Probably for most of us, the coronavirus crisis will soon enough—Six months? A year?—recede in our minds and come to seem like a hallucinatory moment. Maybe it will be like a hurricane that forced everyone to rush inland and then only glanced the coast.
Or maybe it will be like a hurricane that really does hit. Even then, human nature being what it is, most people will clean up and move on.
Yet no matter how the coronavirus pandemic passes, or how quickly, there is likely in these strange housebound weeks a new political epoch being born.
There are two large reasons to believe the political echo of this crisis will last much longer than the crisis itself.
The first is that many of the people whose expectations and routines are most dramatically upended by the pandemic are students. The interruption, and in some cases irreplaceable loss, of important experiences in their education, as campuses empty and untold events are canceled, will likely shape their consciousness in more lasting ways than for the rest of us.
Like most catastrophes, the pandemic’s malign consequences will fall most heavily on the underprivileged. Unlike most catastrophes, its costs are also being paid heavily by some segments of the most privileged. Those college seniors whose spring terms and graduation ceremonies are suddenly deleted include many people who are future leaders of the public and private sectors. No, it’s not the end of the world for them. But it’s a piercing loss even so—one being paid more for the benefit of older, less healthy people than for pure self-protection.
More profoundly, the dynamics of the coronavirus moment likely will resemble the dynamics of other great public policy issues shadowing the next generation. In particular, the global pandemic and the harsh choices it imposes offer—in highly concentrated fashion in coming months—much the same choices that responses to global climate change will impose in coming decades.
Like the coronavirus emergency, climate change is a problem whose dimensions are largely the province of scientific experts—employing complex data models aimed at illuminating future trends that the average citizen can understand in broad concept but not in detail. The essential question: Do you trust these experts, or not?
Like the coronavirus, climate change is a problem for which remedies are not solely the province of experts but are primarily the realm of community values. These remedies involve tangible and immediate costs for benefits that are abstract and imponderable.
In the case of coronavirus, for instance, the shutdown of the economy required by enforcing social distancing imposes costs that are immediate and quite likely already in your midst—layoffs of someone you know, uncertainty about future income, concern for a favorite neighborhood business about to go under. As to the benefits, meanwhile, no one knows—certainly not now, maybe not ever. Perhaps the massive response won’t really be effective and a public health catastrophe unfolds anyway. Or maybe the response in retrospect will seem overblown.
In the case of climate change, the tension between immediate certain consequences—whether paying a carbon tax or substantially altering consumption habits—for diffuse and distant benefits is more acute. The rewards for the deep and comprehensive changes needed to replace a carbon-fueled economy and halt the warming of the planet will be enjoyed—one hopes—primarily by people not yet born.
Finally, of course, coronavirus is like climate change in the sense that it is impervious to national borders.
One way to gauge the power of these currents—crisis fueled by frightening science—is by watching the change in President Donald Trump. There is no way to know for certain what the coronavirus means for his reelection. But already it is evident what it has meant for Trumpism. It has sent it hurtling into retreat.
Trumpism as an idea is about promoting and protecting American sovereignty and singularity. In some contexts, even Trump foes might agree it’s an attractive concept: Well might we wish to seal our borders from the virus. But the only way this would be effective would be if the United States had years ago opted to adjourn from the modern interconnected global economy. Yes, the coronavirus first presented itself in China. How many people were surprised to learn only in the past few weeks that nearly all U.S. antibiotics also come from China.
Trumpism as a style is defined not just by boasting and bluster; his triumphalism depends on projecting certitude. The president early on acted as if he could indeed create reality by proclamation, when he assured the public that U.S. infections would soon be down to zero.
Only in recent days, as the possibility of widespread domestic disease mounts, has Trump acknowledged imprecision—the fragmentary nature of our understanding of how far the virus has spread, how effective efforts to blunt its impact will be, or when these efforts will be deemed sufficient.
One way to appreciate the murkiness of our circumstances—and the moral implications of this murkiness—is to view them through the eyes of young people.
No need to overstate things. Missing spring semester is not the same as dodging sniper fire in Kabul, nor the same as being laid off from your job handling bags at O’Hare.
But nor should one understate things. Suppose baseball has been your consuming passion since age 6 and now at 22 you are expecting one last idyll as team captain. Now that season will never happen. Maybe you were planning to spend the semester in Peru and are now scrambling to see if you can find a flight home. Planes and restaurants will fill up again. In all likelihood that semester abroad is gone for good. Psych 101 perhaps can be taken remotely; the exhilarating 1 a.m. conversation in the dorm lounge will not be.
Out of curiosity, I read various college and university presidents’ letters announcing the closure of their campuses. Most were filled with the same kind of bromides as your workplace or mine offered about caring first and foremost for the health and etc., etc., of our community. One letter, by Williams College president Maud Mandel, stuck out for its candor: “A healthy person could reasonably choose to stay and accept the personal risk of catching COVID-19, but the decision would unacceptably increase the chance of contagion for others.”
Indeed, that 21-year-old might plausibly calculate, even if he or she gets sick the chances are, not for everybody but for most, that it would be a miserable few days rather than life-threatening illness. Those institutions closed less to protect their campus communities than to protect the broader society.
The coronavirus pandemic does not remotely have the cataclysmic shock and violence of 9/11. For many people, however, the virus’ actual day-in, day-out impact will be more pervasive. 9-11 was followed by a period, which turned out to be short-lived, of national connection and goodwill. Trump, who has made mockery and castigation of opponents his signature, surely did not conjure fuzzy feelings from many quarters with his appeal at the White House on Wednesday that, “We are all in this together.”
Yet the pandemic has a logic that transcends politics and personal feeling. Never mind how one feels about Trump. Never mind how we feel about one another. The reality of a dangerous virus is that we are all in this together.
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