The numbers and the pictures that go with them are shocking. The coronavirus pandemic changed everything and put life and everything else at risk.
America and most of the developed world has lived in a “holiday from history,” in which we are at relative peace and our countries are relatively stable. Since World War II, America has been engaged in the Cold War, the war on terrorism and a number of regional conflicts, and we have had the occasional economic recession, but nothing on the scale of worldwide warfare between major powers or an economic depression that put millions into breadlines has happened in decades.
Now, practically overnight, we have tens of thousands dead from an “invisible enemy,” many more infected and fighting for their lives, and 30 million filing for unemployment in a little over a month. We are cut off from each other and many are cut off from their next paycheck. To call the coronavirus pandemic and its effects “historic” is to grossly understate our situation.
It’s a shock to see food bank lines that stretch for miles. But that’s what we’re seeing now thanks to the coronavirus outbreak — even in Texas, which at the beginning of this year was the nation’s economic engine. New Jersey also has miles-long food lines — breadlines — trying to serve as many as possible. You have to go back to archival photos of the Great Depression to see anything like what we are seeing now, and it’s still abstract. Practically no one alive now lived through that calamity.
New York has it much worse still, and now there’s another outbreak in the wings: suicide. Queens has been hit hard by the virus, and is now seeing a suicide rates spike too.
According to figures released by Katz, between March 15 and Tuesday, 16 people died by suicide in Queens County, compared with just eight in the same time period last year.
By comparison, nearly as many people have died by suicide during the lockdown as in the first four months of 2019. Queens saw 17 suicides between Jan. 1 and April 17, 2019, the data shows.
Gov. Cuomo ordered the state locked down on March 20.
This speaks to the deep, fracturing stress people are feeling as a plague all its own. Which is to again understate the situation. Words and even pictures don’t quite capture what is happening and what people are thinking and feeling.
We went instantly from a frivolous time in which millions kept up with the Kardashians and argued about trivial things on social media because they had the leisure time to do it, to a very serious time indeed in which deep thinking and core leadership are needed. Now millions are locked at home, climbing walls they may soon lose because they aren’t earning. Some jobs, we have no idea how many yet, will never return.
And then there is the pandemic of information and misinformation, what some are calling the “infodemic.” Every single day you can find seemingly credible information suggesting that we should keep the economy shut down, and apparently equally credible information suggesting that we should have reopened by now. Media question Georgia reopening but mostly lionize New York for staying shut down. The information overload becomes a fog, and while this situation requires nimble thinking, we have trained ourselves and been trained to line up in one political camp or another and respond to new information accordingly. That’s not how science works, and the pandemic is above all a science story. (That doesn’t mean the scientists got everything right, by the way. They obviously didn’t, and that’s how science works. You start out wrong and keep going until you’re mostly right.) And it’s a political story and an economics story. But beyond all of that, past all the abstractions, this is a human story.
Every single one of those 30 million Americans who have applied for unemployment has a story to tell. They have a life they were pursuing. A home they had built, a family they cared or provided for, things they liked to do and places they liked to go to see people they liked to see.
Overnight all of that is gone. One day they had it all more or less under control. The next day, they don’t. They can’t even go get a haircut or go workout — which are two things we do to look better, feel better and assert some measure of control over our lives. Go to church? Go to a movie? Go out and have a drink? All disrupted.
Control is, of course, mostly an illusion. The older we get the more we realize that the invincibility and control we believe we have in our 20s are mirages. The choices we make certainly matter, but the choices others make, and the moves that nature and other macro forces make outside our ability to have any influence at all, can matter more. The universe is very large and we are vanishingly small. You can do everything right and still get terminal cancer, as has happened recently to a friend I knew growing up. You can get caught up in a crime perpetrated by others or a war started by others and get wounded or killed. You can catch a virus that can kill you through no fault of your own. Your family can be deeply and permanently wounded by your government’s decision to shutter your business and confine you and your family away from friends, as has happened to another acquaintance of mine. I personally know another who is fighting the virus, through no fault of her own. All I can do is pray.
Those 30 million and the millions of others represent real people who just want some measure of normal to come back. They want their lives back because they don’t want to stand in breadlines. They don’t want a government check, they want to earn their way as they always have. They want to be able to get a haircut and go back to the gym. Despite the social media warriors who argue that it’s all selfish, it’s deeper and more significant than that.
The push to reopen is really rooted in what Abraham Maslow called “self-actualization.” Six weeks ago most Americans lived at or near the top of his “hierarchy of needs.” They had food, water and shelter, which is the lowest level. They were reasonably safe thanks to the decades-long decrease in violent crime, which is the second level, and they could choose to defend themselves according to their natural rights. They had the stuff they had accumulated, but more importantly they had their intimate relationships with family and friends, the third level. The fourth level, esteem and accomplishment, was either in hand or within reach for most, enabling them to reach the top level, creative self-expression.
Look at where many of us are now. Level one — food and water — is now insecure. They’re filing for unemployment, losing their businesses, and have to stand in line for a humiliating handout. All of this is new and unwelcome. The whole pyramid above that basic level is at grave risk. Many have lost their homes and many more may. They’re cut off from family and friends, at least officially, and most Americans who have elderly parents are very reluctant to visit them now lest we unwittingly infect them with a virus that doesn’t affect us much but can kill them. The loss of a job means the accomplishments they worked for are either gone or at risk.
And as the country runs up astronomical levels of debt reacting to the pandemic, our entire culture’s future and everything past generations fought for is at real risk. What’s secure anymore?
The level of suffering and uncertainty Americans experience now breeds very bad things including loss of faith and revolutions. History turns on such events, often for the worse.
All of this is somewhere in the minds of those of us who want to see the country reopen. It’s around the edges sometimes, and it wakes us up at 2 a.m. at other times, and when you’re in a breadline it’s front and center. At a superficial level, sure, the desire to reopen is about wanting a bowl of chips and salsa at our favorite restaurant and it’s about getting rid of this unruly mop on top of our heads.
Wanting to reopen is really about so much more than any of that. It’s about getting regular life back on track and seeing the bright future we once thought we had come back into focus. It’s about our dignity.
We know the risks. We understand the science, to the extent that’s even possible now in the infodemic fog. Balance has to be struck, though, or the national wealth we need to generate to beat the virus and sustain everything else will never be generated. Our society will collapse. And more will die of the virus and other causes.
So let’s get on with it. Texas reopens some businesses today, and it cannot come soon enough.
Bryan Preston is the author of Hubble’s Revelations: The Amazing Time Machine and Its Most Important Discoveries.