When the history of covid-19 is written, March 16 will be a turning point. After weeks of struggle to find his footing in the crisis, President Trump finally acknowledged a force greater than his own agenda. The virus is bigger than Trump and bigger than his critics. It demands profound changes to American daily life — irrespective of who might win or lose in political terms. The global disruption will be severe and long-lasting. Trump finally buried the dangerous and divisive notion that this worldwide public health emergency is exaggerated, ginned up by his enemies to damage his achievements.

The most important thing Trump said was also the most personal.

I’ve spoken actually with my son,” the president said, referring to 13-year-old Barron Trump. “He says, ‘How bad is this?’ ”

Across the country, and maybe around the world, parents perked up when we heard this. Part of the pain the past few weeks has been the struggle to answer that question for ourselves so that we could answer the question convincingly for our children. Their lives are being upended: no school, no clubs, no sports. They may be losing their jobs, their hobbies, their access to healthy meals, their counseling, their coaching, their pursuit of long-sought goals. How bad is this? Of course they are asking.

I’ve been critical of Trump’s fumbling, solipsistic approach to the pandemic, but in this case, I thought his answer was perfect: “It’s bad,” he told his son. Just like that, no sugarcoating. It’s easier to lie to our enemies than to our loved ones. “It’s bad,” he repeated, “but we’re going to be hopefully, a best case, not a worst case, and that’s what we’re working for.”

Covid-19, a respiratory disease that can be a death sentence, is indeed bad. With the pandemic raging in Europe, the Middle East and the United States, there are now more cases outside China than inside. Studies project that the eventual death toll will run into the hundreds of thousands in the United States — if not higher. Britain abruptly adopted a new policy after a gold-standard review by London’s Imperial College projected a quarter of a million excess deaths if the existing policy was pursued.

By first admitting that this is bad, we’re freed to consider best-case and worst-case responses as a nation rather than as factions. The sorting hasn’t been easy, but for the first time in what seems like ages, Americans of resolve and goodwill are aligned against the unreasoning threat of disease and those who would exploit the outbreak for personal gains. Governors of red states and governors of blue states are sharing data and best practices. Liberals in New York are admonishing the lefty Mayor Bill de Blasio to join the fight in a serious way, while conservatives in Oklahoma are sending the same message to right-wing Gov. Kevin Stitt.

We are — dare I say it? — on the same page. People of all stripes have come to see that a handful of covid-19 cases in Europe and the United States have turned into tens of thousands of cases in just a few weeks. And we’re all doing the math, some more expertly than others, but all smart enough to realize what the curve will look like if we do nothing to flatten it. We’re ready to take the pain, if only because there are no alternatives. We hope we are ready. We want to measure up.

This challenge hits us in some of our most treasured, vulnerable places. Our freedom to do as we please and go as we wish. Our dauntless consumer confidence. Worst of all, perhaps, our conviction that we are cloaked in the armor of dumb good luck. So many of us guessed that this pandemic was overblown, and why not? Waves of bad news almost always break and dissipate far from modern shores. Worst-case scenarios are filed away under “hype,” while best cases were assumed to be our birthright.

Not anymore. To achieve the best case in this genuine crisis, we are going to have to make it happen. And that will demand sustained, cheerful effort — for months, not weeks. Repairing the damage to lives and livelihoods will probably take years. We will need to cooperate with people unlike ourselves. We’ll be called on for patience, for understanding, for courage, for compassion.

Pulling together must be the priority for people of goodwill. We can leave for a time the political clashes and culture wars and other things that divide us. Our children want to know how bad this will get. The most reassuring answer we can give them is the unity and charity of our actions.

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