The Pandemic has hit a “Reset Switch”

It is a bit unnerving to see the world in which you grew up come unhinged. This is what it must have been like to watch the Great Depression roll over the country, tearing apart the fabric of everyday life. To call the current transformative event a pandemic seems grossly inadequate. It is not just the pathology of disease as it traverses the global population; it is the insidious effect of change in our society that drives its real impact.

It started rather innocuously, another strange disease slithering out of the unsanitary morass of Asia’s “wet markets,” or so it seemed. With growing alarm, the event grew from an isolated outbreak in Wuhan (a place most of us had never heard of), then it blossomed out…through China…to Europe…and to our shores.

The warning bells sounded but were not heeded. Hadn’t we heard this before? In 2003, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) burst into world consciousness. It was the first pandemic of the new millennium and it was going to be catastrophic. We prepared for the worst and it fizzled. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that ultimately 8,098 people were infected in 26 countries, and that 774 died. This pales even in comparison to the annual flu. In the 2018–2019 season an estimated 35.5 million people got sick, 490,600 were hospitalized and 34,200 died.

So perhaps we can be forgiven for our initial lackadaisical approach. Much like the boy who cried wolf, we had heard it before and consequently did not take the warnings seriously enough.

Some events sear their way into our memory. Most remember vividly what they were doing as they watched the towers fall on 9/11. This pandemic will likely have an equally devastating impact, yet the moment of enlightenment was diffuse. For me it came on the ski slopes of Utah. One evening, they announced the closure of the mountainside cafeteria and asked for groups to stay together on the lifts. The next day they shut the entire place down without notice. It seemed like they were locking the doors behind us. A short visit to the Mormon Tabernacle on the way out was a study in isolation, a few young missionaries to announce that all was closed.

The airport had an eerie feeling: all outbound traffic, no one arriving. It was like catching the last flight out of a war-torn country.

We had one last trip scheduled (yeah, I know…I was a late comer to the realization that the world was collapsing). For the flight home, I asked if I could purchase the middle seat to get some “social distancing,” a term that was not yet in vogue. The ticketing agent said, “I’ll do better than that. I’ll give you an exit row and no one will be in either the row ahead or behind.” Nice. The flight was virtually empty, another harbinger of things to come.

We all know how the story unfolds from there, like watching a slow-motion train wreck. However, we are not actually watching the train crash, rather we are getting a play-by-play from the media. It makes one wonder how much of our anxiety is related to dire warnings from the press. They appear to have long ago passed the threshold of just reporting the news into actively “making” the news. This is a disservice.

Regardless, things are different now. It’s Cinco de Mayo and any other year we would be out with friends. Tonight, my wife is proctoring an on-line test for a local college, because they can’t do classroom testing. I’m on the porch writing my column and listening to the rain.

This is the “new normal.” It is a binary world of goods and bads with very little in between.

Some people kept their jobs. My two sons are employed by the Federal government and are working from home. Some are even prospering. I have friends running Amazon delivery operations and they are booming…can’t hire people fast enough. Yet too many people are out of work, too many businesses are shut down. The list of “never to reopen” increases by the day. The devastation to small local businesses is significant and the fallout will affect our country for years.

But there are also bright spots in juxtaposition to the dark. Work and external pressures have been tamped down. All over the country, people are rediscovering their families and the people they love.

My daughter, a medical school student in Baltimore, vacated her urban apartment ahead of the government shelter-in-place order and has been home for some time. It has been marvelous. We have spent hours hiking, playing games and most significantly, just talking. It has been years since we have been together unfettered by the imperatives of time that have come to dominate our lives.

It is almost as if someone hit a giant “reset” switch. It has given us an opportunity to remake parts of our lives that had gotten out of control.

The road to recovery is going to be a long and difficult. I hope that during this time, we will all come to appreciate relationships that we have forgone in the hectic activity of modern life. There will be trials for certain, and we must work together, if only to empathize with those less fortunate. Perhaps we can even reclaim some of our lost virtues, like charity for others.

We are at a precipice: fall into despair and decline or gird up our loins and rebuild an even better society. With God’s help, we will regenerate a country with a renewed spirit. Perhaps such a grassroots movement might “trickle up” to change the divisive politics at the top. That just might make the sacrifices worthwhile.

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