The worry and unease about COVID-19 feels so inescapable that Americans can easily miss the sheer beauty of what is unfolding across the country right now. Yes, we are approaching errands that were routine just a week ago—to the hardware store or the grocery store—with the same wariness that we might bring to an Arctic exploration. Yet if we take a step back from the panic-buying of toilet paper, the response to COVID-19 should stand as one of the most beautiful moments in our country’s long history—a moment of shared, galvanizing national spirit that has existed in perhaps only in a handful of epochal years before, like 1776, 1861, 1933, and 1941, and, in modern times, after 9/11.
We are witnessing people everywhere, acting mostly independently but all together, shutting our country down—a move that ensures millions will face a massive, incalculable economic hit—to give the weakest among us a better chance against the novel coronavirus. We are each sacrificing our daily routines—our gyms and coffee shops and offices—to keep health-care professionals from becoming overwhelmed..
“Flattening the curve,” a phrase few of us had heard of a month ago, has arrived as an urgent national mantra akin to Rosie the Riveter’s “We can do it.” This call to arms reminds us how those on the front lines—the vulnerable (and equally scared) doctors, nurses, EMTs, paramedics, and other health-care professionals—benefit when all of us do our own little bit, and, in turn, how helping those first responders gives the inevitable patients, whoever they may end up being, the best chance of survival.
It is a collective act of almost unprecedented community spirit, a fundamental statement of how we stand together as a species. The many act to protect the few—an almost tribal, communitarian instinct that is all too rare in modern life.
COVID-19 is hitting the United States at a moment when partisanship and politics seem to define too much of our individual identity and worldview—and even one’s assessment of how serious a threat the coronavirus poses. But with cases in all 50 states, the virus is erasing distinctions between red and blue.
In the absence of meaningful national leadership, Americans across the country are making their own decisions for our collective well-being. You’re seeing it in small stores deciding on their own to close; you’re seeing it in restaurants evolving without a government decree to offer curbside pickup or offer delivery for the first time; you’re seeing it in the offices that closed long before official guidance arrived; you’re seeing it in the sporting events, concerts, theater productions, and other live events that evaporated last week day by passing day. For many of these people—from bartenders and store owners to indie bands and gig workers—these decisions to stay home or close early are surely among the hardest they’ve ever made, a decision to voluntarily forsake income to minimize the harm and health risks for people they may never meet and never know they’ve helped.
As the journalist Matthew Zeitlin wrote on Twitter, “One way to think about social distancing is that to contribute to a great national cause in World War II you had to, like, die face down in the muck on some tiny pacific island, now you can literally stay at home, watch the sopranos or that Netflix dating show and be a hero.”
For many people, forgoing familiar rituals—the calm of faith services or the reinforcement of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting—comes at a significant emotional cost. Moreover, the anxiety of the moment is real, both for ourselves and for our families, friends, and loved ones. Precisely because a sense of dread is entirely warranted, celebrating taking these drastic steps we are taking as a society becomes all the more important.
Even before federal and state leaders began ordering closures and cancellations in recent days, any number of small-business owners, restaurateurs, local mayors and officials, artists, and individuals provided leadership by prioritizing the collective health above their own profit motives or desperate need for income. We must recognize that truth, the collective-ness of this moment, and the mutual regard we all hold together for our communities and the most vulnerable among us in order to understand that the effect of turning off daily life with the suddenness of a light switch is actually as inspirational as it is a short-term hardship.
Most Americans now alive have experienced no more than one or two moments of nationwide unity. The oldest Americans remember the victory gardens and scrap-metal drives of World War II; Baby Boomers might recall the period of national mourning after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963; many of us recall the wave of patriotism and flood of flags after 9/11. Someday, we may very well tell future generations about the spirit of 2020, the spring of the coronavirus, when we learned about social distancing and exponential spread.
The path ahead—surely weeks and likely months—will be hard. The usual negativity of our politics will be very much on display as Congress debates potential aid packages for the industries and individuals harmed by the pandemic, and as President Donald Trump’s critics and defenders Monday-morning-quarterback the government fumbles that worsened the economic and human pain of the epidemic on America’s shores. That makes it all the more important, for this one moment—at the quickening point of the crisis—to pause and reflect on the sheer wonder of what we’re all doing, together.
The most isolating thing most of us has ever done is, ironically, almost surely the most collective experience we’ve ever had in our lifetimes.