Like everyone else I am having trouble thinking about anything other than the coronavirus pandemic and the shockwaves it has sent, and will continue to send, though the system. As it began to unfold I found myself thinking, talking, and posting about it fairly constantly. In an effort to try to keep it confined to a given time and place, both physically and psychologically, I am keeping a diary of it all.
March 24: I got over eight hours of deep sleep last night but my dreams were filled with all sorts of special-order-for-me anxieties. In an uninterrupted vignette, I realized I was late for a flight. As I began to pack, I found a puppy in a carrier in my closet which no one had told me about and, while it was OK, it needed my help immediately. I sorted that and got to the airport where they somehow let me on the plane, but not before doing a medical exam in which they had to touch my eyes repeatedly.
Being late for things, having my eyes touched, and pets in peril are all top-tier everyday-life anxieties of mine, so kudos to you, brain.
Most of the closures we’ve experienced have been a function of peer and social pressure. The NBA closed so Major League Baseball followed suit. Schools closed, so work went remote. Relatively little of it was accomplished via direct government action. Most states have yet to issue actual shutdown orders. It’s mostly been recommendations and people doing what other people are doing.
The Great Reopening we seem hellbent on setting into motion will likely work that way too.
Neither Donald Trump nor the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board can demand that your private office go back to on-site working, but once they suggest the idea and put it into public circulation — as they have, with gusto, in the past 48 hours — the most craven business leaders out there will demand it and will do so. After they do others, realizing they’re at a competitive disadvantage and that there is no significant help coming from the government, will fall in line. Eventually continuing safe practices and social distancing will be so comparatively harmful to those who do it that even the conscientious ones will stop. They’ll give some masks to workers and they’ll hang some signs reminding people to wash their hands, but business will resume, as usual.
Of course, well before we get to that point, the piecemeal breaking of social distancing will have caused its collective health benefits to largely erode, rendering the efforts of businesses and employers who want to continue to isolate functionally pointless. This is a commons problem and we’re in the process of failing it. It’s only a matter of time before our failure is official.
It will become official as deaths and illnesses spike, but I suspect that spike will go relatively unnoticed and ignored on a macro scale. They will affect millions directly but, from a national perspective, they will be pushed below the fold. At most they’ll be individualized in feature stories about notable people and touching personal essays chronicling particular and personal losses, but the vast majority of suffering will happen off-screen and off-page. I’ve talked with people who are convinced that all of those deaths and hospitalizations will disrupt things terribly, but you’ll never go wrong betting on our country’s ability to muffle the screams of those on whom it is stomping. Or its ability to monetize, mythologize and minimize their suffering. Today the stock market went up 2,000 points because the president signaled that protecting the health of the country was dumb. There’s a lesson in there about this country.
Of course we’ll continue to playact empathy. There will be touching gestures and human interest stories. There will be paeans to the bravery of doctors and nurses. It will all be sewn into the fabric of a larger myth about how we as a nation, “beat” COVID-19. When the NFL opens its season in the fall the giant American flag will be held by doctors and nurses in their scrubs, with the National Anthem playing just after a moment of silence for our brave heroes who “fought and triumphed” over the coronavirus pandemic. The numbers — assuming they’re not fudged — will tell a different story. A story that is not read by many.
I wish that none of that were true, but I also wish I could bet millions on it happening almost exactly like that.
I further wish I could say that Donald Trump is wrong in the calculation he’s making in this regard, but in this case I think he’s displaying an unusual amount of savvy. He has his finger’s on the nation’s pulse with this one. He knows that, on balance, the country wants this. He knows that most Americans, though they’d never say it out loud, are content to sign the death warrants of the most sick, frail and vulnerable among us if it means not being asked to make any significant sacrifices past Easter. By the time this is over our country will have given up sports and some nights out for Lent, but after that most of us will celebrate the resurrection of the economy.
I took another walk this evening. As I mentioned the other day, I like to walk through cemeteries. A short stroll through the one closest to me sent some Spanish Flu vibes my way:
The living can lie. They can deceive others and themselves. But the dead tell the truth.
Allison and I decided that we wanted the kids to keep something of a normal schedule rather than revert to the up-all-night, sleep-all-day thing they do during summer vacation. We don’t expect them to wake up at 6AM like they would when school is in session, but we thought it reasonable that they wake up, generally, in the morning and go to sleep, generally at night. Midnight to 8, maybe. Nothing too onerous. Just in the name of structure.
Whenever we try to impose anything like that, we get pushback. Especially from Carlo, who reverses his schedule on a four-day weekend — staying up all night playing games and dicking around online with friends — not just in the summer. I was prepared for a big fight upon suggesting it.
But it didn’t happen. They both said OK, that’s fine, and pretty quickly agreed to it. This morning, when I checked on them at 8, they were both awake.
It might be one of the more startling things to have happened in all of this so far.