If you’re old enough to remember the Cold War days, you probably recall air raid drills. A siren would go off and school kids would have to scramble under their desk and hide until the siren stopped. The thought of multiple ICBMs with nuclear warheads obliterating American cities was too much to bear. They horrifying scenes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, great cities flattened by the awesome power of a mushroom cloud were chilling. They were brought home to me when a group of hideously maimed and burned Japanese kids visited my junior high school. They were our ages but the difference between my classmates and the Hiroshima kids were stark. We were fine because our nation had dropped the bomb. They weren’t because the Japanese were the ones it had fallen on.
Nuclear war was too gruesome and frightening to even begin to comprehend and fortunately, it did not happen. We did not blow each other off the face of the earth, people filled with their air raid shelters and we put the Cold War behind us. But a new and even more frightening enemy is upon us. This time there’s no mushroom cloud, no disabling radiation, instead the enemy is a bit of protein smaller than 1/1000 of a human hair. It’s not even alive, it’s just organic matter but it has the power not only to kill millions but to cripple economies and even unseat a president.
We have seen in the past three weeks the strongest economy in our history shrunk to a Depression-era level, unemployment soar to an unheard of height, our healthcare system overburdened to the point that dying patients are being refused treatment. This is not one hydrogen bomb but an insidious, unseen force that attacks us not because we are its enemy but because we are human.
Being human we like to get together, laugh, joke, pay each other on the back and tell stories. We like to go out to dinner, go to parties, baseball games, movies, hang out in bars, we’re social animals and that’s what the enemy attacks. If we don’t want to catch the nasty virus, we have to practice what’s euphemistically called social distancing, we are forced to stay apart. Instead of shaking hands, we’re now supposed to do an elbow bump. If we don’t, we risk being strapped to a gurney in an emergency room waiting for hours to be treated. Or if we’re too old, left to die—alone—because the risk of infecting family is too great.
So we have to abandon our habit of getting together, of going to church, of watching the lacrosse team bring home another national championship and the basketball team defend their title. Wimbledon has been cancelled, opening day of baseball has been delayed, the Olympics put off, the political conventions pushed back. Instead of the Country Music Awards being staged on a showy set, performers will play and sing from their rec rooms. All the events that make up our lives are no longer there and are left alone in our homes staring at our TV screens.
Annie and I went shopping at Wegman’s today. We wore masks she’d sewn out of dishrags. I felt alternatively like I was a bank robber or Hopalong Cassidy but I’m sure my fellow shoppers just thought the guy with an orange dishtowel over his face was just an odd duck. The checkout lady told us to stand behind the line, “Please stand behind the line while I ring up your items.” I have always stood exactly where I wanted to at checkout but no more. Now I have to stand behind the line.
So I ask myself, will life ever go back to normal? Will we return to shaking hands, crowding into a lively bar, sitting packed in the stands at a football game? Or are we in a new reality, has the little bit of protein reduced us to loners, people who are so fearful of ending up in the ICU that we won’t behave like people any more. When someone used to sneeze we used to say, “Gesunheit.” Now are we going to snarl, “Jesus Christ, are you trying to kill me?”
Can you imaging keeping social distance at Thanksgiving? Are we no longer going to have a couple drinks and go out on the crowded dance floor and make idiots of ourselves? What are we going to do on Easter, sing hymns to each other across the dinner table? Are we going to wear latex gloves to break apart and share the matzoh on Passover? How can we line dance with our friends when we have to stay six feet apart? Are we going to have to give up everything that makes life worth living to avoid dying? That’s the question, and right now I’m not sure we have the answer.