It is a human wildfire and each of us feels like a dry leaf, praying the wind blows in the other direction. The flames of this COVID-19 virus are ripping through every institution we have in America, schools, sports, businesses, religious services. Many have never felt so vulnerable. We are tucking into our lives, wary of gatherings, wary of neighbors, wary of things that were just, what — two weeks ago? — symbols of our human spirit: handshakes, high-fives, hugs, kisses.
But there are ways to deal with this, ways to cope with this New World Disorder. And the first is to minimize panic, to remember that, for most of us, the worst outcome is flu-like symptoms for a couple of weeks. When you think of it that way, you wonder why society feels like it’s come off its wheels.
Perhaps because the problem, at least in this country, is not merely the virus, but how it is changing our sense of time and place. How long? Every question comes back to that. How long before it reaches our town? How long should we keep sending our kids to school? How long do we quarantine? How long until the critical point is past? How long will the stock market keep diving? How long before our relatives can visit from Europe?
How long until … a vaccine?
It is time — and the speed with which this virus is tumbling institutions — that has jolted us so thoroughly from the idyllic days of January, when our biggest worry was who’s going to shovel the snow. Since then, life feels like one of those films where a giant is plowing through the city, knocking over small cars and massive skyscrapers with the same indifference. Every day another big thing is erased.
Concerts canceled. Spring breaks canceled. Universities going strictly online. Games without fans. Debates without audiences. Then the NBA. Then the NHL. Then March Madness. Tom Izzo had to tell his promising Spartans team Thursday that instead of heading for the best month of the year, their season was done.
“I felt so bad for my seniors — especially Cassius (Winston),” Izzo told ESPN. Winston had come back to MSU for one more crack at a national championship, then tragically lost his brother at the start of the season. He regrouped and somehow led his team to a share of the Big Ten title — and now this. College career over. No more games.
Just like that.
Our nation, united?
But everything is happening that way, isn’t it? Just like that? Europeans can’t fly here. Just like that. Work tells you not to come in. Just like that. The stock market gave back all its gains for the last two years. Just like that. Every social gathering from the PTA to Coachella has been removed from the calendar. Just like that.
It’s like watching the lights go out in a major city, one grid at a time. So quickly, vibrant turns to silent.
This is not who we are in America. We don’t live in the dark. Which is why, more than many countries, we will have a harder time with COVID-19. It’s because of how good we have it and how freely we move.
We are not China, which can lock down entire regions at will, crush any media it doesn’t like, and move scores of workers to build a hospital in a week.
We don’t operate like that. We do things by consensus. The national mood matters. Which is why American resolve will be under the microscope the next few months, and we will be greatly tested by how we behave.
Will we turn on one another? Take a “better him than me’’ approach? Hoard our supplies? Distrust anyone we don’t know?
Or will we sacrifice? Will we think about what it means to actually be one country, not two, not a left vs. right, or sick vs. healthy? But one nation, united against a wildfire.
Can we do that?
Everything can be shut down
We’ll see. There are, to me, certain hard truths we must accept — or should have already accepted — to be levelheaded about where this will all go.
First, everything can be shut down. And most of it will be. Disneyland. Broadway. The Supreme Court Building. Landmarks, big and small. And they should be shut down. Not because we are scared, but because we are smart.
Those people in the sports world who pondered, “How bad will it have to get for us to suspend (whatever)?” were asking the wrong question. The question should have been, “How much better can we make things by shutting it down now?”
You don’t wait, as the NBA learned, until you find out a player is infected. You close the tent before the infections can start. The old adage of an ounce of prevention and a pound of cure is particularly true right now. We shouldn’t be hanging onto spring traditions hoping not to lose them too fast. We should be wrapping them in blankets quickly, so that summer and fall are not affected.
So, yes, of course the NCAA tournament and the NBA season and the NHL season needed to be shut down. You’re talking 20,000, 40,0000, 60,0000 people in one place. Doctors suggest avoiding groups bigger than 100.
Baseball will follow suit, I imagine, and cancel at least the start of its regular season (it already postponed it). And it’s hard to see how they will conduct the Tokyo Summer Olympics, which should and will likely be postponed.
But sports are hardly unique. Cruise ships. Airplane trips. Theme parks. Concert venues. Who knows? Shopping malls, health clubs, and all public schools may be next on the list.
But if it that happens, don’t be depressed. Know that it is better to preemptively pull the door shut then to try and clean up a post-outbreak mess. We have seen in New Rochelle and Seattle how fast COVID-19 can spread if people in gatherings are unaware of its presence.
And we have seen, in Italy, how bad things can get if you don’t act fast enough.
If we can protect ourselves, we should, in the small gestures, like hand washing, which keeps the little breeze from blowing an ember, and in the big gestures, like gathering for mass events, which can stave off a massive blaze.
Protect the elderly
That brings us to those who can’t so easily protect themselves: Our elderly. Why has this not been more of a federal priority? It’s an accepted fact that those over 60 are more at risk with the coronavirus, and those over 80 may be in mortal danger. Why is there no formal program to protect nursing homes and senior centers? To assure that homebound elderly can still get medical care and supplies? To construct facilities, even makeshift ones, that can handle seniors if our hospitals get overloaded? Aren’t our parents and grandparents worth making a priority?
This baffles me. As did the earlier suggestion by our Senate lawmakers that they wouldn’t pass legislation until after they returned from a scheduled recess. A scheduled recess? Were they serious? (They have since reconsidered and will be in session next week.)
But this is what the short-term future will come down to. A series of decisions, big and small, that will determine how long this thing will shadow us.
We need to be our best now. We need to be responsible and considerate of our society — and this doesn’t mean grabbing every roll of toilet paper off a Costco shelf and hoarding it into your truck. It doesn’t mean reporting on COVID-19 stories with political bias, when the viewers only need facts. It doesn’t mean threatening or ostracizing people who get sick, as if it’s them or you in a fight to survive.
Not even close.
The good news is, this will eventually pass and we will get through it. We have endured worse. COVID-19 isn’t shipping our sons and daughters off to war. It isn’t causing us to lose our homes. It isn’t threatening to blow up our buildings with no warning.
What it’s doing is upsetting the apple cart of our lives, and because our lives are good and blessed, it is more noticeable to us and to the world.
We are dry leaves in a wildfire now, combustible and brittle and subject to burning on the outside. But what’s inside will determine our legacy in this health challenge.
Let’s see what we’re made of.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.