Sunday, March 15, 2020

What's so frustrating about the coronavirus crisis

This is another one of those times when we're quickly becoming aware of how connected we are to people in other countries, how much we're all in this together, and how much closer to death we might be than we had thought.

Americans have had this feeling of unity before, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But what's so frustrating now is that we can't fall back on the same spirit that arose after September 11. Back then, we could feel better than usual about doing everyday tasks like shopping or otherwise going out and participating in the economy, which is what the president and other leaders were telling us to do. The emphasis was on how dynamic and resilient our economy is, and how we'll ultimately beat terrorism through our grit, determination, and values.

That all made sense because of the nature of the threat, which was driven by human beings who had evil intentions. In one way, that made the crisis scarier: everyone was asking how so many people can hate us so much, and what they might come up with next to cause more destruction. But on another level, you could take some comfort in the idea that with the right attitude, we could end up winning a war of ideas and a battle for "hearts and minds."

COVID-19 doesn't have a heart or a mind, so it's indifferent to our attitude or culture. Instead of being encouraged to bravely go ahead with our lives as usual so as not to let the other side "win," we're being urged to make drastic changes to our daily lives and disconnect from each other. Instead of uniting, we're competing with each other to get to the store before its shelves are cleared. The words we're hearing are about canceling, postponing, distancing. And we're being urged to do all this without a visible catastrophe like September 11 galvanizing us into action. Instead, we're being shown charts and graphs about lowering a curve. That's important, but it's also hard to feel motivated by a theoretical graph to make sudden, massive changes. I hope everyone follows the advice we're being given by the authorities. But I also hope the authorities understand that this is so hard it could make the challenge of responding to September 11 seem easy by comparison.

(Illustration of COVID-19 from King County, Washington government webpage.)