Credit: Getty Images/loops7

The suspension of disbelief is a powerful human behavior.

The concept dates at least to Aristotle, who saw it working its magic in the theatergoing experience. When faced with the surreal or the unreal, according to Aristotle and others who followed him, humans stop thinking critically and simply accept the otherworldliness to enjoy the experience.

Nowadays, we suspend disbelief when watching "The Matrix," "The Mandalorian" or a Marvel movie. We often engage in a similar exercise when rooting for our favorite sports underdog and we stop thinking critically to enjoy the fiction that our team has a chance to win the game. There seldom are any real consequences for these kinds of suspension of disbelief; the letdown you feel when the movie stinks or your team loses is not all that consequential.

That’s not the case when the suspension of disbelief crosses the thin line that separates it from delusion, as is happening with many of us with COVID-19.

The virus is certainly surreal. Invisible and silent, restive and relentless, it infects and kills. Combating it requires critical thinking — about masks, about distancing, about the size of our groups, about being indoors or out. Yet many of us have stopped thinking critically about this surrealness and simply accepted it in order to enjoy the life we’ve been leading, even as the virus spreads around us.

What are we doing?

Remember the two Boeing 737 MAX passenger planes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that crashed five months apart in 2018 and 2019? They killed a total of 346 people, because of a malfunction in the flight control system, and within days of the second crash all 387 Boeing 737 MAX planes worldwide had been grounded.

In the United States alone, we’re now losing the equivalent of 16 to 18 plane loads of people to COVID-19 every day and by not masking up it’s like we’re still getting on the darned planes.

We know better.

California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom knows better and he still went to a maskless indoor birthday party with more than 10 people at the exclusive French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley. Steve Adler, the Democratic mayor of Austin, Texas, knows better but he flew to Mexico for his daughter’s wedding even as he was advising Texans not to travel to avoid getting or spreading the virus.

Republican Secretary of State Mike Pompeo knows better but he’s inviting 900 people to one of several indoor holiday parties he’s hosting even after the department sent a notice to employees advising them to change "any non-mission critical events" from in-person gatherings to virtual ones.

Republican President Donald Trump and White House officials know better but they’re planning to hold a string of indoors in-person holiday parties over the next three weeks, the first taking place last week, masks apparently optional.

We all know by now that the chances of getting the virus skyrocket when we engage in these behaviors, and we all know there are growing numbers of people in our communities, including on Long Island, who have the virus, and we all know that this clearly is a surreal situation, and still someone plans a party for hundreds of people in a mansion in Brookhaven, and hundreds of people protest the closing of a Staten Island bar that violated COVID-19 measures, and some maskless parents still stand in lines among other parents to pick up children after school.

We all should know by now that we can’t get away with acting this way, and that suspending our disbelief about the consequences by failing to wear a mask and keep our distance is like continuing to board that plane.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.


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