America's journey to the quiet place took only a few days. The big metronomic calendar-filling blocks like school, college, and work travel are all gone. As are the add-ons like music lessons, kid sports and church services, not to mention life's luxury accessories like professional sports and the performing arts. Last Monday night, I was at the Jazz Standard in New York listening to the Mingus Big Band. This Monday, it's closed till further notice. By the time this column is published, many US cities may have shuttered all bars, restaurants, and non-essential services to dampen the contagion.
The pendulum swung hard over the last week from institutional complacency to coordinated and far-reaching social isolation policies. Pockets of 'goddammit, this is America and I can do whatever the hell I want' libertarians are now vastly outnumbered by Facebook busybodies posting that 'they saw a group of teenagers at the beach and somebody should do something about it'. American dogs don't understand coronavirus, but they're delighted by the surge in walks they've had over the last few days as everyone looks for an excuse to get out of the house without congregating in groups.
The message that this isn't a drill – or a Democratic hoax to undermine the President – broke through around the middle of last week triggering a cascade reaction. Some restrictions are top-down, like the European travel ban, but many are bottom-up from town councils, school boards and community groups. Because of inadequate testing, America's confirmed cases as of Monday are still less than 5,000, but with 49 states affected, the next two weeks will see a 'testing epidemic' as identified cases rapidly catch up with the true magnitude of the infection. This projected trajectory is why 'an abundance of caution' is now a widely accepted rationale for the draconian measures being put in place.
Battening down the hatches is not uncommon in America. In Connecticut, we get winter storms that regularly drop two to three feet of snow in 24 hours, and the whole Eastern seaboard regularly has multi-day hurricane-induced interregnums in normal life. The big difference with this pandemic is both the national scope and the uncertain duration. Last Thursday, my 20-year-old daughter at college in Maine was told to clean out her dorm, get home and not come back for the rest of the academic year. Local schools where we live were shut down for two weeks last Thursday, but that now looks like just an opening gambit that's almost certain to be extended by weeks, if not months.
This abrupt dislocation means we're still in the transitional period before any sort of new normal asserts itself. Our kids have responded by disappearing into their well-established virtual communities. Rather than a normal quiet Friday morning with them all at school, our house was instead filled with the raucous shouting and laughter of our three teenage boys coordinating 'Rainbow Six Siege' assault parties on their X-Box and trash-talking their friends.
But given the likely multi-month disruption, some sort of new normal will need to be established. Online college will move from a fast-growing niche for those without the money or time for a traditional campus-based education to the default for America's 15 million college students. For those studying history, the transition could be quite straightforward, but for my biology-major daughter, it's less clear how lab experiments will get done from a kitchen table 400 miles from college. For my 17-year-old son, this is the single most important academic semester of his school life, as it's these grades that will shape his college applications in the autumn. It's therefore inevitable that in the annals of education, the 2020 spring semester will always have an asterisk against it.
More broadly, we're about to witness a mass social experiment to move much of modern American life online. Anyone in knowledge industries will probably start working from home this week. The bylaws of many public and private organisations are being hastily rewritten to allow online quorums for important decisions. Arts organisations are now planning streaming performances from empty theatres, and on Sunday morning our local minister preached to an empty church, but also to an unknown number of parishioners sitting at home in front of their PCs.
If, amongst the chaos, you want to find a silver lining in this viral cloud, there could be three. The first is that when someone eats monkey brains and enables an airborne Ebola-like killer to cross the species barrier we should be a lot better prepared. The next few months are not a drill and tens if not hundreds of thousands of people are going to die in America, but it's also an opportunity to learn how we might cope with something that has a 20% fatality rate rather than low single digits.
The second upside is the paradox that less social contact could create more social cohesion. The University of Delaware's Disaster Research Center has conducted 700 studies of how communities react to floods and earthquakes, and the results are compelling. While toilet paper hoarders make great headlines, the empirical research shows overwhelming levels of altruism, self-sacrifice, and the sharing of scarce resources. The instinctive human response in a crisis is typically not Darwinian selfishness but instead a surge of solidarity and community spirit. Those who were in New York City on 9/11 recognise that base human instinct to help, support, and lean in rather than panic and turn your back. America hasn't reached the 'singing from the balconies stage' yet, but many church and community groups are already swinging into action to protect the vulnerable through meal services and errand runs, demonstrating a parallel contagion of kindness and charity.
Finally, this type of public health crisis shouldn't be about politics, but in a Presidential election year it inevitably will be. This could be the pivotal moment when the Emperor was shown to have no clothes. The point at which bluster and confidence couldn't divert the voters' attention from the lack of competence. As Trump squirms to dodge responsibility for inadequate testing and spreading misinformation for weeks on end, steady and experienced Joe Biden looks like an increasingly safe harbour.
So, as America settles in for the long-haul of working through our Netflix backlog and figuring out what's really at the bottom of our freezer, maybe we'll look back on this as not just a challenging public health crisis but also as a moment of renewal. By being forced to isolate ourselves, maybe we will relearn what true community is and remember what real national leadership feels like. It may be wishful thinking, but maybe the new habits we'll learn will give us more time to enjoy what's around us and appreciate what we've been missing in our frenzied pre-Covid-19 lives. Giuseppe Conte, the Italian Prime Minister, summed up that hope when he said last week: 'Let's distance ourselves from each other today in the hope that we can embrace each other more warmly tomorrow'.