The spread of COVID-19 presents a new normal.
By: Roland Flamini
“Grandpa, what’s an office?” “It’s a building where people used to go to work, in the old days.” “Did you go?” “Oh yes, every day.” “Every day? Oh, you mean like that old TV show that dad watches, everybody working in the same room?” “Exactly. Every day at the same time for 28 years, then, suddenly, it stopped.” “Why did it stop?” “In 2020 there was a pandemic, a virus – a bug – that made millions of people all over the world, and a lot of people died. They tried to stop it spreading by sending everybody home. Eventually, it worked, but people never went back. That bug changed a lot of things. First, they called it Coronavirus, then it became COVID-19.” “Was that in President Cuomo’s day?” “No. The president was a feller named Trump.”
Well, OK, with COVID-19 still trundling like the juggernaut, crushing victims in its path, any attempt to envision what life will look like when it’s all over is bound to be mostly fictional. But for many Americans, the workplace is a defining focus. It’s the center of their human contact, the crucible of their creativity, and the source of their livelihood and well-being.
The fact is that, despite the mounting toll in confirmed cases and lost lives, history will record this pandemic as much more of an economic and social crisis than one of public health. It has turned normally sociable Washingtonians into cave dwellers who emerge only to hunt for food in the supermarkets, or wait in anxious lines to be tested for the virus. Digital work tools like WhatsApp are now lifelines in the struggle against loneliness and stress.
In the Washington area and across the nation, families are discovering both the joys and the frustrations of enforced togetherness. Desperate working parents are recruiting grandparents to help with home schooling for their children, via Skype. The endless hours kids spend on video games and YouTube, once the target of parental disapproval, are now welcome distractions.
Economists are virtually unanimous in predicting a global recession to follow in the virus’s wake. At one point, President Trump floated the notion that protecting the U.S. economy needed to take precedence over protecting American lives, but, sadly, the end result will more likely be equally damaging to people and the economy. For one thing, Congress’s recently-passed $2 trillion infusion of cash is less a stimulus than a safety net under the falling economy. Experts say stimulation will require even more cash in the not too distant future.
It’s true that the coronavirus incubated in China, as Trump and his cohorts never tire of pointing out. But a failure of leadership, pretty much worldwide and not excluding the United States, allowed the virus to spread out of control. And if COVID-19 is one virus, anxiety is another– although it’s not much consolation to those who contact the disease that, on present showing, they are more likely to survive it, than die of it.
In Washington, “a lack of preparation, deep rooted dysfunction, and a reckless president,” as The Guardian newspaper put it, led to a slow, stumbling start in confronting COVID-19, and continues to undermine the campaign to suppress it. The inevitable game of who knew what and when is only getting started. It won’t go away, but meanwhile, truth has been the second casualty of the virus’s spread – the first of course being the thousands of its victims. For the moment, Trump controls the narrative through his White House Afternoon Follies on television: most of the evening news consists of reaction to his daily brew of divagations – slipping, sliding, dodging, arguing, insinuating, denigrating, patting himself on the back, urging the nation to practice social distancing even as he and members of his team rub shoulders in contravention of his own rules on the White House stage. By contrast, participants in New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s press briefings are spaced feet apart, practicing what they preach. We now know that participants in Trump’s Follies are scrubbed within an inch of their lives before coming into contact with Trump, but the visual of a president who is either indifferent or immune from harm misleads the public.
Experts warn that things will get worse before they get better. But California Governor Gavin Newsom, whose state is among the worst hit in the U.S., remains realistic. “This is a moment in time,” he says. “This is not a permanent state.”