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Coronavirus is a test that no one knows how to pass

A man walks past the closed Air France counter at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Thursday. (Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images)

Now we’re all under the microscope. An invisible virus will make visible our true strengths and weaknesses. It will expose the faults in our systems, the sincerity of our relationships, the ways in which we work together or don’t. The week started out with cute quips about chapped hands and voyages of the damned. It ends with few certainties except these: There will be more sickness and death. The farther we remove ourselves from each other, the more we will need each other. Our way of living will be upended, and for how long?

It’s too early to tell. This could be very bad, or not as bad as we think. Either way, life has begun to rearrange itself in both time and space. Each of us now has a radius of concern that measures six feet — the distance sneeze droplets can travel. Some of us shouldn’t be in crowds greater than 250 (if you’re in Washington state) or 500 (if you’re in New York City) or 1,000 (if you’re in Washington, D.C.). College semesters have been scotched. Parades will not run on St. Patrick’s Day. Office space is becoming just that. Employees are hauling out essential equipment as they say to co-workers, merrily and warily, “see you in April!” — as if this thing will be fixed by then.

“I’m having a hard time keeping track of what day it is.”

As the coronavirus continues to spread, phrases like “quarantine,” “isolation” and “social distancing” are making news. Here are the key differences of each. (Video: The Washington Post)

Chase Burns, 27, has been self-quarantined in his Seattle apartment since Monday of last week, when he popped a 103-degree fever. This week he began to feel better, walked to a bookstore to look for Albert Camus’s “The Plague” (for a book club), but scurried home when a coughing fit overtook him and people began to stare daggers. Burns doesn’t know whether he has coronavirus because, like many Americans, he wasn’t able to get a test. So each cough, every chill, could either be a symptom or a feint. Flu? Common cold? Allergies?

Or is it, in fact, coronavirus?

“You definitely feel like you’re not on the same page as everyone else,” says Burns, an editor, about the surreality of self-isolation and uncertain sickness. “I think everyone is experiencing this crisis at a different rhythm. It seems like since last Monday we’re in this weird vacuum. I think that’s going to go on for a while.”

Around lunchtime Tuesday, a masked couple queued for a cashier at the Whole Foods in Riverdale Park, Md. The cashier’s eyes darted to them. “I told them, I don’t do the masked people,” she said, “so I’m out the door.” The cashier abandoned the register at a race-walk, then sprinted through the produce section.

We have been told to stay away from each other, and the space between is being filled by suspicion. We are sneering at strangers for coughing, or apologizing to strangers for sneezing. “Social distancing” is the fashionable term, because “quarantine” is straight out of the scary movies that have prepared us, at least theatrically, for this moment. (In Netflix’s “Trending Now” category this week: “Outbreak,” the 1995 thriller.) We’ve been social distancing for centuries, sometimes by force. In the Middle Ages, we put lepers into asylums and strapped them with bells and wooden clappers so we could hear them approach. During the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, parades that weren’t canceled turbocharged the infection. In advance of the 1918 midterm elections Sen. Albert Bacon Fall (R-N.M.) suspended his campaign because two of his children were dead of the flu.

When social distancing hits Wendy Williams and ‘The View,’ things get weird

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders canceled campaign events and made their own virus-related remarks, presaging a change in society that’s already underway. “It’s going to mean making some radical changes in our behavior,” Biden said. The pandemic is going to be “profoundly disturbing to a lot of the ways that we live our lives,” Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) said.

On Wednesday night, President Trump addressed the nation from the Oval Office. Behind him were photos of his father, Fred Trump, whose own father died of the 1918 pandemic.

“We are all in this together,” the president said.

Then on Thursday he said: “We need a little separation.”

That’s the paradox. To mitigate, we must collaborate. To collaborate, we must separate. One nation, under quarantine, trying to “flatten the curve.” That’s another bit of terminology: Flattening the curve, like rationing in the ’40s, is the new wartime footing. If the X axis is time and the Y axis is the number of coronavirus cases, the bell curve of infection should be as rounded as possible, to allow the health-care system to cope and keep pace.

Flattening the curve requires social distancing, washing hands and a reconsideration of the ways your hands interact with your face. This week microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles spread an animated graphic on Twitter that shows the flattening of the curve and the mantra “Don’t panic but be careful.”

“The movies and the books and all of these shows we watch — when they’re of an apocalypse scenario, the first thing you do is load your guns and hoard your resources,” said Wiles, an associate professor at the University of Auckland. “But research shows communities who survive bad experiences are the ones who put their guns down and work together. I’m trying to push that message here: This is not going to be ‘Mad Max.’ . . . We can self-isolate physically, but that doesn’t mean that we have to mentally isolate ourselves.”

Nevertheless, there’s been panic. There’s been a run on hand sanitizer, on toilet paper, on masks. The stock market is having a fit. Sports associations have suspended seasons and canceled tournaments. Jets are flying without passengers. Mass layoffs have begun. The National Guard is in New Rochelle, N.Y. Hospitals are not ready. Schools are not ready. The economy is not ready. Poor people and old people are not ready. Parents are not ready for their liberated schoolchildren, and schoolchildren are not ready for their work-from-home parents.

There are horror stories from Italy and Iran: not enough ventilators, too many corpses.

Stateside? Perhaps the calm before the storm. On Thursday morning, at a Giant Food store in Hyattsville, a man in his mid-30s was buying six boxes of Entenmann’s doughnuts and a case of Pepsi.

A day before the Europe travel ban went into effect, passengers arriving at airports describe their anxiety and travel woes. (Video: The Washington Post)

“If I’m going down,” he said, “I’m going down happy.”

In a writing class at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, freshmen were in the “inconvenience phase” of the pandemic. The school is suspending “face-to-face instruction” starting March 23. A teenager’s world, already so virtual, will become even more so. Now seeing a friend from the dorm is going to take a 40-minute car ride instead of a four-step walk across the hall.

“It’s going to feel like work, like a job, rather than a community, or a task,” said Angelina Mico, 18, of finishing the semester online. “Doing it virtually encourages the bare minimum.”

Theater is a haven. But with the coronavirus, it’s become an incubator for our fears.

Let’s be honest: We’ve been growing apart for decades. High-speed Internet long ago helped us isolate physically even as we “connect” virtually. We are spread out and shut in. Many of us can stream anything, order anything, conjure a friendly face on our phone in an instant. Virtual communities are well-established, so the real winners of this pandemic may be the Redditors, the World of Warcrafters, the amateur porn-trepreneurs.

Could the virus actually cure some of our interpersonal ailments? Social disasters can build social capital, says Alexander Halavais, an associate professor in Arizona State University’s School of Social and Behavioral Sciences. People will share resources and propagate information in a viral manner, like the hand-washing meme that captions panels showing the 20-second sanitation process with the lyrics of your favorite pop song. Neighbors may start to behave more neighborly. Bike lanes will fill as bus ridership dwindles. People will cook at home, work at home, but they may reach out more. Maybe we’ll flatten the curve together. Maybe that will make us feel more connected.

“We think of the skills we need during a disaster as whatever’s on the prepper shows,” Halavais says, “but really it’s those kinds of things: being able to organize space and time, which people will find challenging but might last beyond the pandemic.”

The bad news accelerated Wednesday night into Thursday. President Trump declared a 30-day restriction on European travelers. In Australia, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced that they tested positive for coronavirus. The National Basketball Association and National Hockey League suspended their seasons. The state of Ohio closed its schools for three weeks. Broadway has gone dark through April 12. Thursday was the stock market’s worst day since 1987. Disneyland is closing for only the fourth time in its history.

Gathering places are a public-health risk. Say goodbye to conferences and concerts. Spring break and spring training: poof. We must do without from within. We will become more aware of space and less aware of time. It’s disorienting. Perhaps it can be reorienting, as Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky suggested on the Facebook page of his Los Angeles congregation, B’nai David-Judea.

“The very last thing we need right now is a mindset of mutual distancing,” the rabbi wrote. “We actually need to be thinking in the exact opposite way. Every hand that we don’t shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another must become a thought as to how we might help that other, should the need arise.”

He concluded by saying: “Let’s stay safe. And let’s draw one another closer in a way that we’ve never done before.”

Monica Hesse contributed to this report.