Tuesday. The bright morning sunshine contrasts sharply with yesterday’s cold and sleet. We’re starting our second day of shutdown. I walk Lucy, our dog, and go an extra block to the small park overlooking the East River. A few others are walking their dogs as well. Emails await me at home. My wife is already on a conference call when I return. I retreat to my small home office and shut the door.
A friend has sent a thoughtful piece by Trygve Olson, “In the End, COVID-19 Maybe the Least of Our Problems.” Olson believes that the disease itself, while dangerous, will not drive events. Instead, the wheels of history will be turned by “the forces unleashed by the policy responses to it.” Employing the rhetoric of “war,” and competing to outdo one another in efforts to “flatten the curve” (that now unavoidable image), “the most vigilant elected official warriors in fighting the war on the virus may well change us and our country forever.” Seems a bit overdramatic, but maybe not.
On one point Olson is surely right: the rhetoric of war—and the methods of wartime mobilization. Over the last few days I’ve been thinking about the strange impotence of death. When the tsunami struck Thailand in 2004, the death toll was nearly 300,000. The whole world gasped with horror. Yet within a short time attention turned elsewhere. There were no political repercussions. By contrast, we’re still living with the consequences of political and military decisions made after nearly 3000 were killed on September 11, 2001. When nature strikes a blow, we endure it. When men strike, we strike back.
We are taking a militarized approach to our age-old struggle with nature. The coronavirus is likely to kill many, perhaps as many as died in the 2004 tsunami. But events will turn on our actions, which unlike the virus have unforeseen—unforeseeable—consequences. And not just economic ones. Now that students have been sent home and promised online courses, will attitudes toward higher education change? After the all-clear signal is sounded, will some professional women decide that, in truth, they want to remain with their children? Will this exposure of our fear of death humiliate us, causing rethinking about our society’s priorities? Or will those fears seem vindicated and be redoubled?
It’s press week, which means there are phone calls and video conferences as we pull together the next issue of First Things. All of us have scattered and work remotely. A ZOOM meeting to decide titles for the main articles brings us together for a brief while.
I go across the street to the Church of St. John the Evangelist, which is open for prayer. There are three or four people inside. A woman is quietly praying the rosary. I kneel before the tabernacle, though I am distracted by the loud voices of a homeless man and the church janitor. They are arguing in the bathroom. The broad Bronx accents make me smile.
I linger outside before returning home. Work continues on a nearby construction project. Men are unloading trucks in front of the grocery store. People are walking this way and that. The sidewalk is not crowded, but it is not empty. Yesterday, the cruel weather enforced the order to remain at home. Today’s sun does otherwise.
After lunch I head to the First Things office. The authorities have deemed media “essential services,” which means I can walk to our office on 40th Street without transgressing. Five sanitation workers clump together drinking coffee and talking. Four taxicabs wait in front of Grand Central Station. The city, though no longer bustling, is still living.
I’m back on ZOOM. This time I confer with First Things’ financial officer. We spend an hour developing an emergency budget, estimating revenue reductions and identifying places where we can cut expenses.
When our meeting is over, I return to my inbox. A New York friend whom I have not seen for a week sends a provocative email:
In pre-modern societies, risk was socialized through family, clan, and local loyalties. In the modern era, risk was monetized. This allowed us to share risk with strangers—Lloyds of London, burial associations, life insurance. The limited liability corporation was a crucial instrument for sharing risk with strangers. Given this trajectory, it was natural to evolve toward direct government management of risk—Social Security, Medicare, Unemployment insurance. The 2008 crisis demonstrated how deeply committed we are to government-sponsored socialization of risk. It’s only natural that we now accept the government-mandated shutdown of our economy for the sake of those vulnerable to coronavirus complications—socialized risk. The response to the growing economic crisis will mean still further government-sponsored sharing of risk. We’ll end up at an indirect socialism. The government will be the backstop in pretty much every domain of life.
It’s a good sign that he’s speculating about this in such broad historical terms. It means he’s gaining some freedom from the panic and anxiety. Another friend, this one in California, texts me: “Elon Musk for president. At least he won’t burn down the country to defeat a disease.” I suspect he’s in a less serene mood.
The late afternoon sunlight angles through my office windows. Before leaving for home, I open my Bible to one of my favorite passages: “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.” Fortified, I plunge into the strange calm of the city’s streets. In front of Grand Central Station, volunteers are handing out meals to people living on the street. They are surrounded by a bedraggled crowd. No “social distancing” is in evidence. I go on my way, grateful that the New York shutdown has not suspended all the corporal works of mercy.
A block from my apartment on 1st Avenue, I spit into the street. A woman pushing a pram glowers at me. Her eyes say, “moral criminal!”
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.