Each, in its own way, exposed the shaky scaffolding of our comfortable assumptions. No one and no thing are truly safe — not our economy, not our political leaders, not ourselves. The architecture of disaster response was inadequate to the terrible task at hand. The government failed the people it was supposed to serve.
Still, of all these tragedies, the covid-19 pandemic feels the most life-altering — in the short term, certainly, as we social-distance and shelter in place, but also in the world to come. Perhaps this is overstated, overwrought even. The numbers infected and dead might prove fewer than predicted; the duration of dislocation shorter; the cascading economic turmoil less severe. Let us hope so. Let us pray so.
And let us remember: Americans have a remarkable capacity for conveniently obliterating the unpleasant, and there is a positive aspect to this instinct. We forget and trudge on. That happened in the aftermath of the 1918 pandemic, and no doubt will happen again.
Nonetheless, there is no arguing with Yeats. We are changed — and not entirely for the worse. How much the virus has reminded us of the mundane pleasures we take for granted — walking down the well-stocked shelves of our local supermarkets, chatting idly with our co-workers; kissing a friend on the cheek when we meet for lunch. Oh, to hug again without having to calculate the inherent risk: My mother? My daughters?
When I venture out to walk the dog, there is a grim camaraderie with those we encounter. The dogs, heedless of contagion, sniff away, and while their humans maintain a sober distance, even strangers inquire after one another’s well-being. In the barren aisles of the market, at least the last time I risked a visit, there was an air more of solidarity than panic. Perhaps someday things will get uglier, and we will be scrabbling over the lone, scrawny cabbage left on the shelves, but for now it felt as though there was more eye contact among the strangers in the aisles, a slight shrug of the shoulder, as if to say, “This, too, shall pass.”
And as we adjust to our cramped new reality, how grateful we should be for the technological revolution that enables us to retain some semblance of connectedness, to Zoom and WebEx our way to a pallid version of normalcy. Just a few decades ago, maybe less, there was no way we could have produced a newspaper almost entirely from our homes; today, the work goes on, just clunkier and less fun. We FaceTime friends and stream endless content on demand. Next Sunday, assuming we can master the technology, members of my book group will gather remotely for the first time in 30-plus years.
But this is too terrible for too many. Those who are infected, and the health-care workers who courageously care for them. Those who do not enjoy the flexibility of being able to telecommute. Those without the financial reserves to get through this stretch. Those who lose jobs they need and businesses they built. Those who do not cannot indulge the luxury of feeling bored and frustrated, for whom the pandemic is far worse than a canceled college graduation. The rest of us should feel grateful, and dig deep to help. Our dislocations are trivial by comparison.
“Bottom line, it’s going to get worse,” the sage Anthony S. Fauci has advised, and that raises the scariest set of questions: How much worse? How deep the damage? How will we — the United States and the world — recover from this shock that should not have been a shock?
No one who has watched our politics and politicians in recent years can have much faith in their capacity to rise to this occasion, even leaving aside the evident inadequacy of our current president. But the governors — Republicans Larry Hogan of Maryland and Mike DeWine of Ohio, Democrats Andrew M. Cuomo of New York and Gavin Newsom of California — are filling the void, as the Constitution envisions.
More important are the people themselves — ourselves. We need to get off the damn beaches and out of the bars, and make sure our children comply, at the very least. But we can do more, and we have. In the midst of World War II, in the aftermath of 9/11, we pulled together, not apart; we sacrificed for the greater good.
“A terrible beauty is born,” Yeats wrote in his haunting refrain, about Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising. And that might be the most we can hope for out of this ordeal, some moments of beauty amid the terror, amid the utter change.