Ruben Navarrette: Americans have nothing to fear — from fear itself

Summary: As America takes baby steps toward reopening non-essential businesses — driven not by science but by the fact that we're tired of making sacrifices — there is a tug-of-war going on and fear is tugging at both ends.

Ruben Navarrette column
Ruben Navarrette commentary
Tribune graphic

SAN DIEGO — Lately, I've been thinking a lot about fear. I'm not alone. For Americans, 2020 is the unofficial Year of Fear.

We are not just afraid of contracting the coronavirus and passing it onto family members. We're also afraid of efforts by state and local governments to fight the virus, mistaking attempts to keep us healthy for a power grab intended to keep us under control. Some of us are afraid of those scary public rebellions by people who, while they've never lived without freedom, are suddenly convinced we're two steps from tyranny. Folks fear closing down businesses, draining life savings, or not being able to find jobs to replace the ones they lost. They shudder at the thought of one more Zoom call or homeschool lesson, any more time being quarantined with spouses and children, and whatever prolonged isolation does to one's mental health.

On a recent conference call with reporters, a representative of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union disclosed a new fear. Grocery workers are afraid that requesting that customers wear masks — which are, after all, intended to protect not ourselves but others — threatens their personal safety. Following a rash of violent incidents, grocery workers want hazard pay and security guards on site because — the union official said — they're "downright afraid" to ask people to wear a mask.

Many of us became acquainted with fear through parenthood. Just watching the news makes you want to package your kid in bubble wrap. As a father of two teenagers, and a 10-year-old going on 16, I'm counting on fear to keep them safe. It's a family tradition. Raised the son of a cop, it was fear of my old man that kept me away from alcohol and drugs. In the 1950s, fear kept my dad and his four brothers out of trouble because they were terrified of my grandfather, who did not believe in sparing the rod.

Now that I'm married, it's fear — of my wife — that helps make me a good and faithful husband. If more men and women had more fear, we'd have a better society full of longer marriages and stronger families.


As America takes baby steps toward reopening non-essential businesses — driven not by science but by the fact that we're tired of making sacrifices — there is a tug-of-war going on and fear is tugging at both ends.

At one end, fear is pulling us toward the idea of reopening the economy as completely and as quickly as possible because we're afraid of losing jobs, businesses and livelihoods.

At the other end, fear is driving the argument that we should go slow and delay much of the planned reopening until more counties and states demonstrate that infection rates are actually going down.

Which version of fear will win out is still unclear, although the reopen side of this tug-of-war is clearly gaining traction.

I'm on the end that is losing ground. I'm still afraid of getting COVID-19 since I fall into some of the at-risk categories, and experiencing the sensation of drowning while an elephant tap dances on my chest qualifies as my least favorite way to die. I'm also afraid of passing on the virus to my wife and children since we still don't know how it is spread, how long it remains on surfaces, how any of us will react if infected, or much of anything about it.

How did I get so afraid? Well, for starters, I was spooked by the biggest boogeyman in the country.

He is singing a different tune now to stay on the right side of the mob, but it was President Trump — our Demagogue in Chief — who first scared me. In early April, Trump called COVID-19 a "monster" and said this was "a war." He even talked about a friend from New York who got infected and landed in a coma. That friend, Stanley Chera, died a few weeks later.

It's great that so many Americans are done with COVID-19. But has anyone asked COVID-19 if it is done with us? Or if it's planning on making a comeback, if we get back to normal too quickly — or come to blows when someone asks us to wear a mask?


So yes, these days, fear is my constant companion. I'm good with that. In recent weeks, I've come to see the value of being just a little bit afraid of the unknowns that life has in store for us.

Ruben Navarrette can be reached at

What To Read Next
Get Local