Nothing’s Going To Be The Way It Was

Drive-thru coronavirus testing, Massachusetts

As we all struggle to comprehend what’s happening with our current situation, it might seem impossible to consider what happens once this is over. It will end, of course. Not soon, which I think people (well, most people) are starting to understand. Still, the shelter in place orders, the business closings, the school closings, the travel bans, all of it will end. The question will become, “What now?”

We are in the midst of one of those events that will mark a “before” and an “after”. Like the Civil War, the Depression/World War II, and Vietnam, people living today will measure things “before the coronavirus pandemic” and “after the pandemic”. The great unknown is how all that might look. Unlike the Spanish flu epidemic 100 years ago, we have means to slow the progress of the disease through the population. While coronavirus’s mortality rate is about the same as the Spanish flu’s (3%-4%), with the measures in place right now both the number of cases and the number of deaths can either be reduced or spread out over a much longer time period. Also, unlike 100 years ago, we haven’t (yet?) so succumbed to fear that we’ve become murderous. During the Spanish flu, lynchings, attacks on communities of color and other minority groups soared; it helped fuel the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan as people sought a scapegoat for their misery. One can hope we don’t descend to that kind of social madness.

Particularly since this is an election year, we need to consider “what comes after” more clearly than we might otherwise. While our electoral choices are always urgent and important, rarely do we face such matters in the midst of a national election. We did in 1920 as the flu epidemic continued to sputter; Warren Harding’s weird call for “a return to normalcy” after two decades of rapid social change, efforts for reform, the urgency of war followed swiftly by a plague that killed as many across the globe as died in the war, a vote for “normalcy” had a great deal of appeal. The thing was, of course, was there was nothing “normal” about what followed. The 1920’s were a decade of forgetfulness. People sought to forget reform, forget the needs of the poor, become deaf to the cries of the farmers, forget war and death, indulging in a kind of glorious, childlike excess that had no attachment to reality. When the stock market, whose rise through the decade became as much a sensation as the jazz music, bathtub gin, kids racing their Stutz’s, and moving pictures, crumbled under the reality that nothing kept it propped up, it all came to an end. The wreckage was worldwide.

So do we choose forgetfulness? We’ve been struggling between a kind of excess that ignores our realities of massive impoverishment, our many broken infrastructures (from roads to healthcare delivery), and a kind of radical focus on precisely these matters. This latter certainly brings about passion among those most committed to changing the parts of our society that are broken; there is just enough privilege, however, to create an array of virtual realities that allow even more the escape to a place where the worries aren’t real, the fears aren’t immediate, and death is something that’s overcome by restarting a level. There’s little doubt this latter is so tempting precisely because it provides an illusion of control

Except, of course, we are currently learning we have no control. Not really. Oh, there are measures we can take to reduce risk, to control the spread of contagions and panic. At the end of the day, however, a little virus has done more to alter the world’s economy and social and civic structures than all the cries for revolution, or the opposite demand for decadence, could have imagined. We are experiencing new ways of work. We are coming to appreciate those workers whom we so recently derided as undeserving. People who couldn’t imagine being laid off are suddenly experiencing joblessness. School is happening in new ways, ways from which we can’t return but perhaps can integrate into what happens next.

So the question remains: What happens after? We need to ignore those who insist that things will “go back to normal” because we can’t “go back”. We can try to forget, overindulging in the rapid series of distractions that will no doubt demand our attention. Except we now know their unreality for what it is; reality is much more harsh, much more in need of attention than ever before. We are, all of us, regardless of where we live, our race, our class, our religion facing reality in all its starkness and danger. Holding one another up, getting through together will not be enough. On the other side, we need to fix the many broken things that have worsened our current situation. Those things over which we can assert some measure of control – how we prepare for crises; to whom we listen in the midst of ongoing fear and uncertainty; how we as a society distribute our vaunted wealth and many resources to ensure that everyone is safe.

We have much to consider. Fortunately, we seem to have plenty of time.

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