The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What truly ails us isn’t just a virus

A police officer wears an American flag mask as she helps a food bank in San Diego feed thousands of hungry people.
A police officer wears an American flag mask as she helps a food bank in San Diego feed thousands of hungry people. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
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It’s been just a month since the nation went into pandemic lockdown and exposed its inequities so starkly.

In a single day of reporting, I talked to an executive dad who has been loving telecommuting and the fact that he’s had dinner with his family every night for nearly four weeks — a first.

And I also talked to a homeless mom whose big step forward — a new job and an apartment — completely fell apart after the business that just hired her shut down and her kids are now home from school.

Yes, we have always had the haves and the have-nots, but never have we seen a single thing — a microscopic bug barely 100 nanometers wide — whiplash people’s lives so differently.

Not even President Trump has divided us more than the coronavirus.

The guilt over this can feel overwhelming at times. And I’m not the only one beset by it.

When I reached out to a local hardware store owner to talk about the home improvement boom while everyone is stuck at home, she was so careful about her wording and guilty over their continued success, delicate not to crow “when so many other local friends are out of business.”

Home improvement stores are hopping as every honey-do list gets done

I castigate myself every time I write in a humorous way about how middle- and upper-middle- class families are coping with school and work and social schedules turned upside down. It’s life. But not everyone’s life.

Before the arrival of the coronavirus, we talked about our nation’s growing opportunity gap, our education and digital inequities, our messed-up health-care and immigration systems, our persistent racial and gender discrimination, and the increasing power and wealth of the one-percenters.

But it was a low-key ache, a campaign theme easy to dismiss by a majority of people who are fed, employed, connected and entertained.

I made it a point to report on these inequities, the tent city in downtown D.C. next to new condos and an expensive camping store; the fancy dog parks where blue-collar housing once stood; the $14-drink bars and the disappearance of affordable housing.

But the pandemic is going to be bigger. It won’t be something easy to briskly walk past on the way to work — if anyone returns to an office in the coming months.

We needed this bug to scream it to us: “Yes! Yes! Yes! Your society is totally jacked up.”

I’m thinking back at a month’s worth of my coronavirus reporting, and I feel like I’m on a wild pendulum. One day it’s small-business people who are absolutely wiped out, the next day it’s the picayune annoyances of couples working side-by-side in their homes on laptops.

I talked to homeless people who are sleeping on the streets because the potential of infection at shelters scares them so much, to families (mine included) taking advantage of time at home to finish remodeling projects and start vegetable gardens.

There are kids whose schooling has come to a complete halt because they don’t have digital access to online learning and kids who are Zooming into the digital future of education.

Healthy families are bonding, returning to a simpler, more genuine way of life. Families in trouble are fighting depression, addiction, domestic violence and other catastrophes.

My name is Joe and I’m an alcoholic. Where is everyone?

And the very people who weren’t worth a $15-an-hour minimum wage, too many of our legislators believed, are now the essential workers keeping the nation fed and supplied, warm and cool, comfortable and entertained.

In less than a month, 17 million Americans have lost their jobs.

Didn’t believe that racism is ingrained in our social fabric?

My colleagues at The Washington Post analyzed data that showed counties that are majority-black have three times the rate of infections and almost six times the rate of deaths as counties where white residents are in the majority.

How can we joke about our video-game obsessions, disastrous home-school attempts, dishwasher battles and Netflix binges when the virus is killing people and destroying businesses and livelihoods?

The thing to do right now if you’re guilty? Stay safe, stay inside, keep paying the workers you usually pay — the cleaners, the babysitter, the landscapers.

The landscape when we all come out of our quarantine, blinking in the bright light of other people, will be unfamiliar and frightening. There will be big winners and devastated losers, and that is when we have to remember the guilt.

Because the most dangerous thing we can do, the most wicked, amoral response will be to return to normal.

I’m not talking about donating used books or serving at the soup kitchen to salve the guilt. I mean bigger actions to change the way our society treats our most vulnerable — from red state construction workers to blue state nurses.

It will be time to fix what truly ails us.

Twitter: @petulad

Read more Petula Dvorak:

Coronavirus may be pushing the homeless into the streets and out of shelters

“This can’t be the end”: How we can help save the small businesses

Coronavirus shrinks a homeless child’s world to 323 square feet

Will there be a coronavirus baby boom? Or a divorce tsunami?

Neighbors helping each other during coronavirus crisis is what makes America great