It sounded like overkill. They cancelled SXSW in Austin, even though there were no confirmed cases of the virus in the city. Even though the President of the United States and the VP were all saying that cases in the country would be going down soon enough. Tech companies in California that we relied on for social media services sent us emails about how they were asking their employees to work from home and what their business continuity plans were.
We watched as the public health minister in Iran tried to calm the country on national television, even while he was sweating through his suit, clearly ill, and claiming that the 95 confirmed cases were nothing to worry about. We watched as he tested positive for the virus, and then the Iranian president and other ministers came down with it, too.
We watched as towns in Italy were shut down, with tour operators sending desperate emails, saying, “Everything is fine! Life is normal!” Until the entire country was shut down, put on lockdown, just as Wuhan and all of China had been the week before. Ireland canceled all their St. Patrick’s Day parades. Grocery stores in the U.S. ran out of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and soap.
Wash your hands, our government told us, and stay away from sick people. But we also heard that some people wouldn’t know they were sick. There weren’t enough tests to go around. The new test that the government had built didn’t work. People could have the illness and not have any idea.
And then the World Health Organization deemed it a pandemic, a world crisis — strong language for a thing our government was saying wasn’t even as bad as seasonal flu.
We saw graphs that showed how implementing social distancing measures could save lives, based on the difference between the deaths from Spanish flu in 1918 in Philadelphia and St. Louis. The mayor of the former refused to shut down their city gatherings that fateful spring 112 years before us, and lost eight times as many people as the latter, which imposed what looked like draconian measures at the time. We heard about “flattening the curve”, that instead of trying to contain the infection, we should try to spread it out over more time, to keep from overtaxing our already taxed health care system.
Universities started to put their classes online. Harvard kicked all their students out. Baylor extended their spring break. The local movie theater sent us a message about measures they were taking to keep their theaters clean.
The President of the U.S. went on TV and told us that he wouldn’t let anyone come here from Europe, although England and Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland were OK. He said he wanted to cut the payroll tax. The Democrats created a bill to make paid sick leave a national policy, to make testing for the virus free for everyone, to provide more food assistance, and more unemployment benefits. We didn’t think it would ever get passed. It didn’t do enough, either.
Fox News said it was all a hoax, all overkill. It was the media trying to make people scared. CNN said those people were insane, and people were going to die. We turned to Twitter and Facebook for the latest updates. People posted incorrect information. Was the death rate 3.4%, as the WHO said, or less than 1%, as Dr. Fauci said?
The NBA suspended their season. The State Department sent out an advisory telling people to rethink any travel at all. John Krasinski cancelled the release of A Quiet Place Part II.
Nurses and doctors in Italy sent horror-movie level recountings of their daily lives in the strained health care system. Chaos, mostly; choosing between the more healthy and the less healthy for whom to treat; patients in hallways and corridors; not enough ventilators; not enough masks.
We all watched the 2011 movie “Contagion” and thought, how silly that Jude Law was a villain in this. Of course we all get our news from Twitter. Of course bloggers are real journalists. Of course fake news would make millions of people buy essential oils to cure an illness. And how funny that anyone listened to the CDC or WHO doctors. Also, how silly to think the virus could spread that easily, that quickly, and kill that quickly. How silly that Dmitri Martin could figure out the virus had mutated, or that anyone could ever find patient zero. Or that a quickly-made vaccine would save us all.
We watched “Outbreak” and thought how much worse of a movie it was than “Contagion”, but also how innocent — pre 9/11, pre Great Recession, back in those heady times when Clinton was president and AIDS was just starting to be taken seriously as an epidemic.
And then our local governments recommended that we all engage in social distancing. Don’t go to concerts. Don’t go on airplanes. Stay home. Stay six feet away from other people.
So we did. We stocked up on canned food and quit going to bars. We quit going to see movies; we had Netflix and Amazon Prime, anyway. Concerts could be replaced by Spotify in our living rooms. Social media could be our water cooler. This was what the tech companies had dreamed of. By three weeks before Easter, we were all pretty much shut-ins.
They closed the restaurants and bars. About a quarter of the people in our cities were suddenly out of work, with no paid sick leave, no unemployment benefits, no one to help them. While in Europe people could take two weeks off work and not suddenly be homeless, we had no measures in place to save them.
But in all that depressive news, our social distancing worked. The virus spread, but not as quickly. People died, but fewer of them. There was less panic. By early May, the news had come out that the virus couldn’t survive in the warmer air. We were safe to come out of our homes.
But we didn’t. We were used to the artificial social life. It was safer. It was cleaner. Why go for a hike when you could enjoy a National Geographic special on hiking? Why go out on a date when you could watch Penn Badgeley in “You”? Why risk getting flu, or the common cold, or herpes, or HIV, when you could stay home and not pay for healthcare? Why risk the hurt of having your heart broken when you could just be alone with fictional characters who were reliable and never leave you?
Why go outside when your neighbors were losing their jobs with no safety net to keep them from starving to death or having housing? When the government was doing nothing to help those who had to be tested or hospitalized? When they could donate a cool $1.5 trillion to save the stock market, but not to help their citizens from total ruin?
So we kept our social distancing in place. And no one got sick, but no one really felt better, either.