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A different kind of war

The U.S. Navy hospital ship "Comfort" passes in

The U.S. Navy hospital ship "Comfort" passes in front of the Statue of Liberty as it arrives in New York on March 30, 2020.  Credit: Bloomberg/Michael Nagle

 The images are from a nation at war.

The Navy medical ships in the harbors of New York and Los Angeles. The hospital tents in Central Park, military field hospitals on the grounds of SUNY campuses in Old Westbury and Stony Brook, and triage tents sprouting all over the region. Emergency morgue trucks ferrying body bags. The streets empty and silent, except for the sirens. The shuttered businesses with boarded windows. The intent focus on news developments, with the climbing count of casualties broadcast on a split screen. And the glimpses, fleeting at first but growing in number and duration, of the victims with their tubes and stretchers, and of the heroes, the doctors and nurses armored in protective gear from head to toe.

For many people, this war, like the one waged decades ago in Vietnam, was distant at first, a battle against an enemy we couldn’t see and didn’t really understand. Now, dread is creeping closer for more and more people, as it did back then.

Closer, closer to home

The first to feel it were those with loved ones on the front lines, who heard their stories and understood the danger they confronted. Next were those who knew someone who got sick, or who died. Now the circle widens daily — as more victims fall, and more families say final goodbyes over cellphones held by intensive care nurses with tears streaming down their masked cheeks, and more medical professionals talk about being overwhelmed by the strain of seeing so many people die despite their best efforts. In three weeks, the number of Americans who say the coronavirus crisis has not affected them personally has fallen from a majority of 52% to just 9%. Now, it’s hitting everyone.

Dread feasts on this anxiety. Suspicion fuels attacks on ethnic groups falsely believed to be the enemy. Unemployment filings are up, bills are mounting, some store shelves are empty, people who are diligently practicing social distancing look with suspicion at those who are not, and the president who not long ago was saying the virus would just disappear is now saying that holding the death toll to 100,000 to 240,000 Americans would be a success. As was the case with Vietnam, distrust in the federal government is corrosive.

But as the unease grows, we’re also hearing other stories. And these are sources of comfort, and fonts of inspiration. These are accounts of people who have exhibited extraordinary courage, what Ernest Hemingway defined as grace under pressure. And as these stories start to surface, we need to understand the sacrifice of these heroes, honor what they’re doing now, and not forget it later.

These are the doctors and nurses functioning amid shortages of protective equipment, some reduced to wearing homemade gear, frightened that they will bring the virus home to their families, knowing they are being exposed and concerned that they inevitably will get sick. But still they soldier on.

These are the EMTs, the cops and the firefighters, the first responders who have no choice but to respond, and they do, despite not knowing the status of the person who needs their help. Passion overcomes fear, commitment triumphs over nerves.

These are the grocery workers, the truck drivers, the warehouse workers, the delivery people, the transit workers, the takeout cooks, the postal workers, and the farmers and fishers and ranchers, who are putting aside their personal peril to keep what’s left of our economy alive.

These are the nursing home staff, the home health care workers, the cleaning crews, the garbage collectors, and the teachers creating new online lessons for children who have had their schooling interrupted. They’re all fighting the war on their own home fronts.

All hands on

And it needs to be all of us, who tend to our families, keep our ties strong, watch out for neighbors, cheer up those who are anxious and suffering, and most of all maintain the social order that cannot break down.

Remember that in the days ahead. The images will get darker, the news will get worse, and the tales will become more horrifically personal as the roster of the dead keeps growing on Long Island, across New York, and as the tentacles of this monstrous crisis spread across the nation, trapping new communities in its maw.

But we also will hear more stories of heroism on the front lines that will lead us to tears, of generosity of the many who support our medical troops that will leave us smiling, and of kindness and goodwill among our friends, families and neighbors that will make us proud. Focus on that. Because that will provide all of us with the reassurance that we will get through this war and emerge in a place where we all can find some peace.