Our time of dread
Is the worst yet to come?
My life and the lives of those closest to me have improved markedly since the pandemic began. The full lockdown is over where I live in the Philadelphia suburbs. It's possible to go shopping (with a mask) or grab a bite to eat at a restaurant (sitting outside). My son, about to start college, is planning to depart for campus and a dorm room in a month. My daughter, about to start high school, will supposedly be back in a classroom at least a couple of days a week in September. Time is no longer stopped. It's moving forward again, if a little haltingly.
Yet I don't feel much better than I did in April's darkest moments. People have taken to talking about normal life before coronavirus hit — the world without lockdowns and masks and layoffs and daily death counts and the constant fear of contagion — as "the before time." My problem is that I've begun to feel like I'm living in another such time right now — like there's some worse thing looming just around the corner as we dither and bicker about trivialities, oblivious to the doom about to strike.
This isn't rational. Or rather, it's a function of what I think is a rational analysis being permeated by an anxiety that pushes my imagination of outcomes and endgames into places I normally wouldn't seriously contemplate. The anxiety comes from having lived through two major and massive unforeseen events taking place in quick succession over the past six months — first, the coronavirus spreading across and shutting down the world; second, the video of George Floyd's death at the hands of the Minneapolis police sparking massive, weeks-long protests across the country and precipitating a moral revolution in American civil society.
Call it PTSD if you want. But those events — still ongoing, their consequences still rippling outward through the country and its economy and culture — combine in my mind with the daily drip, drip, drip of bad news to leave me poised for something worse. Or rather — poised for more of the same, only bigger. Much bigger.
The biggest thing of all is of course the virus itself. I remember when trusted models were predicting a total of 100,000 deaths from the pandemic. Skeptics dismissed this as scaremongering. Then the estimates were lowered to 60,000 deaths and the skeptics scoffed: "We wrecked the economy for this? It's just the flu!" That was three months ago. On Wednesday of this week, we surpassed 140,000 dead — and that same model currently estimates 224,000 deaths by Nov. 1.
How high will it ultimately go? New York City was hit extremely hard by the virus in the first wave, leading to a jaw-dropping 22,825 deaths out of a population of 8.5 million — which means that roughly one out of every 370 residents of the city died. Expanded to the country as a whole, this would suggest something on the order of 890,000 deaths. On the one hand, you'd think the lessons we've learned since the virus arrived, along with the possibility of a vaccine being developed over the next year, would prevent the numbers from rising that high nationally. On the other hand, New York rather massively slowed down the spread of infection within a couple of months with a strictly enforced lockdown. There is as yet nothing like that happening in those states — well over a dozen of them — where the virus is surging.
Which brings us to the economy. I don't see how it doesn't get much, much worse.
So far the government (including the Federal Reserve) has been spending lavishly to keep things in a kind of stasis, ready to return to normal with a minimum of enduring economic damage. Even so, many millions are now in long-term unemployment, with bankruptcies up and evictions and foreclosures bound to spike. Unless the government starts regularly printing trillions of dollars and using it to prop up the economy with no end in sight — which would obviously lead to enormous risks of its own and represent a revolutionary shift in the economic and political assumptions undergirding the country — it's hard to see how this doesn't start a cascade of terrible economic consequences, especially with COVID trends going in the wrong direction in so many places.
Consider just one piece of the incredibly complex puzzle: commercial real estate. All over the country, businesses are telling employees to work from home. This has been going on for five months now, and it's bound to continue. How long until these companies decide that work can be done perfectly well without employees coming into an office at all, even after the virus passes? Office towers in central cities as well as office parks in suburbs and exurbs across the country could soon lie vacant, with the building owners (and the banks holding the mortgages) on the hook for the massive losses.
And what about school? Opening public schools is enormously important — for the health of the economy and the well-being and future prospects of both children and their parents, most of whom need to work during the day and so can't (and are unqualified to) step in to serve as full-time homeschooling teachers. And yet, with the virus spreading far and wide across much of the country, it would be epidemiologically asinine to cram kids onto school busses and into crowded classrooms every day. The result is likely to be enormous economic disruption and psychological suffering.
The final element in the mix is the American character, which has been revealed by this crisis to be in far worse shape than I realized or suspected. Not everybody, of course, but enough to ensure that things are not going to improve quickly or before we've all had to endure an awful lot of pain.
Consider the experience of an old friend of mine — someone who studied with me two decades ago when I used to teach college courses in political philosophy. She's now a mother of several children in a mid-sized Texas city, married to a doctor of emergency medicine. The other day on Facebook, she implored her friends to please wake up to the coronavirus threat by at least wearing masks in public spaces. Her husband, she said, has been living a nightmare over the past two weeks, facing deaths from COVID every day, having to call a dozen or more people during every shift to give them positive test results. When he contacts them — people who are supposed to be self-quarantining — many are out and about, some going to work, others to public gatherings without masks, spreading the disease farther and wider in their community.
This Facebook post was met not with gratitude, support, or appreciation on the part of her friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. Instead it inspired incredulity and outrage. The most common accusation was that she was lying, just making it up. The danger wasn't real. It's been overblown by an untrustworthy media. Masks won't help. Why was she spreading lies and unjustified panic when people just need to get on with their lives and back to shopping and church and travel and school? Things got so abusive that my friend eventually deleted her post, allowing her peers on social media to lull themselves back to sleep.
When it comes to the pandemic, a significant portion of the population of the United States has succumbed to magical thinking. But a natural process like the transmission of a contagious disease doesn't care one bit about the lies with which a person, a community, or a country consoles itself. The virus will spread according to its own logic no matter what we think or how ignorant we will ourselves to be. That's why I've begun to fear COVID is just going to mow us down.
What kind of social, economic, and political disruptions are we likely to see as it happens? I shudder to think. Especially after observing the unanticipated nationwide conflagration that followed the killing of George Floyd. As my colleague Noah Millman argued during the early, most volatile portion of the unrest, it made sense to think of the looting and burning as "the coronavirus riots" — because the video of Floyd's final minutes of life was not sufficient to explain them. The manifest injustice captured on a cell phone and broadcast to the world online — like many others before — was of course the absolutely necessary condition of the protests, but there also needed to be a pent-up, bored, lonely, frustrated, and volatile population craving a cause for there to be destructive unrest.
Now imagine a nation in which the ranks of the unemployed grow every week for months on end, constantly provoked by its president, some terrified of infection, others claiming it's a conspiracy, nearly everyone disgusted by institutional incompetence — and then the economy really starts to tank, with waves of bankruptcies and layoffs, a flood of evictions leading to a huge increase in homelessness, a bigger wave of urban crime than we've already seen, foreclosures that push banks to the brink and erase the equity of homeowners, and a belated stock market crash that wipes out the retirement funds of half the country.
Tick, tick, boom.
What would the explosion look like? I have no idea. All I do know is that I spend an awful lot of time dreading it.