For more than three years, we’ve been told that we cannot “normalize” things such as the president’s tweets, and I suppose I agreed. Now, we — all of us humans, very much including those whose president is not Donald Trump — are living in the most truly abnormal situation most of us have ever encountered. We should be careful not to get used to it, lest it set ugly precedents once this pandemic is defeated.
On Sunday, I packed my kids into our minivan and drove down Route 117 in Westchester County. I needed to get out of the house, and my spouse needed a break from the kids. I used bleach wipes to handle the pump at a gas station on the drive. Each town felt hushed, like the Jersey shore in mid-October. Some doors were shuttered, many with handwritten signs about plans to open or operate at reduced hours. Grocers were open, but traffic was eerily light.
One can tolerate instructions to stay indoors in an extraordinary public-health emergency, and I have. I believed in and called for schools to be shut in places of outbreak, particularly because young children have the hardest time practicing the stringent hygiene required to prevent the transmission of a flu-like virus. I still believe it was the right call, and think the evidence so far backs it up. Watching the very real strain on New York hospitals seems to confirm the need for such grave measures. At least here.
But they are grave measures. The utterly appalling number of recently unemployed and the utter chaos that small businesses are facing — with contradictory signals, instructions, and inducements from federal and state officials — are truly intolerable. The schools are Kafkaesque in their learning plans. Parents who are more organized than me demand more emailed lessons and teleconferences while others struggle to keep up. The superintendent one day writes to tell us to make the most of the upcoming week of Spring Break, and then days later writes to inform us he is following Governor Cuomo’s mandate that instruction will be provided every single day, even during the scheduled vacation.
Governments have been incredibly slow to explain and justify the massive, economically ruinous suppression of normal life undertaken to contain the coronavirus. Without a plan and some public explanation of when people might return to normal life, lockdown becomes an unbearable uncertainty in a free country. We become subject to a kind of ad hoc junta running our lives for the sake of public health and safety, even at the potential cost of a depression that would destroy people’s livelihoods, enterprises, marriages, and homes. If public health is the only thing we can agree on, we are a civilization in name only.
“Lockdown” itself is a word pulled from prison, and implies a kind of universal guilt upon those that Western governments have confined to house arrest. It is all the worse to use this word when it seems the measures it refers to might have been avoided if travel restrictions upon tourists and businessmen who know how to teleconference had been more restrictive earlier on.
Then, there is the problem of what we do to each other. In Britain there is a reported surge of citizens snitching on each other, self-righteously calling the police to turn in neighbors who exercise outside more than once a day. Tabloid newspapers print large photographs of everyday people shopping and ask their readers if they think the action depicted was really necessary. Police in Darbyshire used a drone to film hikers taking legal exercise (even this phrase is sinister), then publicized the video on social media and encouraged a spasm of public outrage at those not sheltering in place. The same police also poured black dye into a lagoon to deter hikers who might take selfies in it. Now, even pollution is necessary for public health and safety.
European countries such as Germany are considering handing out antibody certificates, which would allow one to move about freely if he had provably survived the virus and could demonstrate some immunity. One can see the logic of a measure like this, but it is a logic that vitiates freedom: One’s physical presence in normal life is presumed to be so potentially toxic and dangerous that it is preemptively disallowed. The unintended consequences of this are easy to imagine.
Of course, one doesn’t even need to resort to a slippery-slope argument to see the combined toll these indignities have taken on our fellow Americans. A friend who is a New York policeman is already seeing and dreading more suicides — jumpers particularly — that he knows must be the result of house arrest in a place such as Manhattan.
It’s true that nature has no obligation to be compatible with our civilization. And so, to preserve our civilization against cruel storms or a pandemic, extraordinary measures can be justified. But public-health authorities were too slow to take such measures in the present case, which made the suffering they caused once they were taken more acute.
I hope that someday we can look back and say that suffering was worth it — that, on the whole, we came together and made the best of terrible circumstances. But I also hope that we won’t forget the suffering itself — the odiousness of the measures taken, the poisonousness of the mood they put us in — and the fact that only the gravest, most diffuse danger to our very lives could have justified it. These are extremely abnormal times, and when they are gone we should never want them to return.