Who knew I was heading to an epicenter of the pandemic when I flew – flew for goodness sake! – to New York City a few weeks ago to help my mother recover from shoulder surgery?
So far, so good on all fronts – fingers crossed – and when I returned to North Carolina two weeks of N&Os were waiting for me. The page one headlines underscored the velocity of head-spinning change that has gripped society. The first, from March 9, was almost hopeful: “UNC leading research into a potential coronavirus vaccine.”
But the news soon turned from grim to grimmer:
March 10: “Five new cases of coronavirus reported in Wake County”
March 12: “In NC, some cancel plans, stay home as other events go on.”
March 15: “Cooper: No school for at least two weeks, no mass gatherings.”
March 18: “State intensifies efforts to curb spread of outbreak.”
March 19: “First day of tight restrictions finds NC at home and on edge.”
It may feel like we’ve been living in corona-hell forever, but those headlines – along with our 401k statements – remind us how much has changed so quickly.
Human beings crave certainty and the one thing we know for sure is that it has vanished. Nobody – not President Trump or Gov. Cooper, not Dr. Anthony Fauci or TV talking heads – knows how long this crisis will last or what toll it will take. Is the death rate 2 percent, or 0.2 percent? Are only the old and sick at great risk? Will the crisis continue a year or more or will we soon discover a treatment that tames the virus? Will the virus mutate, putting us back at a lethal square one?
Will Americans continue to wash their hands and keep their distance – or will cabin fever get the better of us once warmer weather beckons?
The one thing we know for sure is that we are in absolutely uncharted waters; we are all dog paddling against rising waves.
We’ve had pandemics before, but this is the first one since the demise of newspapers and the rise of social media and cable news. Facebook and Twitter, CNN and Fox News can be useful, but they are vehicles for alarmism and extremism, drama and conflict. They are built to provide unending streams of turbo-charged Breaking News! that discourages thoughtful reflection.
They are like a Greek chorus that demands answers – certainty – how are you going to keep me safe? how are you going to make me whole?, when we just don’t know.
This makes it doubly hard for our leaders, who must provide illusory assurance: Here’s how I’m protecting you.
That new reality, and the fact this crisis is just a few weeks old, helps explains why we have viewed the outbreak almost exclusively through the lens of public health. Most every action has been aimed at limiting the spread of the virus. That cannot last for long. Soon, we will need to consider other costs. We cannot shut down the economy for months; the vast majority of people without underlying health conditions would probably rather risk a week of flu-like symptoms than lose their jobs and homes.
Note that 22,000 Americans have died from seasonal flu so far this year; exponentially more than the hundreds who have perished from the coronavirus. That is not to diminish this new threat, which could kill untold numbers, but to remind that we live with and normalize risk all the time.
In an uncertain world, the only constant is change. In response we must balance our emotions with reason – while keeping our noses clean.