As a kid growing up in a small Midwestern town, I often heard adults call someone they all knew “a good egg”—it was high praise expressed in a typically understated way. But the saying actually traces back to England, where it had the opposite connotation:
Good egg is a friendly, old-fashioned way to talk about a good guy or a kind person. . . . The expression originally came from its opposite, bad egg, British public school slang from the 1800’s for someone who was not nice. Fifty years later, good egg emerged as a casual way to talk about a good chap or a decent fellow.
The current dilemma facing state and local officials over school re-opening is the upshot of a massive failure to flatten the curve during the past five months. Perhaps the fault lies in a flawed human nature, a will to power that leads to conflict and prevents compromise. Perhaps human beings are naturally predisposed to competition rather than cooperation.
It is fair to hold officials at all levels—state and local, as well as federal—accountable. Washington’s terrible record in managing the Covid-19 public health crisis clearly demonstrates that American government at the federal level is broken. The resulting absence of a coherent set of enforceable rules or even a clear set of guidelines has given rise to a patchwork of policies in the 50 states.
Where the state government has not stepped in and acted decisively—especially in the red states—it has been up to mayors and city councils to decide what to do. But local governments do not exercise the weighty and wide authority of government at higher levels.
However true, there’s something missing from any analysis that leaves the citizenry out of the equation. If human nature is the root cause of the rampant spread of COVID-19, does the larger society not bear some of the blame? If some people wear face coverings in public and others don’t, is that not, after all, a matter of personal responsibility? If parents insist that schools open as always regardless of the risks to public health, whose fault is that?
We see many people every day who are doing their part to prevent the spread of this highly infectious disease. People who are careful to keep a safe distance from others when standing in line, walking or jogging in the park, or talking over the fence. People who shelter at home and are careful to self-isolate when they don’t feel well. And, of course, people who wear masks and do it out of consideration for others.
We all know such people. They are truly admirable. Unlike many of our so-called leaders, they set a good example for us all. They are citizen-leaders and living, breathing examples of good citizenship, which is vital in the best of times, but a matter of life and death in times of crisis.
Let’s start and end with the mask slackers. Turns out, resistance to wearing a mask is nothing new. A century ago, the “Spanish flu” killed tens of millions of people—so many, in fact, that estimates range from a low of 20 million to a high of 50 million.
Never mind. The hated masks were called “muzzles” and “germ shields” and “dirt traps”. It was said they gave people a “pig-like snout.” According to reporter Christine Hauser, “In 1918 and 1919, as bars, saloons, restaurants, theaters and schools were closed, masks became a scapegoat, a symbol of government overreach, inspiring protests, petitions and defiant bare-face gatherings. All the while, thousands of Americans were dying in a deadly pandemic.”
What does it say about human nature when a pandemic that killed an estimated 195,000 Americans in a single month (October 1918) did not change peoples’ minds about the necessity of taking a simple precaution like wearing a face covering? Apparently, much of the opposition was due—get this—to vanity. Does that remind you of anyone? (Hint: He says it makes him look like the Lone Ranger.)
There’s a lot more to be said about the bad eggs, about conspiracy theorists, QAnon whack jobs, anti-vaxxers, and social media trolls but here it suffices to say they are either suffering from a severe cognitive disorder or just full-on cuckoo-bird crazy.
We all know nice people who don’t want to get involved because politics is dirty and they are pure. But there is almost always another side to the bystanders who stay on the sidelines even in a grave crisis. In good times, the cause is probably apathy or complacency. In bad times, it’s cowardice. Disembodied fear. A lack of courage to step out. To take sides. Call it the chicken-shit factor.
“We have met the enemy and he is us.”
This pandemic has shined a glaring spotlight on the most selfish, ignorant, and reckless human beings in our midst. What’s more, it has not only made them easily identified in any public setting but also allowed us to get a clear picture of the relative distribution of the good and bad eggs among us. The broken eggs are a tragedy. It’s up to us, the voters, to toss the rotten ones out.