Pandemics Don't Kill Compassion. Actually, They Bring It Out.

The coronavirus is narrowing class divisions and creating an amazing outbreak of compassion.


"Pandemics Kill Compassion, Too," is the headline over a David Brooks column in the New York Times predicting that the coronavirus is about to "inflame class divisions."

Well, if The New York Times editorial page is going to use the pandemic to confirm its prior assumptions, let me seize it to confirm mine, which is that news organizations can take the same set of facts and spin them in radically different ways.

Where Brooks sees a heightening of class divisions and a death of compassion, I see a narrowing of class divisions and an amazing outbreak of compassion.

On the class division front, for sure, it's better to be quarantined, or socially distanced, in a mansion than in a small apartment or in a homeless shelter. But the billionaire with floorside Final Four seats and a private plane to get him there and back is almost precisely as out-of-luck as the low-wage worker who was planning to watch it on television. The basketball game is equally canceled for both of them.

All those trillions of dollars of stock market wealth "incinerated" over the past few weeks did more to decrease inequality in this country than torrents of rhetoric from Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) about never-to-be-implemented "wealth tax" plans. Those who took the largest losses are the people with the biggest retirement accounts.

I've seen the argument that white-collar professionals who can work from home and will keep getting paid are advantaged over, say, bartenders or waiters who find themselves suddenly unemployed, or over small retail business-owners who are seeing customers disappear. There's probably something to that. But we have a choice about how to view that. One can, like Brooks, focus on, and magnify, the "class divisions." Or one can observe that this pandemic is one of the few things left that leaves no one at all truly untouched, even those who avoid being infected by the virus.

The same depends-on-how-you-look-at-it approach applies to the compassion questions. Plenty of people have chosen to focus, negatively, on young, healthy people who went ahead and socialized in bars and restaurants on the theory that the virus was unlikely to affect them seriously. In so doing, they acted in callous disregard for how their action might speed the spread of the virus and thus potentially contribute to overwhelming the health care system, consigning elderly or previously sick individuals who get COVID-19 to death.

But many, many individuals and institutions—businesses, houses of worship, schools, governments—have chosen dramatically to modify their normal routines, at great cost, precisely for the purpose of slowing the spread of the virus, preventing the health care system from being overwhelmed, and making sure doctors and hospital beds are available for elderly or previously individuals who get Covid-19 and need the care.

Many other necessary employees—the checkout clerks at Walmart and Trader Joe's, the gas station attendant, police officers and firefighters—are showing up for work, notwithstanding that by doing so they are exposing themselves to a greater risk of infection. Whether that amounts to "compassion" or simply professionalism is an interesting question, but it is less bleak than the Brooks headline would have it.

If there is a "division" that stands to be heightened by the novel coronavirus or by Covid-19 it seems less likely to me to be the class one and more likely to be a generational one. As 70-something-year-olds President Donald Trump, former vice president Joe Biden, and Sanders compete in a presidential campaign, young people are being asked to stay home and contract the economy in part so that their elders don't die. Cue the "OK, boomer" comments. So far, the youngsters are taking it with, all told, minimal grumbling and remarkable good cheer.

How long that is sustainable is an open question. But if history is any guide, the pandemic may reduce polarization rather than accentuate it. It may add to a sense of common purpose and compassion, rather than destroy it. At some point, we may all even be nostalgic together for the moment not so long ago when people were bitterly complaining about class divisions and income inequality rather than singlemindedly focused on fighting disease and death.

Ira Stoll is editor of and author of JFK, Conservative.

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  1. Those who took the largest losses are the people with the biggest retirement accounts.

    Well, the ones that didn’t move to cash or bear etfs when all of this started anyw.

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  3. In so doing, they acted in callous disregard for how their action might speed the spread of the virus and thus potentially contribute to overwhelming the health care system, consigning elderly or previously sick individuals who get COVID-19 to death.

    The 2017-2018 Flu infection an estimated 45 million Americans and killed 79,000.

    It is incredibly selfish and a callous disregard for the Constitutional right to peaceful assembly for old politicians to demand Americans close their businesses and/or stay off the streets.

    Not all Boomers are shitty but as a Generation, they are scared shitless that this virus would have sent them to an “early” grave.

    1. Amen.

    2. They are the selfish generation for a reason.

    3. >>callous disregard for the Constitutional right to peaceful assembly


    4. I’m so over this!! Hashtag go out!!

  4. Same David Brooks who was beating the drum for war with Saddam and schmoozing Bush. Probably not right about much.

    1. Lefties are hoping this hysteria will get rid of Trump.

      It won’t.

      Lefties dont understand why the US economy was growing under Trump or why our economy will come roaring back once this hysteria is over.

        1. Nyt called it the trump virus. They called him racist for the china travel ban.

      1. More than get rid of Trump (and conservatives in general, forever). They are eager to justify a complete nationalization of the US economy and society. Read the NY Times editorial today.

        1. It’s always about concentrating government power into the hands of the top men on their side. Whichever side it is.

        2. Trump represents a Champion against Socialism that Americans can rally behind.

          Get rid of him and throw some American dissidents into the gulags and Socialism will be acceptable again in the USA.

  5. I’ve seen the argument that white-collar professionals who can work from home and will keep getting paid are advantaged over, say, bartenders or waiters who find themselves suddenly unemployed, or over small retail business-owners who are seeing customers disappear.

    The more government locks down social and economic activity, the more stark the relative advantages become. I’m one of the lucky ones who will comfortably work from home for as long as this lasts. The virus doesn’t worry me in the least.

    My biggest concern is how current government actions are severely impacting those living from paycheck to paycheck, who *have* to go to work to get by. They are going to be absolutely devastated. The #1 focus must be getting people back to work and earning again as soon as humanly possible.

  6. So far, the youngsters are taking it with, all told, minimal grumbling and remarkable good cheer.

    I agree with this. Yeah, there is kvetching about being inconvenienced, and you have to expect some of that. It is true. What I have found is that our millennials are profoundly concerned for our general health and well-being. They don’t want to see people suffer and die any more than you or I would. They get the fact this is a real ‘no bullshit’ national emergency.

    Are there a few ingrates? Yes. Do I wish they would STFU for a few weeks, get with the program, and wait until we have good data? Yes. Will they? Probably not, it is a free country. Do I think the US will take an economic hit? Yes. Will it be severe? No, this will be a 2-ish quarter ‘hit’ in all likelihood.

    To those who say a version of ‘Ok Boomer’ I have this to say: Don’t be an ingrate. These are the same people from whose hands fed you, sustained you, changed your diapers, taught you life skills. Have compassion and understanding for the most vulnerable among us. You, and you generation, will be judged by your children and grandchildren by that measure.

    Just be patient, and this will be over soon.

    1. This is hysteria.

      The Flu kills far more Americans and infects more than this Coronavirus ever will. Getting sick from this virus and recovering is not then end of the World.

      This hysteria might be the end of the World.

      1. This is hysteria.

        Bullshit. Most are aware of flu mortality stats. Maybe the lesson there is to get your annual flu shot and wash your fucking hands….then maybe so many would not die.

        What is different here is we have no natural immunity to SARS-nCov-2, and notherapeutic treatment. Add to that the high transmissability, and it calls for decisive action until we really get a handle on it. To get a handle on it, we need a few weeks to generate data. By April, we will have a LOT more data.

        We can make it through for the next couple of weeks. Stop being a damned ingrate. Just chill and ride it out. It will not be that long.

        I don’t understand the endless criticism of POTUS Trump, though. I look at Italy, South Korea, France, Germany and they have done a terrible job protecting their people. The incidence of SARS-nCov-2 is significantly higher than the US. That is not an accident. POTUS Trump made some very astute calls early on. He continues to make astute calls. The process is about as transparent as you can get. The American people receive daily updates. POTUS Trump will not get every call right, but he has made a LOT more good calls than bad calls.

        1. Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University (JHU)

          I cited the Sick Map again. 185,067 confirmed cases as of 0925 March 17, 2020 (HAPPY ST PATTYS DAY).

          Most are NOT aware of the Influenza mortality stats which is why some people are freaking out right now. You’re freaking out. Calling me an ingrate does not help your position because it just makes you look like a hysterical ingrate.

          This does not mean that I did not advocate early restrictions on people traveling from Coronavirus hotspots because I did. It is also prudent to be prepared for lack of supplies or civil unrest. I do that for any uncommon event (hurricanes, snowpocalypse….).

          I will partying with friends and family today for St Patty’s Day. Enjoy the hysteria suckers!

          1. lá sona pat pat

          2. You do understand that the concern isn’t the overall mortality but the speed of transmission?

            Not the gross numbers, but the ability it has to quickly saturate a specific area with more cases than can be handled by the infrastructure.

            1. Its R0 is 2. The R0 of the flu is 1.3. They aren’t that far apart. For an example, measles is an R0 of 10. The transmission rate isnt as bad as people make it out to be.

              1. And yet, cases increase almost exponentially = The transmission rate isnt as bad as people make it out to be.

                1. The problem there is the transmission rate, plus the long survivability time for the virus on surfaces, plus the long incubation period before symptoms manifest. It’s very easy to transmit coronavirus to a lot of people over a long period of time before anyone in the area realizes they’re sick…if they realize at all.

            2. And the R0 of 2 is a high estimate since we dont know how many are truly infected.

              1. What bothers me about this aspect is the press.

                They are covering this like it is a political talking points contest. They are looking for nits to pick, baiting people into contradicting minor points… all so they can spin things.

                Meanwhile, nobody is bothering to read the numbers, listen to the experts and ask meaningful questions. Ones like your R0 question. And questions like “how do the very low numbers of cases and fatalities as compared to the flu match up with your reports that it is much more contagious than the flu and 10x as deadly as the flu?”

                I’m sure the experts have nice, detailed and technical answers for these questions. But instead of trying to get this stuff clarified, our reporters are demanding that health officials state that, scientifically speaking, Orange Man Bad.

                There are a lot of numbers that don’t pass a layman’s “sanity check”. They all seem to be pointing in the direction of much more virus circulating in the community than is being reported in the case number. But we don’t know that, because nobody has asked the questions and reported the answers.

                It is as if spending the last 2 decades as a propaganda arm of the establishment DNC instead of being reporters had atrophied their skills.

                1. I thought Trump being reelected would set the Lefties off. Lefties trying to coup him again over the Wuhanvirus and that still not working is definitely going to set them on a violent tirade.

                2. As someone who works in statistics constantly as part of my job, I am so not worried about this at all just based on comparison data. The freakout has been way more harmful than reality.

                  1. Ok, now we can relate Jesse. As a stats guy, I think you know that your conclusions (or modeling) is only as good as the data you have or put in. Do we have that data set yet? No, we do not. And I think you’d agree with that. As a sidenote, we will have that data set in about two weeks, with millions of observations.

                    Until we get a much bigger (and better) data set (e.g. millions of observations), would you agree we should err on the side of caution?

                  2. Stats and modeling are useful tools. However as we all know GIGO. Mother Nature including human behavior here are uncertain.

                    It is not science to understand that human kindness, civility, taking responsibility for ourselves and those we care for and interact with is the best shield we have right now.

                    Reporting from the North Coast. Many business and all restaurants, schools shut down now. I am trying to set up a portal with an institution I have worked with online for years. My wife is right now doing the same with her company.

                    Meanwhile people need to cope. Share resources and information.

                    “In every emergency first take your own pulse”

                    Samuel Shem

            3. I get that. Italy is an example of that.

              I still dont care. I personally don’t mind getting Coronavirus so my body can have a partial immunity to this if it cycles back in the future. This would also allow me to be sick for 1-2 weeks like a bad case of the Flu and then take care of any family who get sick after me.

              We dont lock down during a normal Flu season and the virus spreads throughout the entire season year after year.

              1. Most reports are the mild cases (well over 80% of infected) are 10 hours of mild fever and a dry cough.

            4. Not the gross numbers, but the ability it has to quickly saturate a specific area with more cases than can be handled by the infrastructure.

              This is the case for socialized medicine. Not that everyone needs the treatment to get better or that the treatment actually makes them better faster, but that for some people, access to treatment makes them *feel* better even if they still succumb to a disease that was already killing them.

              1. I *feel* better knowing that my taxes are lower and I have access to great medical care if I need it and want to pay for it.

                God Bless America!

          3. You’re right….Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! I’ll be making corned beef, cabbage, and probably make a special trip for some Guinness.

            Now…Stop being an ingrate. 😛

        2. What is different from your rant than me ranting about not allowing cars to go over 25 mph. Lives matter right? People die. Love with it you’re no better than the fat left Bloomberg type authoritarian telling people what to do.

          1. +10000000

          2. What is different from your rant than me ranting about not allowing cars to go over 25 mph.


            A *conservative* estimate puts the worldwide vehicular *death* toll at well over 100K people since COVID-19 was first reported.

          3. “…What is different from your rant than me ranting about not allowing cars to go over 25 mph…”

            We can also prevent most all crime by locking up the entire population!
            The frantic-manics don’t seem to understand that poverty kills people; keeping some from a virus infection might kill many more as a result; have you seen ANY analysis of that?
            For that matter, have you seen any coverage of the disease itself as opposed to ‘OUR RESPONSE!!!!’?
            We stand a good chance of screwing the economy over what *might* happen.

        3. Spoken like someone who can afford to stay home for weeks. I happen to be similarly situated, but a lot of people aren’t.

          Older people should social distance. But younger people social distancing doesn’t actually solve anything – let them get minimally sick and then immune so community spread drops. Young people aren’t going to overwhelm the system. Everyone social distancing will put older people at more cumulative risk because of the longer duration.

          Not particularly a fan of Boris Johnson, but I think the UK’s initial herd immunity plan was the best response.

    2. The way to manage this is not to lock down the country. High risk groups should, but not the general populace. The freak out has caused shortages of supplies that actually would help at risk people.

      1. Maybe this is a government planned test to see how people will behave in a biological attack.

        We failed.

      2. I’m on board with many of you who don’t believe this thing is as serious as it’s being made out to be. But let me play Devil’s advocate for a moment.

        Let’s say we went full retard with the whole “sequester the old, let the young get it, and get this shit over with.” For the sake of argument, let’s say the “safe” demographics—the young, the healthy, nonsmokers, etc.—numbers around 200 million. If even a tiny, fractional percentage of these people do get sick, and the best info we have says that there will be some who do, then would that not “overwhelm the system”? Because any non-zero percentage of 200 million is going to be a pretty big number.

        1. There’s a difference between ‘sick’, ‘need some medical attention’, and ‘need emergency care’.

          We don’t have the numbers we need (it would require full population testing, so we know how big the ‘got the virus and didn’t get sick enough to seek medical attention’ fraction is). Since severity is pyramid shaped (few highly severe, lots of mild cases), any estimate of death rate is a gross overestimate, because the vast majority of infected people were never diagnosed. (That also applies to estimates of any risk of a given severity – all of these are overestimates).

          Despite that, the estimated fatality rate out of Wuhan for under-15 year olds is *zero*, with severe infections being incredibly rare in that age group. (Stat News dot com for 3/16 ‘lower coronavirus death rate estimates’). The researchers conflate 16-44 year olds together, but as there’s probably differences between 20-somethings and 40-somethings, that’s not a particularly useful number. However, the same research estimates that only ~14% of overall cases even resulted in symptoms (and thus testing), which would mean 86% of people who got it never got sick enough to seek medical help. (And those numbers are likely age-skewed as well – with more older people who got it needing to seek medical help). It’s worth pointing out those rates are also for a medical system which was ‘overwhelmed’ with cases.

          Research has also broken up diagnosed cases from China by severity. (See Buzzfeed’s 3/13 “coronavirus-death-rates-age-charts-us-china”). Only 4.7% of all diagnosed cases are critical, and 13.8% are severe, averaging across all age groups. None of the mild or severe cases were fatal, and only ~half of the critical cases were fatal. This research broke down fatality rate by age in 10-year brackets: 0-9 (0%), 10-19 (0.2%), 20-29 (0.2%), 30-39 (0.2%), 40-49 (0.4%), 50-59 (1.3%), 60-69 (3.6%), 70-79 (8%), 80+ (14.8%).

          So, it’s pretty obvious that age is a powerfully correlated variable, and that’s probably causal or covariable with something that is causal (ie, it’s a good proxy). The link between fatality and severity means it isn’t just fatalities that are age-biased, but overall severity is age-biased. An estimated 86% of people infected never developed symptoms, which is going to be age biased to favor younger people. (ie, the percentage of young people who are infected and never develop symptoms is going to be higher than that). Let’s make a conservative estimate at 90% for 39 and under (it’s probably higher, but it’s also napkin-math friendly)

          10-39 year olds share a 0.2% fatality rate in confirmed cases. But that’s 0.2% out of only 10% of the infected population (the 10% who got symptoms and sought medical help). That makes it a 0.02% fatality rate for that age group. Since fatalities are half of critical cases, that’s a 0.04% critical rate, and if we assume the 4.7:13.8% critical:severe ratio holds across age groups, a 0.12% severe case rate (requiring medical resources beyond testing).

          US population has:
          ~40 million people under 9 (coronavirus implications: virtually no severe cases, no fatalities)
          ~42 million people 10-19
          ~45.5 million people 20-29
          ~44 million people 30-39.

          Of that 171.5 million people (~half US population), if literally all of them were infected with coronavirus, the expected outcome would be 26,000 deaths, 52,000 critical cases (including deaths), and ~147,000 severe cases. Now, that’s not nothing, but for comparison, CDC estimates flu kills 12-61k people per year and hospitalizes 140-810k people per year, so clearly we have the capacity for those sorts of numbers (even assuming all severe cases require hospitalization). And of course they aren’t *all* going to get infected, and certainly not at once. That’s also getting close to enough people to provide solid herd immunity. (The risk profile for 40-49 year olds also isn’t that bad, and there’s going to be some unavoidable transmission to older populations anyway, even in the status quo).

          Meanwhile, while we’re busy talking about the rate at which we hit peak infections, what’s ignored is the *area under the curve* (that is, total deaths). Herd immunity will likely reduce the total area under the curve, because it will do more to stop spread to vulnerable populations than social distancing will. The longer you draw out the path to herd immunity, the more vulnerable people will get infected.

          Social distancing is good for vulnerable people, but social distancing by healthy young people will ultimately put those vulnerable people at more risk.

          Every death is of course a tragedy. But there are going to be deaths regardless. The key question is what policy creates the fewest deaths in the long run. Taking advantage of differential risk profiles to build herd immunity at low cost would have huge social and economic advantages.

          And deaths from the disease are not the only casualties here. Depression, economic anxiety, and other consequences of social distancing are going to have costs measured in bodies too. Nothing is free.

        2. No meaningful argument can be made without numbers. The general view right now seems to be that ultimately 80% of the population will be infected. Say 240 million cases in the USA. WHO is currently giving a 3.4% mortality rate, ranging from minuscule for 20-30 year-olds up to about 14% for over-80s. That’s a maximum, as the number of asymptomatic cases is unknown and some countries (looking at you, Covfefe-45) are barely even testing. Let’s say 1%, giving us a final death-toll for the USA of 2.4 million.

          Now, that’s the crudest possible estimate, but at least with a number we can make a comparison with, say, deaths due to car accidents (40,000 p.a. for the USA), seasonal flu and so on. Or dispute the estimate. The point is that arguments about the economic and human cost of a lock-down contain no objective element without some basis for calculation. If you go on ideology, you don’t even need to log in to know who is going to advocate what. If you go on numbers, you can actually evaluate solutions.

  7. “elderly or previously individuals” seems to be missing an “ill” or “impaired”. Plenty that fits those terms here in the comments if you need to borrow one.

    1. Actually, there are a lot of people around here who may have been “previously individuals”, but are now self righteous, virtue signaling doosh bags who know what’s best for the collective.

  8. One can, like Brooks, focus on, and magnify, the “class divisions.”

    Yes one certainly can. Especially if one, like Bernie Sanders and his ilk, see this coronavirus thing as a perfect opportunity to implement their wet-dream fantasies of a perfect Marxist society. There is absolutely nothing about our society, capitalism, democracy, liberty, individualism or Western Civilization itself that isn’t implicated by this pandemic. It must all be burnt to the ground so that Utopia may be built upon its ashes, and it can be and it will be so long as we can whip up enough panic and mass hysteria to create a mob Robespierre would envy.

    1. Not that I have any reason to believe that David Brooks is a Marxist, but whatever sort of demon-spawn Bernie Sanders might be, as long as he’s fighting The Great Satan Donald Trump, David Brooks is going to be proud to wave his banner. If it takes burning it all down, nuking it from orbit and turning this country over to the most foul denizens of the Dark Regions, Brooks fervently believes it’s all worth it if it rids us of Trump.

      1. Lefties should be called out for what they are doing.

        They are cheering the utter destruction of America, just to get back in power of the ashes.

      2. Don’t forget that for those of us living in the obscure and little-visited backwater known as “the rest of the world”, this would sill have been worth it even had Trump never been born. President Covfefe-45, the American Virus, just makes the case watertight and the event worthy of stockpiling popcorn.

  9. So we have two nearly 80 year old candidates who have been running around shaking hands with thousands of people over the last 2 weeks as the virus spread around the country.

    If they ain’t got it, maybe it ain’t as easy to catch as they say. Based on our reaction, these two geezers should have melted like the Nazi in Indiana Jones by now.

    1. +10000

      Trump tested negative for Coronavirus. Imagine how many people interact with the President on a daily basis. Also people who interact with people who interact with White House staff. Degrees matter.

      Trump went to Switzerland in January 2020 and India in February 2020.

      1. Trump’s a little bit odd because he’s probably more of a practitioner of personal hygiene than most Presidents. He’s admitted he’s a germaphobe and before he ran for President he didn’t shake hands and doesn’t like touching other people, so he probably uses sanitizer a lot and does the other key stuff (like not touching his face, which is a major vector for introducing the disease).

        That’s why the fake Russian dossier was so ridiculous…he’s the probably the last guy you’re going to see taking part in golden showers.

  10. I think we’re seeing an increasing division between blowhards and asswipes.

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  12. Among the few things I have learned about human relationships is that we (those that can sometimes temper our emotions with reason) often have to choose between being right and being happy.

    Most people do not like objective truth and logic, since it contradicts their intuition and illogical but sincere beliefs. If we challenge them with the right answer, at best they will get unhappy. And quite often, they will get angry and combative.

    I count compulsive compassion as another dimension where people do not want to be challenged. Many (most?) people have autonomic empathy unconstrained by reason. Political gain aside, they want to Do Something Now, even if they have no idea what to do, and if what they decide to do actually causes harm.

    But again, we live with these beings and have to decide: do we want to be happy or right?

  13. Erin go Bragh. Keep those parties under 49 or everyone dies.

    1. +10000

  14. Several local mailing lists I’m on have had people posting offers of help for those who need it – shopping for the elderly and immunocompromised, chores for medical folks and first responders who are working overtime, and the like. I don’t think compassion is being reduced the way Brooks is claiming it is. People who are panic-buying, hoarding, or price-gouging aren’t doing it because their compassion is reduced. The panic-buyers and hoarders aren’t thinking about others any less than they usually do, and the price-gougers are the sort who look at anyone else’s dire need as an opportunity – and in attempting to make a buck off that, they’re actually making things available in a way that the panic-buyers and hoarders aren’t.

    1. Covid-19 will come and go, as have all previous epidemics. Hopefully it won’t turn out as bad as they say because everyone will heed advice to social distance, wash hands, etc. What I worry about are the statists who will cease upon this as an opportunity to permanently restrict our liberty in the name of public health when the health threat may not even exist. For now though, I am glad I can still get take out and beer and we are not waiting for rations of government bread YET

  15. “Pandemics Kill Compassion, Too,” is the headline over a David Brooks column in the New York Times predicting that the coronavirus is about to “inflame class divisions.”

    Meh. Progressives don’t believe in compassion, they’re all about Top Men making grand plans to manage society. If the government isn’t busy forcing people to do things they don’t want to do, it’s just not on his radar. In the immortal words of Crash Davis, “Having a conversation with a progressive is like a Martian talking to a Fungo.”

  16. I find it remarkable that an article premised on “pandemics don’t kill compassion, they bring it out” completely fails to show any compassion for the people least able to protect themselves.

  17. As someone who works at Walmart, I have to say the opposite is much closer to reality. It’s really amazing how fragile civilization is.

    So much ugliness in shoppers. Imagine if we were facing an actual crisis that affected the supply chain? (And this might not be an imagining if the overreaction to this continues). Instead of grabbing and pushing and yelling over scare goods, we’ll see serious violence

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