A person walks under the blossoms along the Roosevelt Island Historical Walk during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on Roosevelt Island in New York City, US, on March 28, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

We are, all of us, living in the early stages of the global coronavirus pandemic — the long-term impact of which, though uncertain, rightly fills us with dread. Even now, we can see that our lives are already changing — and not for the better.

In addition to the ever rising illness and death tolls, hundreds of millions have lost their sources of income, billions are either living under mandated lockdowns or are self-quarantined, and, even at this early date, the estimated losses to economies worldwide is upwards of seven trillion dollars.

Here in the US, once bustling centre cities have become ghost towns; schools have been shuttered; with employees unable to come to work, some businesses are at risk of closing; churches, mosques, and synagogues have cancelled religious prayer services; non-essential government services have been suspended; the stock market has plummeted; and, increasingly, people fearful of the virus are relying on telecommunication technology to work, shop, and speak with their loved ones.

If it continues for another year and a half until a vaccine can be found, mass produced, and administered, it is unclear what our lives, our economy, our institutions, our communities, and our families will look like in the interim.

- Dr James J. Zogby, president, Arab American Institute

With all of this, of course, there have been attendant personal hardships. For example, school closures have placed new burdens on teachers, students, and parents. In the first place, with small children now at home, parents who are teleworking have had to find a way to manage their time between fulfilling their job responsibilities and keeping their children occupied.

Second, schools that have mandated online lessons have placed additional burdens on parents who now have to ensure that their stay-at-home children are logged on to instructional sessions on their computers during the “school day,” being attentive, and completing their assignments. Teachers, too, have had to confront the new challenge of changing their teaching methods from classroom learning to online learning. This is especially true for those teaching younger children since they must now find new ways to provide individualised assistance to those who need it.

To this must be added the problems faced by children from lower-income households who don’t have computers or even internet access, or whose parents aren’t at home or able to monitor or assist their home/school experience.

How the industries are reeling

Airlines have suspended flights and cut schedules. The tourism industry is reeling leaving the economies of parts of the country devastated. There’s no relief on the horizon, since this crisis is expected to wipe out summer vacation plans for many. In most cities, small businesses have been especially hard hit. Family-owned restaurants, food markets, bookstores, and small shops that rely on foot traffic or specialise in providing personal service to customers have been devastated by the lockdowns and quarantines. While the Congress has passed a relief package to aid such businesses, too many of these small enterprises will simply not be able to recover from the damage already done.

All of these immediate consequences of the pandemic have directly impacted my family and friends. My children are all at home, their offices closed. Their children, of different ages, are also at home struggling with the strange new world of online education and the personal discipline it requires. My daughter-in-law’s promising new business, which had just taken off, is now on hold. And because of the de facto lockdown, I haven’t seen my grandchildren in weeks — other than in FaceTime video chats.

If this were not enough, there are deeper personal hardships that have caused incalculable pain. Today’s New York Times and Washington Post both carried feature stories on the inability of those who have lost love ones to hold funerals or even burials. This hit me directly, because Eileen, my wife of 51 years, passed away two weeks ago. She had a stroke in November and for the past four months was in recovery and rehab. She was scheduled to come home on March 13, but then on the 10th she had a second stroke that proved fatal. Losing her has been devastating.

more on coronavirus

Adding to the pain is the fact that, because all of Washington’s churches are closed, we can’t hold a funeral. And, because of fear of contagion, my extended family cannot even come together at our home to show pictures, tell stories, and grieve together. At first, we thought it might be safe to postpone the funeral until the end of April. Then, we thought the end of May. Now, given the rate of the spread of the infection, our plans, like our lives, are on hold.

Which brings me back to my beginning and the sense of dread of the unknown we are facing at the hands of a cruel virus for which we still have no cure or vaccine to protect us from its wrath. It is as if we are standing on a precipice staring into the abyss below.

Some commentators have lamely compared the situation in which we find ourselves to being at war. Like a war, resources must be mobilised to combat the enemy and citizens are called to make sacrifices. There will be costs incurred and lives lost. We will be forced to change our lives and those who can least afford it will bear a disproportionate burden. The major difference, of course, is that in this instance the enemy is global and invisible and may be carried by your neighbour or your child.

Fears and threats of the past

My parents’ generation lived through a small pox epidemic, two world wars, and the Great Depression. My generation had to live with the Cold War, the fear of nuclear annihilation, and the threat of terrorism. My children and grandchildren have been facing down the epidemic of gun violence, mass shootings, and the imminent danger to the planet posed by climate change.

This pandemic feels different from these earlier and present threats to our security and well-being. It appeared out of nowhere, took us by surprise, and caught our leadership unprepared.

At this point, we have no idea how this war, if that is the metaphor we will use, will end. And if it continues for another year and a half until a vaccine can be found, mass produced, and administered, it is unclear what our lives, our economy, our institutions, our communities, and our families will look like in the interim. Despite the mindless tweets and ill-informed boasts of our president, the duration of this struggle to contain the pandemic is uncertain. And more ominous is the lack of clarity we have as to the toll it will take and what our society will look like when it is over.

— Dr James J. Zogby is the president of Arab American Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan national leadership organisation.