This, in mid-March 2020, is now the very abnormal normal in the new United States of Purell — a nation that watched for weeks as the coronavirus erupted in China, South Korea, Iran and Italy before starting down the path of figuring out how to encounter this threat itself.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, something tipped. Words and phrases used intermittently in recent days began coming at Americans in a dizzying fusillade: Canceled. Postponed. Scrapped. Stay home. Don’t come in. Don’t embrace. Don’t shake hands. Social distancing. Unprecedented. Crisis.
“I think it’s finally sinking in how serious this is, and how incredibly unprepared we are going into this. And people are scrambling,” says Dr. Mical Raz, a medical historian and practicing physician who teaches at the University of Rochester.
Which raises the central, delicate question: Are Americans ready to meet this challenge — a challenge distinct from any other that American society has faced in the last few generations? “You find out who you are when a crisis hits, what the culture and the character is. It’s the wizard behind the curtain,” says Hilary Fussell Sisco, an associate professor at Quinnipiac University who studies how people communicate in troubled moments.
President Donald Trump, in his Oval Office address Wednesday night, called the unfolding coronavirus saga “just a temporary moment of time that we will overcome together as a nation and as a world.” The coach of the Denver Nuggets, Michael Malone, after learning an NBA player had been affected, had this to say: “These are things you watch in movies.”
Trouble is, though, this whole thing isn’t really either a moment or remotely movie-like — which is precisely what makes it more challenging for a country accustomed to consuming, and reacting to, “moments.”
When 9/11 happened, it came with most of the markers that a society raised on Hollywood and Madison Avenue storytelling would find familiar. It happened in a certain place, over a specific and compressed period of time. Its scope was obvious by looking at it. And there were immediate villains to rightfully blame.
Many modern American cataclysms — from Pearl Harbor to the assassinations of the 1960s, from school shootings to space shuttle explosions to severe weather — have unfolded thusly. We know what to fear, what to be angry at, what to mourn — and, generally, we know how to do it.
It’s different this time. It has been diffuse, unfolding over continents and weeks, making it easier for Americans to tune out. It’s a crisis playing out in microdecisions. Do we go to the store? Keep the kids home? Wash our hands after this, after that, or both? Tiny decisions by the dozen begin with the rising sun and extend all the way to bedtime, producing disruption of routines, exhaustion and unease.
And on top of it all, the coronavirus in the United States is producing what is known in management circles as a “wicked problem” — one in which people disagree not only about solutions, but about whether the thing is even a problem in the first place.
“Everyone was sure that 9/11 was a crisis, that Superstorm Sandy was a crisis. Everyone isn’t sure that this is a crisis yet,” says Eric Martin, who teaches management at Bucknell University and studies disaster responses.
Overlay the almost unprecedented polarization of this moment in the republic, and you have circumstances unthinkable even three weeks ago: people of all political temperaments, facing the same revisions to daily life, the same risks, the same possibility of having to rely on each other to solve a global problem gone national and now fast going local.
Not that illness isn’t divisive. “Epidemics have always been politicized. Ask any gay man who was alive in the '80s,” says Raz. But in a context where you might be protecting yourself from your next-door neighbor, even if you live in a gated community, who to trust? Who to blame?
This is where the reaction of the past three days comes in. Whether reasons of risk management, compassion or common sense, institutions — universities, state governments, conference venues, sports leagues — are making decisions in anticipation rather than in reaction.
Because of that, the world we knew is inching toward being one that we don’t. Trump’s address and the measures he took suggested he was starting to see that, too. There’s something to all those cancellations and social distancing, something that’s not entirely clear quite yet. It goes something like this: What’s frightening — the strange, unsettling measures the country is starting to take — also can be reassuring.
The sense that American life is zipping itself up, going into hibernation, is terrifying, but it indicates action and engagement, too. The dwindling survivors of World War II-era America could tell you that: Sometimes the symptoms of resolve – the rationing of rubber and nylon and gas, the air-raid drills in the middle of the night – can masquerade as chaos. Sometimes, as with a vaccine, the prevention looks a little like the problem.
So this is where we are in mid-March 2020. But where will we be in mid-April, in mid-June, in mid-October? Will hand sanitizer be part of our life evermore? Will “gone viral” finally fade as an internet euphemism? Will we accept any restrictions on moment-to-moment freedom in order to free ourselves from the coronavirus?
“Who are we after this? Who are we after dealing with this situation that we’ve never dealt with before?” wonders Fussell Sisco, the crisis-communications expert. In a way, that’s part of the answer to whether American society can meet this moment and prevail. How we react now to events hurtling at us is staggeringly, unbelievably important. Who we become afterward? That page is blank, until we choose to fill it in.
Ted Anthony, director of digital innovation for The Associated Press, has written about American culture since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at @anthonyted.