Throughout history, whenever there has been a plague, one of the casualties has always been a group of people defined as “the other” who get blamed for it. I don’t know of any case where a group of people has actually caused a plague or pandemic – other than when Europeans brought infectious diseases to the Americas, thereby killing millions of the continents’ inhabitants in a kind of proto-biological warfare — but that never stopped anyone from blaming Jews, Gypsies, Mexicans, or name-that-tribe. We are witnessing it right now whenever the occupant of the White House or one of his henchmen refers to COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus.” Often in history, those people who get blamed wind up being ostracized or falling victim to violence, expulsion, pogroms, massacres, etc.
Nobel Prize-winning author Olga Tokarczuk writes in “A New World Through My Window” in the New Yorker this week: “The fear of the virus has brought about the atavistic conviction that there must be foreigners to blame, that it is they who introduce the threat.”
Given that, one should be ever-so-careful to examine what lies behind, or more likely, underneath, the demonizing of second-home owners. In places like eastern Long Island, the Berkshires, and the Hudson Valley, citizens and public officials alike have criticized “New Yorkers” (I put quotes around the term because it’s a loaded one and often refers to something else besides residents of the five boroughs constituting the City of New York) for leaving their primary residences to quarantine in their lawfully owned second residences or vacation homes. Local legislatures have even passed non-binding resolutions calling on these “outsiders” to keep out. These “outsiders” are often the very same people who pay a significant proportion of a town’s property and school taxes (while placing no burdens on the schools), the primary customers of many a downtown business, and patrons of the many arts and cultural venues that are now the backbone of the region’s post-industrial economy.
Why must this be a “them vs. us” situation, especially when there is nothing fact-based about the idea that refugees from downstate have been a vector of the disease upstate? Why the rush to find somebody to blame? These people own homes in these towns, and that home ownership gives them every right to be in those homes. Along with that right, they bear the same responsibilities for social distancing and quarantining that apply to every denizen of the region. No more, no less.
There are any number of people who live full-time in these areas who refuse to live by the rules of social distancing, who promiscuously gather in groups, who refuse to wear face masks, and who think it’s funny to spit or cough on people. No group has a monopoly on good behavior vs. bad behavior. Anyone can spread the disease, and many are doing so, including full-time residents. One’s ire ought to be directed not towards an imaginary other who “invades” one’s territory but toward those who flout medical directives, regardless of where they call home.