Do not be ashamed of being afraid.
Many of us in the United States at this moment are fearful. We may or may not be afraid for ourselves as individuals—but we fear for our loved ones and we fear for our country. That was true for many of us before the pandemic. It is strikingly true now. In the blink of an eye our lives have changed in this country in dramatic fashion.
But there is a way for us to adapt to this change without succumbing to our understandable fear. We can demonstrate a braver response at the advent of this uncertainty, a response that will embolden some of us to reclaim something that has long felt lost in our public life: the empathy, the service, and the spirit of community that ought to define our nation. There is a work of unity to be done here. This is a project that invites us all.
The coronavirus pandemic (and the disease known as COVID-19) is not the first thing to upend American life, even in recent memory. September 11th, 2001 introduced the existential threat of terrorism to our psychological life, precipitating wars and changing the way we lived. The financial collapse of 2009 sent waves of home foreclosure and job layoffs rippling throughout the economy, destroying life savings and sparking protest and unrest. Brutal and incomprehensible acts of domestic terrorism—the mass shootings of the 2010s—have reinforced this trauma from other angles, feeding into our swelling environment of distrust of one another. We even experienced a significant disease outbreak as recently as 2009—the H1N1 flu pandemic, infecting over 60 million Americans between April of 2009 and August of 2010, at a cost of 12,469 lives. And this is just a sampling of what Americans have endured over the 20 short years of this new millennium.
But there is a way in which this disaster feels like it has taken aspects of all of these prior calamities and rolled them into one great harbinger of doom. COVID 19 has taken mortal fear and joined it with rapidly mounting economic damage, major changes in the rhythm of daily life, rising social distrust (including distrust of foreigners,) social isolation, concerns about civil liberties and the misuse of government power, the politicization of things that one might hope would transcend politics and polarization over whose fault it is—and bound them up in a single assault upon American life in every sense of the word.
The material threat from this virus therefore feels total. But there is a moral response to this threat that is total as well. And it is in this response that we must place our hopes, not merely to mitigate the harm done by the disease and economic dislocation, but to forge from the ashes of this tragedy a braver nation. That is to say, a nation capable of sustaining the bonds that hold together the American people, bonds that have been necessary for the salvation of our republic all along.
Writing at Vox.com, Ezra Klein predicts that “just as the coronavirus fallout threatens to cause an economic recession, it’s also going to cause what we might call a ‘social recession’: a collapse in social contact that is particularly hard on the populations most vulnerable to isolation and loneliness…” With social isolation comes greater risk of premature death, cognitive decline, and a suite of other ailments. The well-documented epidemic of loneliness across American age groups, which existed long before COVID-19 hit our cities and neighborhoods, seems certain to metastasize.
This widespread social detachment has long helped fuel the political polarization that keeps us from coming together to face our common problems. In the midst of a presidential election (and with the most controversial president in American history up for reelection,) it’s easy to worry that this might not improve. And as David Brooks writes in The New York Times, “Some disasters, like hurricanes and earthquakes, can bring people together, but if history is any judge, pandemics generally drive them apart. These are crises in which social distancing is a virtue. Dread overwhelms the normal bonds of human affection.”
But in spite of fear’s tendency to pull us apart, to make us abandon and vilify each other, there is evidence that in this crisis, Americans are not turning our backs on each other. We are choosing solidarity instead. This hopeful attitude reveals itself in a number of ways. Politically, the affective (meaning personally resentful) polarization that has been the cancerous norm of modern public life is suddenly experiencing signs of remission. According to recent polling (see More in Common and You Gov) 90% of Americans look at our current crisis and believe “we are all in this together,” far higher than the 63% who felt similarly in the fall of 2018. Suddenly, Americans are feeling more united— the proportion of Americans who “describe the country as unified” has gone from 4% in 2018 to 32% in 2020. 82% of us, according to this recent survey, claim we have “more in common than what divides us.”
Part of what we have in common in this moment is our broadly shared regard for the doctors, nurses, and other medical workers who bravely risk their own lives to save others’ lives on the front lines of this crisis. 84% of respondents in the above survey say these healthcare professionals “deserve to be considered as heroes.” But more evocatively, one can see this outpouring of gratitude in the video clips of neighborhoods and communities celebrating healthcare and emergency workers with an enthusiasm once reserved for soldiers returning home from war. We see this same spirit in the appreciation everyone from local news anchors to the President of the United States shows for the ongoing work of our grocers, postal workers, factory workers, and so many other ordinary working people, whose willingness to risk their health simply to do their vital jobs is allowing the American economy to survive, and keeping the rest of us supplied and safe.
While YouTube and social media remain sources of partisan demagoguery, they have also emerged as portals linking us together, through which we see children visiting their grandparents from the other side of a window, musicians playing outside of homes to cheer those who are shut in, and so many more ways, big and small, that Americans are supporting and sacrificing for one another during this time of national struggle. Statements of goodwill have floated back and forth even between high-profile political antagonists, including between President Trump and Governors Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gavin Newsom of California.
Perhaps these latter moments of grace in our politics are more the exceptionthan the rule. But all these instances of support and understanding in the midst of fear and uncertainty highlight the fact that there is indeed a braver response we can choose to take against the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is to recommit to the work of unity in these dark days of national tragedy. It is to commit to this work, not only to allow us to survive the immediate trials that lay before us, but more boldly, to set the stage for the recovery and rebuilding of American life that will surely be necessary when this plague has receded and Americans can step out their doors once again.
This work is not merely sentimental. Even as we comply with government orders and guidelines to mitigate the spread of this virus, even as we respond to calls to donate medical supplies and other materials to bolster the national effort to “flatten the curve,” we must prepare as a country to support one another in new, interrelated ways. We must shift our habits to support each other economically, socially, and politically.
Economically: We have seen gracious acts from employers and landlords pushing the limits of their resources to retain employees, and to forgive or delay rent payments. We have also seen many other acts of courageous generosity in the face of economic uncertainty, as businesses, associations, and governments rush to better the lot of Americans who are suffering financially. But as of this writing, more than 10 million Americans have lost employment due to changes to business and labor wrought by the pandemic. That number is only going to rise.
Will we rise to the occasion and support one another as neighbors, through community service and charity, after the virus has receded? Will the philanthropic sector and the business sector apply their resources and expertise towards getting people back on their feet, generating opportunities for Americans to re-enter the workforce after this tide has gone out?
Socially: Social isolation has its consequences, including disrupted mental health, anxiety, depression, and even suicide. Loss of livelihood can lead to the families falling apart, and the unemployed losing all self-respect.
When this pandemic has passed, will we choose to lift each other up as communities? Will we do so through our ministries, unions, block clubs, schools and volunteer service organizations, so we may connect people young and old to supportive networks in order to reintegrate dispersed and isolated Americans into functioning community life?
Politically: Finally, we must support each other politically. This does not merely mean voting and campaign activism—it means civic inclusion and patriotic empathy. There are arguments that need to be had over the proper scope of the government’s response to COVID-19, both during the pandemic and in the forthcoming aftermath—what are the tradeoffs we must make between immediate public concerns and the cost to our economy and our civil liberties? The space must be made for the American people to debate these issues in a thoughtful way—one that does not devolve into the cacophonous bickering that excuses our elected officials from pursuing the common good in favor of partisan advantage or ideological posturing.
Yet if we are going to make space for that sort of a national conversation, then we as a country must rally against the status-quo model of polarized discourse that too much of our media and too many of our politicians practice, whether by malice or necessity. We as a country have to be willing, during this crisis and throughout the rebuilding period afterwards, to withstand the judgements of Democrats and Republicans who have grown cynical towards the common good, if we are to rebuild a culture of trust binding Americans together. If the tribal breakdown of American life continues after this crisis, than the rebuilding of American community, and the repairing of our politics, will be impossible.
This is the work of unity. This is the type of culture that Braver Angels and other friendly groups are committed to. This is the sort of movement that must be built in the United States of America if we are to restore the creaking foundation of civil society and national union. It would be a herculean task in the best of times—but there are even more challenges in our time.
And yet, the silver lining to the stormclouds of struggle is that hardship reminds us of the things most valuable to us as a nation. In remembering the value of human life, we might also recall the preciousness of human dignity, and that this dignity must be acknowledged and emphasized in any politics that aspires to serve the greater interests of the American people.
Let us, then, make the most of our present circumstances, and show the world the compassionate courage that unites the American people.