Column: Is American society ready for the coronavirus pandemic?
A few months after September 11, 2001, David Brooks went back and looked at coverage of Pearl Harbor for an article in the Weekly Standard (“After Pearl Harbor,” December 10, 2001). What he saw intrigued him. A sense of unity and patriotism followed both surprise attacks. But media after Pearl Harbor had none of the sorrow, sensitivity, and angst that filled the news, with reason, after 9/11. Recognizing the inevitable costs of war, Americans on the home front at the outset of World War II were nonetheless eager to carry on as usual. They did not apologize or second-guess. They soldiered on. “When you step back and contemplate the range of post-Pearl Harbor media,” Brooks wrote, “you are struck by how extraordinarily proud of itself America then was.”
I revisited Brooks’s article this week while thinking about the differences between America during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 and America during the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic today. Some of the distinctions are self-evident. America is far more wealthy, free, and technologically advanced than it was then. We enjoy the benefits of incorporating half the population into our economy and society, of ending de jure anti-black racism, of attracting the best and most ambitious talent from across the globe. We are no longer a rising power but a reluctant hegemon. A raw deal awaits any American who trades places with a doppelgänger from midway through Woodrow Wilson’s second term.
What changed is the American ethos. Expressive individualism replaced self-restraint. Narcissism and the therapeutic sensibility triumphed over the reticence and sense of tragedy that comes from living in places and times where there is no safety net and death is a constant presence. The culture of debunking, revisionism, and repudiation informs education, entertainment, art, and occasionally sport.
The size, scope, and ambition of the federal government and its managers is far greater now than it was then. So are the public’s expectations of government capabilities and performance. The institutions that stand between the individual and state have weakened where they have not crumbled. Family, community, religion, and voluntary association attenuate as modernity deprives them of their traditional functions.
The United States is beginning to shut down and self-isolate. Its G7 partners range from states of quarantine (Italy) to lockdown (France) to closed borders (Germany). Countries do not make such decisions on a lark. Nor is the reason for these extraordinary measures a secret. What terrifies the authorities is the prospect of surges in infection that would push public health systems beyond capacity and result in mass death. To prevent a medical catastrophe, the authorities guarantee an economic one.
The social capacity of America has received less attention. The worst-case scenarios anticipate an epidemic that lasts until a vaccine can be mass produced 18 months from now. Do we believe that American society could withstand until then the additional pressures that have been put on it over the past week?
The typical discussion of how coronavirus will change your life focuses on a specific practice or sector of industry. You hear a lot about telework, home schooling, vote by mail, or movies released on Video on Demand rather than in theaters. This piecemeal approach is understandable. Perhaps the problem is so complex, the potential extent of the disruption so massive, that the way to approach it is to study one aspect at a time.
But an extended lockdown will affect more than activities. It will warp institutions. There is a debate over how Congress might operate under social distancing. What about churches, synagogues, and mosques? Church attendance was falling before the virus. Even if the pandemic were to revive the religious impulse, would-be prodigal sons won’t be able to attend services. Church finances—nonprofits in general—will be harmed. In some cases, the damage will be irreparable.
The family enters this crisis beleaguered. My American Enterprise Institute colleague Nicholas Eberstadt writes in National Affairs of “the collapse of work for adult men, and the retreat from the world of work of growing numbers of men of conventional working age.” The recent improvements in the overall labor force participation rate will disappear if the economic fallout of the pandemic is large and enduring. Long-term joblessness and lack of prospects are barriers to marriage and to family formation. And the two-parent family is the seedbed for the character formation of young people. The social costs are enormous. And they are mounting.
Bill de Blasio’s indecision over whether to close New York City schools revealed that these institutions perform parental functions as much as educational ones. The school has become much more than a place of instruction. It is the site of feeding, caring, and supervision (if not disciplining) of children. Deprived of the shelter of the local school, children and young adults will have to look to parents for meals, instruction, and surveillance. Are parents ready to fulfill the responsibilities assumed by the state? What will happen when parents return to work or look for new employment? Will teenagers obey a guidance or curfew that is not enforced under penalty of law?
Large pools of nonworking or truant males are not associated with social or political stability. But they loom large in our future. The economic self-isolation of America can continue only for so long as American society permits. And if Americans, as they have tended to do, revolt against strictures from above, how will authorities respond? None of the answers are comforting. If the coronavirus overwhelms America’s social capacity, our government won’t be in a position to choose between an economic crisis or a pandemic. It will have both.