Peggy Noonan / Mar. 28, 2020

We Need Time to Absorb All This

Everyone is thinking through the reality of the coronavirus pandemic and how to rise to the occasion.

This is a quick piece that touches on where we are, where we may be going, and an attitude for the journey.

The screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan once said the films of Akira Kurosawa were distinguished by this dynamic: The villain has arrived while the hero is evolving. That’s what made his films great, the sense of an implacable bad guy encountering a good guy who is alive, capable of changing, who is in fact changing because of and in order to beat back the bad guy and make things safe again.

The villain is here in the form of an illness. A lot of the heroes of this story are evolving every day into something we’ll look back on months and years hence and say, “Wow, LOOK what she did.” “What guts that guy showed.” People are going to pull from themselves things they didn’t know were there.

But now, at this stage in the drama, most of the heroes are also busy absorbing. We are all of us every day trying to absorb the new reality, give it time to settle into us.

It’s all so big. We are discovering the illness as we experience it. We don’t know its secrets, how long it lasts, how long its incubation, whether you can be reinfected.

As for the economics: As the month began we had functional full employment. By the time it ends we will not, not at all. In the past week layoffs and let-gos have left state unemployment claim websites crashing. This is not “normal job disruption”; it is a cascade. The Treasury secretary reportedly said unemployment could hit 20%.

The market gains of the Trump era have been all but wiped out. Investors are selling gold. From this paper’s editorial Thursday: “American commerce is shutting down right before our eyes with no end in sight.” Flights are empty, hotel occupancy plummeting.

Where we are is a hard, bad place, stupid to deny it. Where we’re going looks to be difficult.

It’s a cliché to say we haven’t ever had a moment like this (a plague, a crash), but it’s true. As for New York, twice in 20 years we’ve been ground zero, epicenter of a national tragedy. Will we get through it? Of course. But it will change things, and change us, as 9/11 did.

The governmental instinct is right: stabilize things while everyone’s absorbing. Whatever is done will probably be an unholy mess. Do it anyway and see where we are. In the long term the best plan — the only plan — is one that attempts to keep people in their jobs. Meaning look to European models on how to help businesses hold on to their people.

There are a million warnings out there on a million serious things. We add one: Everything works — and will continue to work — as long as we have electricity. It’s what keeps the lights on, the oxygen flowing, the information going. Everything is the grid, the grid, the grid.

A general attitude for difficult times? Trust in God first and always. Talk to him.

Every time America’s in trouble I remember Adam Smith’s words. He wrote there’s “a great deal of ruin in a nation.” Especially a very great and prosperous one with a brilliant system and a creative citizenry.

And see this: We are surrounded by nobility.

Mike Luckovich had a cartoon this week of the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima. Only it wasn’t Marines — it was a doctor, a scientist, a nurse and a first responder anchoring Old Glory in this rocky soil. It was hokey and beautiful and true. In the next few weeks and months they’ll get us through and we should thank them every way possible. That includes everyone who can’t work at home, the cops and firefighters, the garbagemen and truckers, the people who stock the shelves and man the counters. A nurse told me Thursday that hospital workers all see themselves as sitting ducks for infection, but no one’s calling in sick. A journalist friend said maybe this will reorder things and we’ll start to pay people according to their real importance to society.

* * *

A personal note. As this is written I have been sick for two weeks. It started when I was finishing a column on Rep. Jim Clyburn — I got a chill and noticed the notepad on my knee was warm. The next night more chills, took my temperature: 101.

It may be a poorly timed ordinary virus, one of the dozen floating out there in America on any given day, or it may be the more interesting one.

But everything you’ve heard about the difficulty of getting a test is true. “There are none,” said my doctor. If he sent me to the emergency room, I wouldn’t meet their criteria. You can have every symptom, but if you answer no to two questions, you won’t be tested. The questions are: Have you traveled internationally? Have you recently been in contact with someone who tested positive?

My doctor instructed me to go home, self-quarantine, rest, report back. A week in, the fever spiked up, the headaches were joined by a cough and sore throat, and I called the local government number, where they couldn’t connect me to anyone who could help.

Everyone I dealt with was compassionate and overwhelmed. On day 12 my doctor got word of testing available at an urgent-care storefront on First Avenue. When I called I was connected to a woman in Long Island. She asked for my symptoms. Then: Have you traveled internationally? Have you had recent contact with anyone who’s infected? No and no. She said, “It’s OK, I’m sure they’ll accept you.” I could hear her click “send.” She paused and said, “I’m so sorry, you don’t meet the criteria.” By now we had made friends, and she was disappointed for me.

I said, “Let’s think together. Twelve days sick, almost all the symptoms, part of an endangered demographic.” Silence. Then a brainstorm. At this point I have known a person who’s tested positive; I saw him a while back; no one has defined “recently” because no one knows the incubation period.

I said: Can we do the interview again? She said, “Let’s go.”

She went down the list of questions, and when she said, “Have you recently had contact …,” I said, “I believe I can say yes.”

She said, “All right.” Silence as I listened to her tap the keys. “You meet the criteria,” she said, with the sweetest excitement.

And so Tuesday night I made my way (mask, gloves) to the urgent-care storefront, where I was tested by a garrulous physician’s assistant who said his office, or New York health authorities, or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will get back to me with results in three to seven days. (Yikes.)

At this point I suppose it’s academic. If it’s positive, they’ll tell me to continue what I’m doing. But if hospitalized it would save time—presumably I wouldn’t have to be tested again. Also it would be nice to think I wasn’t just home sick, I was home developing fighting Irish antibodies spoiling for a fight.

I just want to get out and help in some way. Isn’t that what you feel? We all just want to pitch in.


Republished by permission from peggynoonan.com.

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