The Corner

U.S.

Life in Contagion Nation

A woman wears a face mask on the subway as the coronavirus outbreak continued in New York City, March 13, 2020. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

The mental and emotional landscape of a true crisis is unlike that of ordinary life or ordinary politics. The falling dominoes of the past few days closing schools, colleges, churches, sports, theaters, amusement parks, etc., crashing markets, the infection of world leaders and A-list celebrities are piling up so fast that it is difficult to process quite how different our world is from the one we lived in less than a week ago. The Democratic primary, still ongoing, feels like a century ago; impeachment, once all-consuming, like something from a distant, ancient land. Talk of quid pro quos and socialism are out; toilet paper and hand sanitizer are in.

Our immediate instinct, at a certain point, is individual: the fight-or-flight response, which in the case of a virus is just flight. Then it gets collective, at the most basic of collective units: the family. My family rode out previous crises at home together, most notably September 11 (when my office was destroyed and our city filled with smoking rubble) and Hurricane Sandy (when we were without power, heat, TV or internet for a week and had a huge downed tree on our property mercifully land across our street instead of in our house). The primal urge to go retrieve my son (who now works further south) and older daughter (in college in New England) and get everybody under one roof for the duration is pretty overpowering right now. 

The social and political outcomes that follow downstream of that are yet to be fully played out. On a community level, as Erick Erickson notes, it’s still important not to go so far into our turtle shells that we forget to check on vulnerable or isolated members of our extended families, churches, and neighborhoods. On a national-politics level, Rich is right that a contagion arriving from foreign shores (originating in China, Donald Trump’s bête noire) probably activates some of the same instincts that drew people to Trump in the first place, if Trump can start acting on them. Either way, it’s clear that a lot of Americans are having the same primal reaction right now. We should certainly not leave reason, law, or science behind, but for at least a while now, more fundamental instincts are likely to take over.