Now we’re all under the microscope. An invisible virus has made visible our true strengths and weaknesses. It has exposed the faults in our systems, the sincerity of our relationships, the ways in which we work together or don’t. The week started out with cute quips about chapped hands and voyages of the damned. It ends with few certainties except these: There will be more sickness and death. The farther we remove ourselves from each other, the more we will need each other. Our way of living will be upended, and for how long?
It’s too early to tell. This could be very bad, or not as bad as we think. Either way, life has begun to rearrange itself in both time and space. Each of us now has a radius of concern that measures six feet — the distance sneeze droplets can travel. Some of us shouldn’t be in greater crowds. College semesters have been scotched. Office space is becoming just that. Employees are hauling out essential equipment as they say to co-workers, merrily and warily, “See you later!” “I’m having a hard time keeping track of what day it is.”
Chase Burns, 27, has been self-quarantined in his Seattle apartment since Monday of last week, when he popped a 103-degree fever. This week he began to feel better, walked to a bookstore to look for Albert Camus’ “The Plague” (for a book club), but scurried home when a coughing fit overtook him and people began to stare daggers. Burns doesn’t know if he has coronavirus because, like many Americans, he wasn’t able to get a test. So each cough, every chill, could either be a symptom or a feint. Flu? Common cold? Allergies?
Or is it, in fact, coronavirus?
“You definitely feel like you’re not on the same page as everyone else,” says Burns, an editor, about the surreality of self-isolation and uncertain sickness. “I think everyone is experiencing this crisis at a different rhythm. It seems like we’re in this weird vacuum. I think that’s going to go on for a while.”
Social disasters can build social capital. People will share resources and propagate information in a viral manner...Neighbours may start to behave more neighbourly. People will cook at home, work at home, but they may reach out more. Maybe that will make us feel more connected.
We’ve been social distancing for centuries, sometimes by force. In the Middle Ages, we put lepers into asylums and strapped them with bells and wooden clappers so we could hear them approach. During the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, parades that weren’t cancelled turbocharged the infection. In advance of the 1918 midterm elections Sen. Albert Bacon Fall, suspended his campaign because two of his children were dead of the flu.
Recently both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders cancelled campaign events and made their own virus-related remarks, presaging a change in society that’s already underway. “It’s going to mean making some radical changes in our behaviour,” Biden said. The pandemic is going to be “profoundly disturbing to a lot of the ways that we live our lives,” Washington Governor Jay Inslee said.
To mitigate, we must collaborate. To collaborate, we must separate. One nation, under quarantine, trying to “flatten the curve.” That’s another bit of terminology: Flattening the curve, like rationing in the ‘40s, is the new wartime footing. If the X axis is time and the Y axis is the number of coronavirus cases, the bell curve of infection should be as rounded as possible, to allow the health-care system to cope and keep pace.
'Don’t panic but be careful'
Flattening the curve requires social distancing, washing hands and a reconsideration of the ways your hands interact with your face. This week microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles spread an animated graphic on Twitter that shows the flattening of the curve and the mantra “Don’t panic but be careful.”
“The movies and the books and all of these shows we watch — when they’re of an apocalypse scenario, the first thing you do is load your guns and hoard your resources,” said Wiles, an associate professor at the University of Auckland. “But research shows communities who survive bad experiences are the ones who put their guns down and work together. I’m trying to push that message here: This is not going to be ‘Mad Max.’ ... We can self-isolate physically but that doesn’t mean that we have to mentally isolate ourselves.”
Nevertheless, there’s been panic. There’s been a run on hand sanitiser, on toilet paper, on masks. The stock market is having a fit. Sports associations have suspended seasons and cancelled tournaments. Hospitals are not ready. Schools are not ready. The economy is not ready. Poor people and old people are not ready. Parents are not ready for their liberated schoolchildren, and schoolchildren are not ready for their work-from-home parents.
There are horror stories:not enough ventilators, too many corpses.
Stateside? Perhaps the calm before the storm. On Thursday morning, at the Giant Foods in Hyattsville, Maryland, a man in his mid-30s was buying six boxes of Entenmann’s doughnuts and a case of Pepsi.
“If I’m going down,” he said, “I’m going down happy.”
Let’s be honest: We’ve been growing apart for decades. High-speed internet long ago helped us isolate physically even as we “connect” virtually. We are spread out and shut in. Many of us can stream anything, order anything, conjure a friendly face on our phone in an instant. Virtual communities are well-established, so the real winners of this pandemic may be the Redditors, the World of Warcrafters, the amateur porn-trepreneurs.
Could the virus actually cure some of our interpersonal ailments? Social disasters can build social capital, says Alexander Halavais, an associate professor in Arizona State University’s School of Social and Behavioural Sciences. People will share resources and propagate information in a viral manner, like the hand-washing meme that captions panels showingthe 20-second sanitation process with the lyrics of your favourite pop song. Neighbours may start to behave more neighbourly. Bikes lanes will fill as bus ridership dwindles. People will cook at home, work at home, but they may reach out more. Maybe we’ll flatten the curve together. Maybe that will make us feel more connected.
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“We think of the skills we need during a disaster as whatever’s on the pepper shows,” Halavais says, “but really it’s those kinds of things: being able to organise space and time, which people will find challenging but might last beyond the pandemic.”
Gathering places are a public-health risk. Say goodbye to conferences and concerts. Spring break and spring training: poof. We must do without from within. We will become more aware of space and less aware of time. It’s disorienting. Perhaps it can be reorienting, as Yosef Kanefsky suggested on the Facebook page of his Los Angeles congregation.
“The very last thing we need right now is a mindset of mutual distancing,” he wrote. “We actually need to be thinking in the exact opposite way. Every hand that we don’t shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another must become a thought as to how we might help that other, should the need arise.”
He concluded by saying: “Let’s stay safe. And let’s draw one another closer in a way that we’ve never done before.”
— John Taggart is a columnist and cultural critic