Like most of us, I didn’t think too much of it at first. Early alarms seemed more like those sounded every few years for a stronger-than-usual flu strain than the widespread unease that accompanied the U.S. Zika and Ebola outbreaks. Then, suddenly, I was hearing more about the “T-zone” than I had since the term graced early 1990s Noxzema commercials.
Schools closing seemed like a necessary, but short term measure. People handled the situation with a sense of humor, heading to the liquor store to buy, among other things, six-packs of Corona, and thus symbolically swig our common enemy into nonexistence. My own family used the time and warming weather to go on hikes, tempting not just coronavirus, but corona with Lyme. We were careful, however, and followed social distancing recommendations—I have some expertise on the subject, having been distant socially for years.
Workplaces closed, and much of the population stayed home, while those whose occupations the state deemed essential—doctors, nurses, and naturally, liquor store attendants—nobly did their duty under difficult conditions.
Grocery stores adopted a 1980s Soviet chic design, with empty shelf space expertly directing the eye toward the few items available for sale. We didn’t quite reach the level of day-long lines for government-issued bread and cheese, but never have the dregs and unknowns of the supermarket aisles been scooped up with such raw appreciation and enthusiasm. “Babo” and “Paperbird” brand facial tissues? Yes, please! One-ply toilet paper? Heaven sent!
The death tolls rose like the devil’s own slot jackpot, and the return to normalcy we craved was pushed back further and further. State and county parks were closed, spawning a new round of disgruntled sniping by New Jersey radio show hosts (who issue even more complaints than the average newspaper columnist).
Life during coronavirus is unique because it asks so much from our medical and essential personnel, and from the rest of us, it asks… nothing. Literally, just stay inside and do nothing. Or do everything, it’s up to you. Just stay home. Considering the circumstances, and assuming no one will immediately perish of vitamin D deficiency, this seems a reasonable request.
Yet some citizens have given a new, negative meaning to “American exceptionalism”—as in, “The rules apply to everyone, but surely there’s an exception for me.” These people held, and still hold, private get-togethers of large groups of people, insisting that the free exercise of their own personal liberties outweighs the considerable danger to society at large.
New laws and regulations often prompt critics to compare government to a “nanny state” or “daddy state,” and here the comparison is an apt one. Like newly dating teenagers, we were asked nicely to obey a curfew and maintain a safe distance. When we, as a state, failed to fully comply, we were warned, then given a light restriction, and finally, we were all grounded.
Some people demanded that private companies provide free Wi-Fi or premium TV programming to ease the stress of sheltering in place—though maybe those expectations are understandable, even justified, after the unceasing barrage of ads proclaiming that so many of those companies are “there for us.”
It’s not exactly the stiff-upper-lip spirit of Londoners facing the Blitz in 1940, but this is a different crisis, in a different time, so if free, televised concerts by entertainers from their living rooms are what’s needed in order to get ourselves together, who am I to argue?
In keeping with that mindset, I’ve come up with my own motto to replace #AloneTogether, that ubiquitous corporate conconction that has focus group majority approval written all over it. It’s “Stand Up by Sitting Down”—sorry, make that #StandUpSitDown. Slightly less inspiring, but perhaps more to the point.
There’s plenty of bad news and anxiety, so I’m trying to look at positives, including the fact that my family has spent more time together these past few weeks than ever before. Of course, as I write this, I’m temporarily self-isolating from my wife and children—not because of COVID-19, but because after a while, 24/7 togetherness starts to wear thin.
While many of our best minds work to find a solution to the crisis, our worst keep themselves busy propagating conspiracy theories, taking credit, and assigning blame. In times of crisis it’s easy to slip (back) into the us vs. them mentality, but that’s all the more reason to focus on the things we have in common, like concern for our families and a compulsive need to hoard toilet paper. And though they’re less noticeable, the coronavirus also brings unique opportunities, be it togetherness, or solitude, or the fact that you can now pull up to a bank drive-through wearing a mask and gloves without fear of being dragged off in handcuffs.
As I write this, there are hopeful indications that our efforts are helping, in some small way, to “flatten the curve.” Most of us are being asked only to change our routines and face the uncertain future with a sense of both personal and social responsibility. It’s the least we can do.
Peter Dabbene is a Hamilton-based writer. His website is peterdabbene.com. His books can be purchased at amazon.com.