Ever since experts began calling for social distancing to reduce transmission of the respiratory virus, people in the United States have demonstrated they were listening. Their actions have ranged from small acts of kindness, such as a young woman buying groceries for an elderly couple, to disruptive decisions that until recently would have seemed unthinkable, such as emptying sports stadiums and turning out the lights at universities. Costly, emotionally fraught choices have engendered remarkably little complaining or bitterness.
The response is all the more remarkable given the absence of credible leadership from President Trump. Though he declared a state of emergency Friday, he generally has taken the negligent approach that people shouldn’t worry; everything is “totally under control.” This is hardly an ideal situation for a nation in crisis. But it is heartening, three years into Mr. Trump’s presidency, to see that society is capable of navigating these rough seas based on collective common sense and despite this president’s lies, hatreds and distractions.
Or at least, beginning to navigate the crisis — because this is only the early start of the challenge. Continuing sacrifices will be called for. The virus transmits from person to person through aerosol droplets, broadcast in a cough or lingering on a surface, requiring us to keep a distance, avoid large crowds and wash our hands to reduce the chance of infection. China’s experience suggests that the pandemic will last longer than two weeks. Everyone will be frazzled, impatient and feeling cooped-up long before the all-clear signal. It will demand perseverance and civility.
This moment also summons us to volunteer as neighbors and citizens like never before. In normal times, the elderly are disproportionately the volunteers in our society. But the elderly are disproportionately at risk from the virus. For young people who are out of school, this offers an opportunity to pitch in, fill in and help the elderly stay safe. Offering to babysit the children of a health-care worker will be a service to society. This national emergency can be ameliorated — and confronted — if every capable person contributes.
A looming danger is that the covid-19 illness will swamp hospitals in the United States, as it has in Italy and China. There are about 924,000 U.S. hospital beds, about two-thirds of them occupied. The remaining beds may be insufficient if the pandemic strikes hard, not to mention possible shortages of ventilators and intensive-care units. Doctors may face agonizing choices about who gets treatment with scarce resources. Every infection that can be avoided now will help avert this later on. This may be the most significant challenge of the coming weeks: preventing the health-care system from being overloaded.
After a slow start, the nation is mobilizing impressively. We will all be called on to show patience, resilience and determination. There’s no way to know how long the test will last, but we have the capacity, as a nation and a society, to make it through.