Scylla, Charybdis & COVID-19

In Greek mythology, Scylla and Charybdis were monsters guarding opposite sides of the narrow strait between Italy and Sicily. Chart a course too close to one side, and Scylla grabs you. Try to steer clear of Scylla and you fall prey to Charybdis.

It’s hard to think of a better metaphor for the modern moment.

Except…in the Greek lore, the two monsters acted independently. Now, it’s more like each isn’t so much trying to snare you for itself as to drive you into the other’s clutches. And it’s something we seem to be doing our level best to assist.

Let me elaborate.

In the real-life maritime dangers the ancient Greeks faced, Scylla was a reef, and Charybdis was a whirlpool.

In the COVID-19 world, one is a virus, and the other is the economy.

We know how to beat back the virus, but doing it too aggressively risks inflicting even worse damage on the economy than we’ve already seen…including, if we carried quarantine to absurd levels, the risk of mass starvation. Similarly, we know how to re-open the economy, but if we try it too aggressively, we risk unleashing the virus in its full fury.

What’s needed is to find the narrow path that, to mix my metaphors, best threads thread the needle between the two monsters.

Or, worse, we may have to consider the approach Homer has Odysseus take in the The Odyssey, in which he steers close enough to Scylla to lose a few crew members to its hungry jaws in order to avoid coming so close to Charybdis that he loses his entire ship.

This is not the type of thing modern Americans like to think about, myself included. We are raised on adventure movies in which the hero would never do as Odysseus does, but instead rejects the conundrum and finds a brilliant way out of it.

Also, as I’ve discussed in other posts, our deep political polarization makes it easy to demonize the other side, while digging in support for our own sides, rather than looking for the best mutual solution.

That’s what I mean by the modern Scylla and Charybdis not competing for prey, but driving victims into each other’s clutches. If we say, “close everything down until the virus is conquered,” the fact is that a lot of people will suffer even more than if they got sick, possibly even dying. If we say “forget the risks, open wide the economy,” others will die of the virus.

It is possible that, like the adventure-movie hero who refuses to choose and instead comes up with a miraculous alternative, we will be rescued by new treatments, a rapidly developed vaccine, or unexpected levels of herd immunity.

I’d like it a lot if that happened.

But meanwhile we need to abandon black-and-white modes of thinking and look for ways to minimize the overall damage.

The media is not helping this. Too much of it feeds on strong headlines and over-simplified stories. This post was prompted, in part, by a headline saying that 30+ states were now starting to reopen for business. There was a map, and to my surprise, it included my state of Oregon.

When I dug into it a bit, I discovered that “reopening,” for us, meant a resumption of non-emergency medical procedures, like hip replacements and biopsies, as well as dental visits.

As one who waited too long for a hip replacement, I can tell you that there comes a time when that isn’t really elective. In the last few weeks, I came to take it for granted that there would be times, each day, when I was nauseous from pain. I can’t imagine how I could have stood in line waiting to grocery shop.

There also comes a time when biopsies go from “can wait” to “life and death.”

But CNN’s headline wasn’t distinguishing between this and reopening restaurants, gyms, and barber shops.

That does nobody a service.

Neither does it if experiments like curbside retail, which I first heard being promoted in Texas, are treated as immoral risks to life, health, and safety, rather than innovative ideas that might do much to reduce economic pain, while also minimizing the risk to public health.

We are always going to disagree. But what’s needed is to put on our collective thinking caps and brainstorm the best route through this narrow, dangerous passage, until or unless an adventure-movie hero comes on the scene with a miraculous way out.

And to do that, as I’ve said before, and will say again, we need to quit demonizing each other and actually hear what the other side is saying.

*Image: The waves crashed between the towering cliff of Scylla and the jagged rocks of Charybdis. Color lithograph by Gino D’Antonio. Reprinted with permission from Look and Learn Ltd., via Creative Commons license.

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