The Homefront: How Americans Cope with Coronavirus

(Image by Terri Sharp from Pixabay.)

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” — Walt Whitman, perhaps speaking for America

America’s previous “Oh My Gosh This Is Going to Change Everything!” crisis was on 9/11/2001. The immediate, on-the-ground response in New York City and at the Pentagon was one of heroics. In the air, the civilian passengers of Flight 93 organized themselves to conduct a spoiling attack on their own hijackers, the very first counteraction in what would quickly come to be known as the War on Terror. There was real confusion as every single passenger aircraft was grounded across the country. There was the appearance of confusion as the Bush administration tried to find a secure place to keep President Bush. It looked for a while as though 9/11 was only the start of a campaign by foreign terrorists on American soil, and with a quiet determination, we prepared ourselves for a long, hard slog.

Considering how badly we got caught with our pants down that September morning, there was precious little panic. Maybe the shock and suddenness of it induced a quieter, almost inverse reaction.

The coronavirus pandemic is unfolding much more slowly than the 9/11 attacks, giving our increasingly desperate and hyper newsmedia — and the new-since-9/11 social media outlets — more opportunity to bring out our worst… and our best.

Proving that higher education doesn’t have much to do with smarts, students at Cornell and elsewhere are using the pandemic as an excuse to do all the wrong things. The Cornell Daily Sun reports:

On Saturday, daytime yard parties — colloquially known as “darties” — dotted Collegetown, including one at the East Seneca Street annex of a Cornell organization. Hanging from the house’s balcony was a bedsheet-turned-banner, spray-painted to read “I’m not fucking leaving,” just a day after President Martha E. Pollack’s announcement to cancel classes starting Friday at 5 p.m.

Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi condemned these parties in a Sunday afternoon email, writing, “Some students – particularly those living off campus in Collegetown – have chosen to use the suspension of classes to host or attend large parties,” he wrote.

“Hosting or attending a large party is exactly the opposite of what you should be doing in this moment,” he continued.

For young, healthy people, the risk of dying from a coronavirus infection isn’t much greater than zero. But they can still get it, still carry it, still infect their teachers, administrators, parents, and grandparents with it. Social distancing is the one smart, effective thing anyone can do to combat the pandemic, but that’s a message that doesn’t always reach our invincible-feeling young people.

Mostly what I’ve noticed though is Americans taking sensible actions before various governors started ordering various close-downs.

There’s the infamous panic-buying of toilet paper and other staples, but really nothing so far to compare to what some parents do during a perfectly healthy Christmas to get that season’s must-have toy for their kid. I was at Sam’s Club in Castle Rock (a Denver exurb) on Sunday, just making my scheduled biweekly run, and aside from the meat selection having been picked almost clean, had no troubles.

Overall, lower-population density areas are functioning better than higher-population density areas, but that’s to be expected. Suburbanites, exurbanites, and rural residents tend to have big freezers and lots of storage space — and we generally put it to use whether there’s a crisis or not. City dwellers have access to all kinds of things we miss out here in the sticks, but massive chest freezers, ample firearms & ammo, and basement storage rooms stuffed full of dry goods aren’t any of them.

Or maybe city people are just stupid: “People Are Still Bar Crawling for St. Patrick’s Day Despite Social Distancing Advisory.” Mashable reports that “though some folks are social distancing, many still clearly aren’t. Some are even actively bragging about not doing it. This weekend, journalists and others reported that bars across the nation were packed in Boston, Chicago, Nashville, and New York City.” I’m kidding with the “stupid” remark, but when we flyover people see Blue Enclave Dwellers engage in this kind of lunacy during a pandemic, we become ever-more thankful for our less crowded, more private — and dare I say, “smarter?” — lifestyles. Who’s the science-denier now, Mr. Party-Pants?

I wonder what the reaction will be if — when? — COVID-19 hits the streets of San Francisco. A disease with a fecal transmission vector, loose on the sidewalks of Poop City, combined with the city’s large, aggressive, and not-very-healthy homeless population, wouldn’t be pretty. Right now it feels like we’re in a race between the arrival of warmer weather, and coronavirus hitting the bottom-feeders of California’s techno-feudal society. Changes will have to be made, after, in the way California governs itself. But will they choose the correct changes?

Here in the exurban Rocky Mountain foothills of southern Colorado, life goes on much as before. My kids get an extra week of spring break, my wife will be working mostly from home during that same time, and we have extra care for our parents and older friends. No one has ordered anything shut down yet, so in the meantime, we’re eating out as much as we can, always at local restaurants, and over-tipping the waitstaff. I’d like my favorite places to still be here after the crisis has passed.

As this little essay was coming together, I thought I’d finish on a sour note about how the only real panic I’ve witnessed has been on the TV news and social media. Not any actual panic, mind you, but insipid, TDS-inspired fearmongering among our pampered chattering classes. But why bother castigating them for it, any more than you’d give a stern moral lecture to the scorpion for stinging the frog? The telling detail might be how little actual panic our panicky newsmedia has managed to summon. We the people are much better than our betters, it seems.

Have mercy though on those few poor souls whose worldview is formed by CNN, MSNBC, the Shrill New Drudge, or the Twitter Checkmark Mafia. According to them, the world is just days or maybe hours away from going full Walking Dead, with Donald Trump personally leading a horde of slack-jawed, science-denying, bitter-clinger coronazombies on an infectious rampage across the nation. In fact, we’re in a better position than China was at the same stage in their crisis, and all levels of government have at worst done a decent job of helping to flatten the pandemic’s national growth curve.

In the end though, what will get us through won’t be social distancing, testing kits, or ICU wards — although all those things (and more) will certainly help. What will get us through are those distinctly American talents for self-organization and volunteerism.

Turn off the TV news for the rest of the day and look at these headlines:

Neighborhood’s ‘Kindness Committee’ runs errands for neighbors who can’t leave home.

How sports teams, players are aiding arena, stadium workers impacted by COVID-19 outbreak.

Bitwise Industries volunteers to deliver groceries to sick, elderly in the Valley.

Volunteers helping senior citizens weather the coronavirus storm.

Shot developed by Moderna Inc. and NIH will be tested on 45 healthy volunteers in Seattle on Monday.

That’s a very small sampling of the stories I found doing a simple search of recent news.

There are lots of ways you can pitch in in your own community, from buying gift certificates from your local restaurants and businesses to helping deliver food to those who simply can’t leave their houses during the pandemic. Ask around Facebook, the Nextdoor app, your church, neighborhood fire station, etc. There’s always something to be done, and Americans have never been shy about getting things done. Coronavirus isn’t going to change that.

But for right now maybe the smartest thing you can do is hunker down, pick up that book you’ve been meaning to read, and practice your social distancing. But whatever you do, don’t do it with the TV news chattering on in the background. What they’re selling is fear, and in troubled times fear can spread even faster than a novel coronavirus.

Treat this thing seriously, but not hysterically, and then hopefully in a few weeks or months we’ll barely remember what most of the fuss was about.