April 5, 2020
Lost in all of the headlines is the way in which the Corona Virus has upended everyday life. I’m not just referring to social distancing and shelter-at-home. This pandemic goes much farther than anything in all of modern experience in how thoroughly it has transformed daily work routines and everyday habits.
World wars take years to develop and wreak their misery upon civilian populations. Earthquakes, tsunamis and cyclonic storms are localized in their impact. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were devastating in their immediate impact and transformative how global society viewed science and the military.
The Great Depression cut a wide path across developed industrial societies in the 1930s and led to 20 percent unemployment; but it took years for the misery to reach its deepest levels of affliction. During that whole time the populace was not deprived of basic human contact with friends, family and colleagues. Theaters stayed open. Loved ones received hospital visits. Students still filled classrooms. People gathered in major sports arenas, public fairs and local parks. Restaurant served meals. Work slowed down dramatically but it did not come to a sudden, absolute halt and pose an existential threat to many threads of the everyday fabric.
It will take many years for the full impact of enforced isolation to make itself felt. A whole cohort of children nationally and internationally will find out how – or whether – they can occupy their newfound free time in ways that are creative or simply mindless.
There is no telling what sorts of psychological effects the quarantining will have on the emotional lives of kids, for example. Some will do fine; others will suffer nightmares and anxiety. Everyone I know has been sleepless of late – a condition that for many dates back to Nov. 2016.
My sense, based on occasional conversations with people in the business, is that therapists and psychiatrists are scrambling simply to adjust to the much altered conditions of basic therapy. Phone and Zoom sessions do not go very far in enabling people to express what they are feeling; therapists in such a situation are denied access to bodily indicators of stress or depression.
All we know for sure is that big changes are in store. In fact, they are already underway. In nine months there will probably be a baby boom. In the near run there will also be a spike in domestic violence. We might well see an increase in robbery of stores and homes as desperation sets in among those whose incomes have been cut to zero. The anticipation of this by homeowners is already keeping gun stores open to a thriving trade.
Entire sectors of the country are extremely vulnerable and might not be able to ride out the weeks and months ahead of shuttered trade. The months thereafter are also filled with uncertainty as business slowly comes back. The federal government’s focus on big industries misses entirely the most precious dimensions of the economy – everyday work, whether as waiters and janitors or graphic artists, freelance writers and drivers for Uber, Lyft and taxis. Until the Corona Virus pandemic, nursing had become an attractive career path for those interested in public service. All of a sudden even that trade is looking grim – the work conditions intolerably overburdened, inadequately protected and dangerously exposed to risk.
In the U.S., restaurants used to do as much trade as grocery stores. That was before Corona Virus. Millions of laborers and skilled cooks have quickly found themselves dependent on take out service, but this generates only a fraction of previous revenue. Many small restaurants that close will never reopen.
The suddenness with which all of this has struck has no equal I know of. The immediate dislocation is unsettling in the extreme. The long-term prospects are dizzying to contemplate because there are likely to be major reorganizations in the scale of commerce and marketing as a direct result of the shutdown. Brick and mortar retail, already waning steadily before the pandemic, will suffer most dramatically from the acceleration in online buying we’re seeing.
Service workers in food and travel will see far fewer jobs reopening afterwards than were available before the shutdown. The arts are being affected with particular vengeance as well, with museums, theatres, cafes and print media acutely vulnerable because of the massive debt they will face in the short run and the likelihood of never being able to recoup lost revenues.
Small wonder people are upset these days. Understandable, too, is the reluctance of many to accept the enormity of the burden we face. But confront it and recognize our responsibility we must, lest we delay implementing the stringent measures to dealing with it. In which case the burden we face would be even more acute.