Beyond today: What to expect and how to face the COVID-19 crises

The last few weeks — even the last few days — have seen change that feels impossibly rapid. It’s disorienting and confounding. With so much to react to and so much uncertainty it’s difficult to look beyond today. And yet as unsettling as this moment may feel, it’s important to realize that what’s yet to come will have a still far more profound impact on our lives and our society. We will have important work to do to prepare ourselves not just to make it through a few days of enforced at-home-ness — and it’s important to therefore take a longer view of where this is all likely heading.

We’re at the outset of three nested crises — an immediate health care crisis ; an emerging crisis of a society ill equipped to be at home and absorb the large-scale disruption that dealing with the health care crisis will require ; and a not yet even realized civic and social crisis (of much greater proportion) that will manifest as we start to emerge from this.

The immediate health care crisis

Of the three, this crisis is the most immediate and its parameters best understood. At its heart, it’s not a crisis of a virus but a crisis of a poor response. The response of the Trump administration has been as inept as it has been corrupt. The administration has utterly failed to prevent coronavirus from exploding in the U.S., failed to prepare to protect and equip the medical community, and deepened the crisis by repeatedly lying to decision makers and the public. That crisis is unfolding now as woefully insufficient testing; dangerously inadequate capacity of hospital supplies, and medical personnel; poor and often still faulty information flow; muddled containment strategies; and continued lackluster anticipation of likely future scenarios.

This failure is costing lives. Although the magnitude of fatalities is still difficult to predict, the extent to which the incompetence and hubris of this administration has exacerbated an already bad situation is clear. It has turned what could have been a timely and life-saving response into a messy mix of government, industry, and private efforts.

Still, within that messy mix are heroic efforts by medical professionals, scientists, manufacturers, and individuals and organizations to save lives and stop the spread of disease.

The social isolation crisis

On top of the medical response, large segments of society are shutting down as we individually isolate ourselves and systems we normally interact with — and sometimes depend on — shut down. This collective isolation is revealing both predictable and less predictable gaps in our social fabric and in our preparedness.

These are gaps like the economic fragility of temp and gig workers, heightened food insecurity, and homes that aren’t safe for kids. They’re also gaps like intergenerational care dependencies, differential access to internet and information, and increased risk of suicide and severe mental illness.

This situation — with the myriad of challenges it’s uncovering — is unfolding so quickly that it’s completely swamped local governments and established institutions which can’t nearly mitigate all of the foreseeable and not so foreseeable problems. Communities are massively stepping up. Not in any centrally organized or thought-through way. There are now too many resources for comfortably middle class parents who want to home-school their children and not enough for people on fixed incomes, those with reduced mobility, those like grocery workers and postal service employees and Amazon warehouse workers incurring significant risk working outside of the home, and many more.

Still, the outpouring of generosity and community revival happening everywhere is beautiful and laudable. Importantly, though, this is not spring break. And it’s not a few sick days home with the family.

This is the new normal. It’s hard to look this new reality squarely in the face, but it’s likely to last for many months. Possibly for a year or more.

The situation we find ourselves in today — enforced isolation and reduced services — is hard, and it will be different if it stretches on that long. The sense of joyous collective camping now will give way to a more grinding ongoing reality that will require resilience and perseverance.

The challenge here is to maintain this early spirit of community and can-do-ness even as it becomes clear that this is not a brief or simple disruption. We must continue to support each other and lift up the most vulnerable even as we individually build up the emotional tools and the practical systems we’ll need to get through this time.

This can be done. Other countries have already shown that and other generations have endured difficult challenges ahead. It is also vital because, however much is asked of us in this period, a much deeper challenge lies ahead after that.

The civic, economic, and political crisis ahead

The period of isolation and direct medical response, while fraught, will be endurable. The reality we will meet when those challenges are met will be shocking.

The loss of human life is, at this point, difficult to know with certainty. It depends still on the success of containment efforts, on possible research developments, and on aspects of this disease that aren’t yet known. Estimates from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention range from 200,000 to 1.7 million. A death toll in the hundreds of thousands or more than million would mean that almost all families would be affected by COVID-related deaths.

Beyond the individual impact, the economic impact will be massive. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin warned of periods of unemployment of greater than 20%, absent countermeasures. Economic forecasts are already predicting GDP drops on the order of the Great Depression. Moreover, despite continued optimism, the world will not simply return to what it was. Many small business and whole industries will be unable to weather this storm. That will leave many communities unable to fully function and many families unable to meet basic needs.

This reality will hit starkly. When current restrictions and orders are lifted and landlords demand rent that people can’t pay or insurance companies bill for services rendered during this period the severity of what’s changed will quickly be revealed.

Beyond the economic impact there will also be large-scale emotional impact. The potential loss of a huge number of primarily older members of society will leave notable voids in our communities. Individual lives thrown into fragility or prolonged isolation will test the already limited mental health resources that many people have access to.

These challenges are also where mutual aid and community support will not suffice. As vital as they are to our ability to weather the current situation, the period after this will require more. It will require clear leadership and bold interventions. A one-time stimulus for families may be a good short-term measure now but reviving an economy and reviving communities after this will require larger systemic change. That may mean eliminating private insurance or implementing Universal Basic Income. It likely will also mean the complete re-creation of industries such as in home child care and food service. And it will almost certainly mean significant rethinking of how we meet the needs of those in poverty and build systems that reduce it.

This all seems like a distant and, frankly, horrifying discussion to have. It’s imperative, though, that as we begin to stabilize in our new normals we engage in it. Airline industries and Casinos queing up for bailouts are already doing so and an administration with demonstrated authoritarian tendencies won’t hesitate to curb civil rights or harm immigrant communities under the guise of responding to this disease. But allocating government money to select industries and privileging the recovery of some communities over others are choices. We all have a stake in deciding what those priorities should be and how boldly to meet them.

So where does that leave us

With three crises unfolding, what should we actually be doing and what can we do?

I think the priorities are these:

1. The medical crisis is acute and now. We need to support where we can — by reinforcing social norms, by holding a failed government accountable as best as possible, and by supporting caregivers.

2. Do the personal work to adjust your mindset, take care of those around you, and settle in for a longer haul. We need to have the grace with ourselves and each other to know that it will take a couple weeks to personally adapt to a new normal. And even then it will be an unpleasant one. But we can do this. We can figure out how to exist in the same house, how to minimize groceries but stay healthy, and how to lift each other up, within our homes and between them.

3. We can then foster resilient communities and help those most in need. We won’t get to it all fast enough but together — and with help from local businesses and leaders — we can support each other and aid the most vulnerable in our communities, even as our current reality becomes less novel and more trying. We can do this through creativity and determination.

4. Once we’re breathing and our communities are adapting, we should calmly but soberly start to think about what happens a number of months from now. We’re not going back. So let’s start to talk about it. We can’t prevent some level of devastation — but we can participate in rebuilding in just and caring ways after this.