This was the week the new coronavirus reality hit New York.
We are facing weeks, if not months, of life in suspension — closed doors and shuttered workspaces, empty trains and canceled gatherings. That leaves us with little to contemplate but our fears.
We want to safeguard ourselves and each other, but there seems to be so little we can do. Wash hands, don’t touch our faces, monitor our health, limit interactions with other people. These are activities that breed anxiety even if they crucially and necessarily help safeguard health.
That means trying times for our already tender nation. It is at moments such as these that respected institutions are so important: Places of worship that offer a quiet source of calm. Media outlets that are trusted to get things right. And the lumbering levels of democratic government, which are supposed to be lifesaving bedrock at moments of crisis.
Where we find ourselves
We are in a crisis now.
Yet those institutions that gave us solace are under siege. We were distancing ourselves from organized religion long before the virus threat. Our media landscape has been fractured and overwhelmed, leaving room for rumors on social media and text threads — like the pernicious one Thursday about vast New York City quarantines. Even worse, the federal government has on so many issues failed, despite the overdue show of concern and public-private partnering in a Rose Garden news conference on Friday. Top national security officials handling epidemics were not replaced when they left in 2018. The nation’s coronavirus preparation and testing capacity have been abysmally flawed — ineffective test kits and procedures, a shortage of respirators — despite the months that passed as the situation in China unfolded. With U.S. coronavirus deaths beginning to tick up, our total testing numbers over two months were equivalent to what South Korea was churning through in a few days.
Institutions may be in crisis but they are enduring and deserve support. Despite their limits, they are what we rely on now. Consider the people who underpin our health care and transportation systems: the doctors and nurses risking their own health to save ours, or the Metropolitan Transportation Authority workers who have been disinfecting stations and high-touch surfaces twice a day. They are reporting to work every morning to aid patients flocking to emergency rooms in fear. They are laboring in the small hours of the night and before commuters tentatively step onto still-running trains.
Consider the rabbis and priests and imams soberly changing their religious services, knowing that health and wellness is more important than rituals. They and their teachings can be islands of solidity now.
There is accurate information aplenty, coming from traditional as well as new media organizations and the professionals at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state and local health departments and leading universities.
But here we are, a moment that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio likened in recent days to a war footing. The situation is evolving quickly, but our institutions must hold. And so must our trust.
We are reckoning in a more widespread way with our own mortality and the ties that bind us, to residents one town over and nations thousands of miles from our shores. We are looking for our family and friends to protect us and also to provide comfort, while we wait and hope that things improve and our distractions like professional sports and concerts return. In the meantime, we’re (questionably) stocking up on toilet paper.
But we are the first responders and the civic groups that can support the most vulnerable. We are the teachers and restaurant workers, the small-business owners and employees who keep the economy running, even as some pieces of it slow down. We are the voters who demand the best from the officials elected to serve.
We are the neighbors and citizens who can help those who are out of work for the foreseeable future or those who are homebound or ill. We are the families and communities that remain strong even if that means maintaining our distances, slowing the virus’ spread as we give our health care system time to establish control.
It will. It must. And when this is all over let’s keep building those institutions, for the next scourge.
— The editorial board