(March 16, 2020 / JNS) I have a new nonfiction book being published this week. I can’t think of a less promising time to launch a book into the public square—unless the subject matter is about germs, viruses, pandemics and how to survive them. (Alas, my book touches on none of those topics.)
This pandemic has placed all of our lives on pause. There is much fear and uncertainty. Never before have Americans, arguably, received less information about the danger ahead. The coronavirus may not end up as the second coming of the bubonic plague, but whether or not it exceeds the mortality of what happens every year during flu season remains an open question.
Without making light of our dilemma, the trying times of a global health crisis does have its own compensations. Suddenly, all that once mattered is of lesser, if not altogether forgotten, importance. This is what happens when the coin flip of life and death is still up in the air. It presents the ultimate taking-stock moment. Even the least reflective among us find themselves searching for wisdom. Indeed, self-reflection becomes an urgent national project.
What else is there? The financial markets and pension plans have plunged, sporting contests cancelled, home sales stalled and travel bans imposed. All of our jets have been cooled. An unhappy hiatus has put an end to almost everything. Like lepers, we’re advised to avoid public gatherings. Colleges are closing and classes are being taught online. Places of worship will soon migrate to living rooms. The sharing of Kiddush cups and the taking of Communion, once highly symbolic, are these days too unsanitary, replaced by ritual baths in the form of Lysol and Purell.
Working from home will leave us all isolated—shut-ins stockpiling canned goods and toilet paper. “Community spread” are now the latest trending words. There are shortages of bottled water and surgical masks as if the End of Days is upon us and the day after tomorrow may never actually come.
The blue lights from TVs, tablets and smartphones will shine even brighter and will be attended to with even greater addiction—like zombies waiting for instructions, human contact eroded even further, our privacy invaded while feasting on more disinformation. All channels are dialed into doomsday scenarios or whatever disaster flick can be streamed on Netflix.
Even our upcoming presidential election now seems irrelevant, even though our choices have been narrowed to three men who, statistically speaking, stand a good chance of catching COVID-19 by being in a danger-prone age bracket.
Did the more immune Mayor Pete Buttigieg quit too soon?
Yet, despite all the global hysteria, the world, itself, has bizarrely become calmer. Once-global hotspots have cooled, or gotten hotter, but for different reasons.
China has been too busy as the epicenter of the coronavirus to cause further hacking mischief on the digital highway. The only intellectual property they seem interested in these days is limited to potential vaccines. Hong Kong protestors are the least of their concerns, and those protestors have abandoned the streets, too, all for the same reason: to avoid crowds.
The Syrian Civil War, now into its 10th year, arguably the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century, now has competition, and is coming off of a fragile ceasefire.
Iran is still a global menace, but the mullahs made the mistake of directing their scientists to spin centrifuges rather than have the population practice basic hygiene and social separation. Talk about misplaced priorities. While they cope with one of the most severe cases of the corona outbreak, perhaps they will take a break from hanging homosexuals from the top of cranes for public viewing.
Israel’s borders on the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been quiet, as the Jewish nation takes aggressive measures to combat the coronavirus. So focused is its commitment to saving lives that it would surprise no one if Israeli scientists end up developing the first vaccine. Then watch the BDS crowd sheepishly slither into line, their sleeves rolled up, fiendishly uninterested in boycotting the cure.
As soon as they’re inoculated, however, you can bet they’ll delegitimize Israel’s gift to the world as corona-washing—not the beer, but the virus—not unlike how the nation’s welcoming of gay pride, found nowhere else in the Middle East, is routinely tarred as pinkwashing.
Soon the microbic abyss we find ourselves in will come to an end. Life will return to normal. The stock market will recover. Supermarkets will resupply. We’ll shake hands once again without eyeing one another, suspiciously, as virus-carriers.
Humanity then will almost instantly return to making the same dumb mistakes—like not taking an epidemic seriously enough until it graduates to a pandemic. And, of course, nations will go back to war.
But what if they didn’t? What if this breather ended not with lingering respiratory problems but with an abundance of human kindness? Once emerging from our respective quarantines, imagine that the upshot of all this social distancing taught us, improbably, to become nicer to each other.
Wouldn’t that be thrilling? A crisis well spent. That, and having had the downtime to pick up a newly released book.
Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, law professor and Distinguished University Professor at Touro College, where he directs the Forum on Life, Culture & Society. His latest work, “Saving Free Speech … from Itself,” will be published this week. He can be reached via his website.
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