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Life during wartime

Donald Trump says he’s a “wartime president,” and I would have to agree. I’ve been alive for a couple wars, and I’ve read about a couple more, and everything we are dealing with under the COVID-19 pandemic certainly feels like we are fighting a war.

There are many similarities:

  • We measure each day in death and devastation: How many have died, how many are jobless.
  • We take care to recognize, if only nominally, our “heroes;” during conventional war, it’s the troops and under coronavirus, our health care providers and first responders. (I would add DoorDash drivers.)
  • We are training ourselves to live with less. During Middle East skirmishes we use less gasoline; during COVID we ration toilet paper.

In the time of the COVID War we think about our loved ones more often. We lament not being able to visit them when, in all fairness, six months ago we consciously chose to go to food truck festivals, apple-picking and even to see the new Terminator reboot rather than visit them. Freedom is just another word for a chance to make decisions you’ll regret during a pandemic.

The thing is, I never felt personally threatened during wartime before. Anything I did differently was out of sympathy or empathy for my countrymen, not because I was in imminent danger. We live in America; even post-9/11, the idea that there’s a killer on the loose targeting thousands of my neighbors, and I could be next, is abstract bordering on unimaginable. It makes the little differences bigger and scarier, in my opinion. Not leaving the house for days, even weeks on end, and working remotely, is a big lifestyle change that doesn’t feel monumental, only weird. But I have two friends who have lost parents in the last couple weeks, and their funerals were private, spare, no children, no extended family and no guests. Graveside, six feet apart, quiet and small. Like Anne Frank in the attic, invisible to most, remarkable only in memory.

Little things like that, the images in my head, scare the crap out of me.

How we treat each other, the little nuances of interacting with those around us, makes up a large part of how we define life. It sounds counter-intuitive but it’s true. I used to work in health care, and one of the random facts I retained is that people form opinions about their hospital stay based on three things: The quality/attentiveness of the nursing care, the cleanliness of the room, and the food. Note the absence of arguably the most important consideration, namely, “Did I get better?” We have learned to accept our control over the big things in life is an illusion, which magnifies the importance of the small things, the niceties.

Sometimes the things that matter most are the teeniest, tiniest things that cost nothing at all: a smile. Holding a door for someone. Letting another car merge in front of you. Tiny random acts like this can nudge our mood stubbornly over to the positive. They can be like puffs of air across our smoldering ash-pile of a day, refusing to let that last little fire of hope and humanity flicker out. In our self-quarantine, without the prospect of this kind of nourishment, the absence of evidence of our shared humanity is what makes the experience inhuman.

Which brings me to the other big difference I have observed between conventional wartime and life during COVID-19.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am. In the past, when the US was at war, there was a period of time in which we forgot most of our differences and united as one people, one country. Even when we couldn’t agree on how or why we got there (e.g. Viet Nam, Desert Storm) we aligned and put, for a moment, others first. We put our differences in boxes momentarily, saving them for future days when we’d have to take them out and use our selective memories to blame each other again. After all, that’s the American Way. Our culture of blame persists but never prevented us from pausing to unite.

But I’m looking around and I don’t see that. Oh sure, there are good news stories. We have a neighbor I couldn’t identify in a police lineup who has been making protective masks for others; I know things like that are happening widespread. Teachers are forming caravans to take meals into the community and children are scrawling thank you’s to first responders in sidewalk chalk. It’s lovely. But it is localized and microscopic and it doesn’t look at all like a nation coming together against a common enemy.

Instead we have an escalation of harsh and critical words between and among our elected leaders. I don’t want to take a side here – that defeats the purpose. But can we agree that the once-reliable pause in blame and rhetoric we used to enjoy is notably absent this time around?

In Whoville, we can’t hear the Whos linking hands in song because they are too busy pointing at each other, accusing their neighbors of letting the damned Grinch in; demanding to know why they weren’t told about the risk sooner. And who’s gonna pay for all those presents?

In the last week or so I’ve seen people protesting government measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus, like it’s something being done to them instead of for them. I saw a news story online about my favorite supermarket, Wegman’s, increasing their employees’ pay by $2 an hour during the crisis. (Yay!) Then I read the comments below, in which a truly astounding number of people said things like, “Two dollars, great. It’s not worth dying over.” And, “Don’t bother, they don’t care about you, they just want to stay in business on the backs of the workers.” And, “Do yourself a favor, stay home and take unemployment.”

What the hell?

Hey, things are grim out there, I get it. There are people – millions of people – out of work and worried about their families. They live right next door to us. There are tiny, sad, quiet funerals taking place every day. There are no good answers, only less-bad ones. We can’t control anything. Anything except who we are when the shit hits the fan.

That used to be a defining American characteristic. We can squabble among ourselves, sure, and we can be lazy and entitled and petty and even a little mean. But when one of us was threatened, we were all threatened and when that happens we stand together. And God help you if you stand against us.

I don’t recognize the bitter, destructive narrative that’s driving seemingly every conversation today. I mean, sure, I recognize it. But it’s not supposed to be happening now, not during wartime. During wartime we are supposed to remember we are all more alike than different. We’re supposed to be stronger together. This should be a slam-dunk – it’s not like anyone is out there rooting for the coronavirus to win! We don’t have disadvantaged inner city youths being romanced into indoctrination camps in support of COVID-19. It’s a faceless, irrational, alien killer with no possible redeeming qualities. We should be hanging banners outside our windows telling the world how badly we’re going to kick its microbial ass.

But we’re not. And it feels wrong. It feels like we’ve lost already, somehow.

That’s not the America I remember, and not the one I want.


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