We’ll get through this together, mostly by staying apart

March 12, 2020

I’ve spoken to multiple people in the past couple days who have compared the current coronavirus crisis to 9/11. One person compared the panic they saw in a particular young man in the Bay Area back in 2001 who was convinced more planes would fall out of the sky to panicked people buying up hand sanitizer. Another person described feeling unable to come to an emotional reckoning with the scale and gravity of 9/11, and that they have similar feelings today.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize just how utterly in denial I was the morning of September 11, 2001, because even as I stood in Washington Square Park and looked at two burning towers I thought to myself, “It’s crazy that a Cessna could do that.” It took a stranger in the park saying there were two planes for me to understand I ought to hurry back to my dorm and call my parents, but even then, terrorism didn’t cross my mind until I heard Aaron Brown say it on CNN. With that in mind, I’ve been warning friends and family against denial for a while now, but what hit me today is that I’ve mostly blocked out what it was like in the days after September 11, 2001 until we went back to class.

I thought of that because, now that virtually all organized sports in the U.S. have suspended play and organizations across the country are instituting bans on gathering, we’ve begun a mode of living that triggered hazy recollections of what it was like in Manhattan days after 9/11 with no planes in the air, few people going to school or work, and institutions like Major League Baseball and the National Football League suspended play. I know we were told to stay in our buildings, but at some point I walked through Washington Square, where an MTV recruiter got me and some friends to head to Midtown for the TRL broadcast on September 14. At some point after that, bored and restless, a bunch of us got together in my room and dyed my hair fuschia. But other than that, I’ve got nothing, just a vague sense that we were floating around.

We didn’t have a specific precipitating trauma that led to infectious disease specialists calling for the nation to hunker down, eschew social gatherings, and for Godsakes wash your damn hands, nor are we even united in recognizing this is a crisis to the degree we were in 2001, but I fear many of us are entering what will be a lost period. Lost weeks of school. Lost weeks going through the motions of work. Weeks lost to bingeing television shows that change our lives not a whit.

Those of us who can, let’s endeavor to do more with this time. Let’s focus on relationships with the people in our households. Let’s channel the time we would have spent commuting into something productive, whatever that means to you. Maybe now you have time to write a screenplay. Maybe you haven’t broken out your ukulele in years. Maybe you’ve wanted to take up crosswords. Do it.

And more important, let’s care for the people who will be most fucked over by the horrible federal response to the crisis: those losing work, struggling with childcare, missing meals, afraid to shop for basic supplies, and so on. If the nation learns anything from the coming weeks (months?), I hope it’s that we are all inextricably tied together, with obligations to each other, and that while this very human entanglement is what enables the rapid spread of a disease like COVID-19, it’s also our primary source of joy. Caring for others is caring for ourselves.

We’ll get through this together, and we’re going to do it by mostly staying apart and doing our parts to help anyone else in need.