. 

The streets are nearly deserted turning normally bustling communities into ghost towns. “Closed for Now” signs are popping up on stores everywhere. A few gas stations remain open so the millions who have not converted to electric vehicles can go shopping for necessities.

Playgrounds, parks and beaches look like Martian landscapes and the  sounds on the suddenly unclogged freeways are mainly those of ambulances and fire trucks heading to hospitals rapidly becoming over-taxed.

Buses are empty with few passengers to take anywhere and the Bay Area is converting hotels and convention centers into giant trauma wards. 

Bicyclists do not have to share roadways and the air is probably cleaner than it has been for years!

Schools are shuttered statewide requiring parents to get very creative for children still eager to learn while holding down rising anxieties that could result in long-term emotional illnesses.

Remarkably, people can still be seen without masks and brazenly ignoring CDC guidelines to avoid social contact and maintain proper distancing. They are imperiling not just themselves but thousands who may be asymptomatic. 

This is the good news!

In my county the growing elderly population is especially vulnerable. 

However, we are learning that no age group will be spared. Some will soon be needing the ventilators and other supplies that have been inexplicably held back from the federal stockpile.

If the best scientific models continue to hold up, without massive mitigation, 1% of the state’s population—400,000—could succumb to the disease.

In previous wars of this scale we put generals and admirals in command who presidents and civilian authorities called upon for the national mobilization required. 

We are at that crisis point again. 

Instead we have just witnessed the firing of a courageous and highly respected naval ship commander from Santa Rosa, California who put out the SOS for emergency evacuation of his sailors falling prey himself to the deadly pathogen. Now he also has the virus.

In doing so in the finest tradition of military leaders and patriots throughout our history he put their lives ahead of his own career.

Shame on us!

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