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, through 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.
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March 30: I saw a Facebook post today that said “79,884 have recovered from the virus . . . try sharing that instead of the death toll.” By that rationale I suppose we should all be happy we aren’t already dead and stop our complaining about things. “Three hundred and thirty million people didn’t die in an industrial accident or from pianos dropping on them from great heights today, bunky, so zip it.”
I guess that sort of misdirection is a defensible play given that our own president is employing the tactic. Today, for example, a reporter asked why we’re so far behind South Korea in testing for COVID-19. He’s been dodging that line of inquiry for a couple of days now, unable to give a satisfactory answer to the question of why, given that the first coronavirus cases appeared in South Korea and the United States on the same day, South Korea’s infection and death rates are so much lower than ours. Instead of answering he lectured the reporter and then condescendingly asked if she even knew the population of Seoul. He then belittled her, and stated with confidence that it’s 38 million.
Except it’s not 38 million. It’s 9.7 million. Where did Trump get such a specifically wrong idea of what Seoul’s population is? From Wikipedia, it seems, where he or some aide misread the elevation as population, thinking that the “m” was for “million” instead of meters:
Did I say misdirection? I’m sorry, I meant stupidity. A stupid, bullheaded refusal to face up to facts, especially bad facts, that will continue to get people killed who would otherwise live if we were not led by a person so awfully and defiantly out of his depth.
I made another grocery store run today, in part for my parents. The usual dynamic applied: they requested a few items with a host of humble, “only if you can, please do not go to any trouble,” sorts of disclaimers. I found most of the things, but not all of the things, and did my best to find suitable substitutes when possible. I knew that one item — a can of Lysol disinfectant — would not be on the shelves but I had a can here almost completely unused, that my ex-wife had given us a couple of weeks ago, so I took it with me to leave with my parents.
When I dropped the items my mother and I talked through the door, mostly about how she would not, under any circumstances, accept my can of Lysol. They still had some left in their can, she said, and she would not dream of depriving us of ours. I attempted to fight, but my mother is the sort of person who, if she were run over by a herd of stampeding bison, would insist that you to not help her up because it’d be a shame if you got your shoes muddy in the process of picking her broken body up from the prairie. And it wouldn’t be that passive-aggressive thing some parents do in which they’re trying to guilt trip you. It’s a straightforward hardwired aversion to anyone going out of their way for her.
“I’ll be just fine,” she’d say. “Please, don’t go to any trouble. It was my fault for being in Montana during migration season. I knew that bison look for the lower ground just before winter, and here I was standing in a valley, like an idiot. Don’t give me a second thought.”
I took the Lysol home with me.
This whole process of negotiating the acquisition of scarce supplies, delivering them to those taking shelter, and selflessly negotiating their allocation has made me feel a bit like a character in an extraordinarily poorly-written war novel. Instead of the scrambling through bombed-out buildings and experiencing the serendipitous discovery of a crust of bread — and “oh, what fortune! a single pear!” — it’s all about getting out of my pajama pants and into some jeans and foraging for toilet paper and disinfectant. I suppose those are pretty essential things, but when there is no limit to how many boxes of P.F. Chang’s chicken dumplings, frozen pizzas, bags of chips, and jars of salsa there are, it’s hard to fully assume the noble, sacrificing war mentality required for the role.
What about that war mentality?
We’ve spent the past 40 years declaring war on anything and everything as a nation. In addition to literal wars, the United States has declared a war on crime, a war on drugs, and has declared war on whatever disease is scaring the white middle class at any given moment more times than I can count. I’ve often chafe at such invocations because the war metaphor usually means some pretty poorly-though-out policies are on the way, with their lack of nuance and effectiveness excused because, hey, this is war. When leaders declare a war on something it’s almost always a political message. America wins wars, and politicians want people to think they are like generals and that they’re winners. Only passive, pencil-neck types spend their time constructing and implementing cogent policy proposals.
This, however, is a situation far more akin to war in certain aspects than any of those other things on which we have declared war. It has required and will continue to require a massive mobilization of society in order to address it. A mobilization that real wars — at least big ones that have been worth fighting — require and which phony, political “War on ___” campaigns do not.
The casualty rate is certainly going to be that of a war. This morning I read that health officials are bracing the public to prepare for 200,000 deaths in this country. The president, who at first called this all a “hoax” that would “go away on its own,” and then compared it to the H1N1 flu outbreak which killed around 12,500 people, has moved the goal posts now, claiming that 200,000 deaths would represent a triumphant victory on his part. That is almost double the deaths America saw in World War I. It’s about 50,000 more deaths than we endured in Vietnam, Korea, the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Mexican American War combined.
I don’t know if that will put us on a war-footing, mentality-wise, but it is certainly a fallout akin to an actual shooting war in terms of body count. The psychological fallout will likewise be immense. The impact it has on medical services and medical providers is already considerable and that impact will last long after the outbreak subsides.
We are likewise starting to get economic projections that are absolutely startling in terms of the unemployment numbers occasioned by all of this. A new estimate from economists at the St. Louis Fed project total COVID-19 Crisis employment reductions at 47 million people. That would translate into a 32.1% unemployment rate. During the height of the Great Depression, that number was around 25%. Granted, the current unemployment crisis should bounce back considerably once shutdown orders are lifted in May and June, but it’s still a massive economic dislocation. And it will not bounce back all the way or anything close to it, I don’t suspect. A lot of businesses won’t survive this and they will not be hiring people back. A lot of businesses who do survive it will have learned to deal with fewer workers and will choose to continue on with lower payrolls.
These numbers are terrifying, but we must remember that we have, in the past, gone through this sort of thing as a nation and we have made it through precisely because we mobilized in a manner commensurate to the threat, either during the wars or afterward, as a means of ameliorating the fallout.
During the Depression, FDR and his administration implemented programs, public work projects, and financial reforms to provide relief and recovery. After World War II we provided veterans with low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans to start a businesses, extended unemployment compensation, and tuition and living expenses to attend college, or vocational school. We didn’t do these things simply in the interest of symbolism or even simple gratitude. We did them because a great crisis had occurred which led to massive amounts of suffering and dislocation which threatened to destabilize the country. We could not allow the Depression to linger, unaddressed. We had already tried to ignore millions of returning soldiers with no means of support once and it ended disastrously, and we could not do it again.
Just as it seems silly to me to think of my offering my mother a can of Lysol as a dramatic episode in some war drama, it probably seems silly to many to think of a nationwide quarantine that has us all inside watching Netflix and playing video games as a nation at war. But in very real terms, it is, at least in some very important ways. Our response to it needs to match its threat. Both its immediate threat, in terms of the medical and humanitarian crisis the active phase of the pandemic is visiting upon us, and in terms of its long-term threats to our nationals medical, psychological and economic well-being.
In the meantime, we can do what we’ve always done in war time and be grateful for the sacrifices others have made for us and the blessings that have been visited upon us.
Those sacrifices have not come from soldiers this time around, but from doctors, nurses, medical assistants and medical intake and administrative employees.
They have come from restaurant workers, grocery store workers, and cleaning, sanitation, and public service workers.
They have come from people working in textile mills making masks and gowns and people in factories making ventilators.
They have come from teachers, doing the best they can to work remotely and parents who have attempted to fill in the educational gaps.
They have come from the arts, too. Where would we be without TV shows, movies, books, magazines, websites and music right now?
How little have we, as a society, regarded and how little have we compensated almost all of these people for so long, only to realize just how important they are to our physical and psychological survival now?
We must endure all of this at the moment. But we must not forget those who have made this moment endurable. When the moment has passed, we must do everything we can as a nation to put things all back together again. But we must do so without forgetting that some of the pieces we neglected before are far more structurally significant than we ever realized.