Nature Versus Society

Once the coronavirus became an obvious serious threat, I found myself struggling to find an historical precedent that could help make sense of the global magnitude and uncertainty of the event. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. It’s pretty natural to seek lessons from the past to guide us and give us heart.

The onset of World War II for America, as it turns out, may be the only comparable time in our national history. The War affected most of the world at the same time. It was probably the last event to do so until this year. So there are lessons to be learned. One thing we know, our society was hugely transformed by the Second World War as was much of the modern world.

That War and the the novel coronavirus have much in common. Let’s look back for a moment to try to imagine ourselves in that time. Then we’ll look to what our future might bring.

In 1941, the war in Europe had already been underway for two years while the U.S. officially remained neutral. Many Americans strongly opposed our entry into war. Folks like Charles Lindbergh and John D. Rockefeller thought Adolf Hitler was pretty cool. Meanwhile Japan was at war in the Far East. Our military leaders knew Japan was planning a major naval attack, but assumed it would be in the Philippines, and thus nothing to worry about. It was common knowledge that Japan lacked the wherewithal to stage an attack on our naval base in Hawaii.

So it was a total surprise when on the morning of December 7, 1941 the Japanese navy made a surprise aerial attack on Pearl Harbor virtually destroying America’s Pacific Fleet in a matter of hours. The shock was staggering. Everyone in America would remember exactly where they were when they heard the news. America wasn’t ready for war. Separated by oceans, America had felt safe and strong in its geographic isolation.

While we know America would win the war, back then absolutely no one could anticipate that outcome. The future was a blank, dark slate. The United States got caught with its pants down. And things would get a lot worse before they got better.

The commonality of today’s Covid-19 virus and America’s entry into WWII is this. Suddenly we were under attack from an enemy we didn’t see coming. No one could believe it. This hadn’t happened before. How could this have happened? What would happen next? Who is to blame? How will we survive?

On the radio the following day, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke the famous words, “. . .  the day will live in infamy.” People listened to the FDR’s voice on the radio (if you owned one) for guidance, leadership and hope. There was no other voice. There were no TVs; only radio, your daily newspaper, some magazines like Life, Look and Time and the MovieTone News at the “picture shows.”

Four days later Germany declared war on the United States. Americans found themselves expecting direct attacks any day by the Germans and Japanese on the U.S. mainland. Air raid sirens and blackouts were routine.

The country’s economy and way of life were turned upside down in the ensuing months and years. Gradually people realized our country would never be the same again. Soldiers, seamen and airmen were shipping off to war with no return dates. Factories were shifted into war matériel. Women took over men’s traditional jobs. The Great Depression became a memory. Domestic goods were rationed: shoes, gasoline, nylons, butter, meat, cooking oil, rubber. People saved tin cans, string, bacon grease and rubber bands.

When Pearl Harbor was attacked I was not born yet, arriving a year later. I grew up during the war and then for years afterwards I heard stories of the experiences and sacrifices people had to make to contribute to the war effort. As a youngster in the 40’s and 50’s these deprivations and sacrifices became a normalized value that was bred into me and everyone else my age. Frugality was paramount. You cleaned your plate. We did not know any different. Almost every family in America had members in the service and many families lost close relatives in the war. Mine did too.

Looking Ahead

Cataclysmic events cause societal and economic changes that otherwise would possibly take a lifetime to emerge or never at all. When the proverbial dust settles the old normal is gone. It’s like Humpty Dumpty.  (Thank God for Mother Goose.) Societies look around for the broken pieces and shards and begin to rebuild, but it will be different. And, most importantly, everybody realizes that things have to be different. Don’t bother with Humpty.

That process has already begun to happen in America, in case you haven’t been paying attention. 

  • As vehicles disappear, around the world reports abound of dramatic drops in nitrous dioxide (NO2), a toxic gas mostly caused by vehicle emissions that harms the lungs of all breathing things especially asthmatics. New York City’s air pollution levels have already dropped 50%. Environmental scientists are calling this an accidental experiment that could never have been intentionally planned and carried out. But, remember the old WWI song lyrics: “How are you going to keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen gay Paree.” Once the urban masses have seen the smog lift, tasted cleaner air and breathed deeply, they are not going to forget this and will be far more eager to protect clean air.
  • Witness a huge irony happening all around us. A truism: Nature is always the winner, eventually, when Society tries to resist it. Global warming is Mother Nature’s way of telling us that Society is screwing up the environment. Now Covid-19 may be helping us push back against global warming. Electric cars are going to part of our lifestyle sooner than we thought. Coal and Oil are on the way out. Could this lead to a big step in combatting climate change? 
  • A barrel of crude oil is selling at $24 today, forty percent of the price at the beginning of this year. This is partly because global demand has shrunk. Oil inventories are overflowing storage capacity. In the U.S., the fracking and refining industries could be gravely wounded. The Covid-19 pandemic may someday be looked back on as the beginning of the end of fossil fuel’s heyday.
  • Our health care system, already well out of control in terms of costs and access, has proven itself woefully inadequate. The pandemic has erased any doubt that millions cannot get the life-saving care they need when they lose their jobs. The practice of medicine, private and public, will have to be reorganized and paid for differently. Universal health care, for many an unattainable dream since the Nixon administration, and for others, a paradigm for rampant socialism, will now be realistically on the table. 
  • The stock market’s gigantic losses beyond anyone’s pessimistic imagination has shivered the timbers of investors, big and small, and possibly made financial planning (i.e., retirement planning) into an oxymoron. The stock market will someday rise again, but who wants to ride the roller coaster where the cars come off the tracks. 
  • A universal basic income (UBI) for certain elements of society will surely get a far more serious look. UBIs have been empirically tested in various forms over the years in different countries and may prove to be a viable path. The fact that in 2020 millions of households live from paycheck to paycheck and possess almost no financial resilience — even when fully employed — tells us that our economic system is fundamentally flawed. Covid-19 has exposed another critical societal divide between the citizens who don’t much need the safety net, and all the rest who find the safety net has gaping holes for them to fall through. Trillions of dollars of emergency legislation to stitch the gaping holes, only goes to prove how bad the situation has become in our country. People need to be able to earn enough to build to live and build a savings cushion. A $7.25 Federal minimum wage is a sharecropper’s allowance.
  • Maybe we have seen the first glimmer of the restoration of a bi-partisan Congress for the first time since Newt Gingrich proselytized the Republican Party’s “Contract for America” in the 1990s. Remember when a Republican dominated Congress under President Obama refused to spend money to expand Obamacare without offsetting cuts in other programs because, Republicans said, our country was “bankrupt.” Now Congress has allocated over two trillion dollars to salvage our economy. Wave bye bye to obsolete ideologies. Gee, whatever happened to the need for a balanced budget?
  • “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,“ said President Ronald Reagan in his 1981 inaugural address. That has been the mantra of the right for the past 39 years: less government is better government. The right has distrusted and denigrated our national government, alleging waste and inefficiency, and reaching its nadir with Trump’s fantasy about a “deep state.” Now that the almighty free enterprise system is staggering, big business stands at Congress’s doorstep, cup in hand, whining for government handouts. That happened in 2008 but the lesson did not sink in. Here we are again in 2020. Reagan may have been witty and clever, but he was wrong. Covid-19 will undoubtedly change a lot of corporate minds. 
  • Scientists’ credibility has hopefully gotten a giant shot in the arm. Anti-intellectualism, and the accompanying distrust and ridicule for expertise, excellence and genius, has pervaded our country for decades. Now maybe we’ll begin to see that change. Today it’s Dr. Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, who everyone wants to listen to, and not the bloviating President who hasn’t an original idea in his head. 
  • Businesses and educators are fast acclimating to remote work, remote instruction and remote meetings and collaboration. Is there anyone not learning about Google Hang Out, Zoom, Team Meeting and other apps? What does this mean for the future of job commuting, rush hour congestion, office building construction? Maybe we won’t need two more lanes added to the I-495 Beltway. It is time to guarantee broadband connection to every domicile in the U.S., just like water and electricity.
  • As working from home becomes routinely commonplace, sick leave and childcare issues may become far more manageable for certain employees and employers. 
  • Covid-19 is testing the resilience of families, no matter how they may be comprised and whether they live under one roof or are scattered across the globe. It’s fair to hope this pandemic is knitting those we love closer together.
  • Younger folks are naturally stressing over their parents’ and grandparents’ health, calling them, texting and FaceTiming. For many scholastic and college students the big stressors have always been the pressure of exams and project deadlines. Now, maybe not so much as Covid-19 gives new meaning to stress.
  • Marriages are being tested as couples cope with the lockdown and have nowhere to go. Maybe long overdue conversations are happening as we talk over meals, board games, jigsaw puzzles and dirty dishes. Perhaps we are finding better ways to listen to each other as we share existential anxieties, the what-ifs and the need to negotiate alone time amidst the togetherness.
  • Kitchens are being put to use as pizzas and carry-outs lose their luster. Expect the art of baking to rise again, dutch ovens being pulled down from the top shelf, and crock pots simmering soup and stews. With warming temperatures, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a keener interest in vegetable gardens. During WWII these were called Victory Gardens. Our own fresh produce tastes all the better for the labor put into it. We also hear more stories of chicken raising. 
  • Grocery deliveries are in high demand. Chains can’t hire people fast enough to fulfill the deliveries. What goes around comes around, they say. When I was boy there was the milkman, the egg man, the bread man and the Fuller Brush man. The idea of home delivery is not new.  Right now the idea of eggs and milk being delivered to our door seems pretty desirable. 


How do we keep our distance and yet stay emotionally close?

Here is the point where WWII and Covid-19 don’t compare anymore. My friend Erwin pointed out to me that for the first time in world history, all mankind is united in facing a common enemy. Think about it.

This is a time of unification. The human impulse in times of trial is to gather with others and put an arm around someone’s shoulder and squeeze. (I remember on 9/11 hugging the fire chief of Steamboat Springs, Colorado where we were at the time. He was dressed in a very starched white shirt.)

But we can’t do that.

Isolation runs counter to our nature as social beings. It doesn’t feel right because it isn’t. Our emotional wellbeing depends not just in communicating with one another — we can do that easily — but being literally with other people even if we don’t know them. When we visit a library, attend a ballgame, or shop in a store we unconsciously bond to all those around us who are sharing the same experience. If you doubt that, think how it feels to be the only customer in a restaurant or the first person to show up at a party. It feels strange and uncomfortable. 

With proximity we have eye contact, body language and inadvertent physical contact. We wear our public face and match our behavior to the occasion. Being seen in public by others awakens our self-consciousness and triggers spontaneity.

My deepest concern is the loss of community. Community forms a huge part of our identity whether it’s where we worship, our work colleagues, classmates, a circle of friends, a Veterans organization, the places we frequent, the team we root for, the politics we espouse, or the town we call home. 

The pandemic weakens our community as it threatens our lives. The core institutions that structure our lives: schools, colleges, theaters, libraries, museums, sports venues, and the forums for public discourse and protest have suddenly become fragile and tenuous.

Video technology helps sustain work connections and education, but ultimately it is a temporary artifice with limited utility. It is painfully clear video cannot substitute for the efficacy of human propinquity. If you doubt that, try flirting romantically during a Zoom meeting. So, the question becomes how long can this isolation be sustained before we lose social continuity.

Many small business are going to close if the lock down goes beyond another 30 days. This will be tragic. Economists say we are headed for a big recession and sustained unemployment. Government loans will pay bills and wages, but small businesses depend on customers to survive. People in the entertainment world are suffering mightily. 

Most unfortunate is that at a time when we need to rely on our faith to pull us through, churches, synagogues, temples and mosques are sealed off. It is a shame that religious leaders cannot find ways to lead outdoor services in parks or parking lots. Practicing our faith alone is not the same as congregating with others, even if at a distance. Jesus didn’t need a temple to give his sermons.

Regarding our doctors, nurses, and first responders, America after the Second World War treated our warriors as heroes when they came home and honored them in many ways. It’s been 75 years since those victory parades. In 2020 our front line people dealing with Covid-19 daily are risking their lives just as much as the ones who fought on the Pacific islands and on the beaches of Normandy, and who can stand beside our 9/11 World Trade Center heroes.

Thousands of other heroes in America today include our scientists, journalists and reporters and, of course, the cashier at the grocery store. This will be the greatest legacy of our surviving and ending the Covid-19 Pandemic.

I have a feeling that next November 26 for all of us under age 81, Thanksgiving will have a far deeper meaning than it has ever had before.