Generational moments, or defining moments, are rare by definition. The easiest way to identify them is everyone in your age group can recall where they were when the moment occurred. Some examples include President Kennedy’s assassination, the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, the 2001 terror attacks, and so on. If you remember where you were and what you were doing when these events occurred, it is likely your friends of the same age group also do. These generational episodes are supposed to be rare, once or perhaps twice in a lifetime event that binds us all together to a shared moment when the world changed, and life was never the same again.
The coronavirus pandemic presented such a moment six months ago today on the evening of March 11, 2020. Usually, a crisis with such diverse and wide-ranging personal experiences could not fit into the category of a generational moment. Our unique adaptation to smartphones and technology changed this.
I was in a movie theater that night. I barely remember the movie because of the barrage of alerts and breaking news items that pushed their way across my phone.
My phone and reality now carried far more enthralling drama than the movie did. As soon as the movie ended, I raced home and found my 17-year-old daughter tuned in to the President’s press conference. I knew she also felt the gravity of the moment of history unfolding.
As for the President…It was unbelievable! He seemed lost. As he stumbled through his speech, he seemed utterly unprepared for the moment and the crisis. Watching him crash was another piece of the defining moment of this generation we were living through.
Today we stand six months past that generational moment. Globally nearly 1 million people are dead by the coronavirus. We will pass 30 million confirmed cases this weekend. Those official numbers will continue to rise, and history books will record much larger numbers. Many of the poorer and highly populated parts of the world lack the infrastructure and testing to record what is unfolding today in the real-time manner to which we grew accustomed.
I cannot hold the President responsible for the onset of the crisis. The simple nature of a crisis is that it is unexpected. The measure of a leader is what he does after the crisis hits.
To that end, our President proved what most feared after his address on March 11. The US represents less than 5% of the world’s population, but around 25% of the confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths across the globe. In the weeks after March 11, the President held daily press conferences, offered bizarre advice, cast doubt on leading experts and doctors, said he bore no responsibility for the crisis, then became bored with it all and stopped his daily meetings with the country.
The chaos and incompetence in America’s handling of the crisis do not rest with the President alone. Still, in an office and role where former President Harry Truman once said, “The buck stops here,” the buck was wholly lost on the Trump administration.
And this was our generational moment. My daughter will always remember where she was and what she was doing on March 11. Such moments are too dramatic, too enormous to occur more frequently than this. But this moment is not like the defining moments of past generations. The crisis did not end on that date. We were not allowed the next half year to unfold, analyze, and process what took place. The crisis merely touched down into American society six months ago. It has been cascading ever since.
A weird virus is only one aspect of the pandemic. Due to its unique impact upon each infected individual, it is difficult to imagine a more perfectly designed instrument to cripple American society. We know its impact upon the dead, but its effects upon the living are far more dangerous from a social breakdown concern.
The virus affected children differently than adults. Some adults contract the virus and go completely unaffected while others see their whole life altered with seemingly permanent and radical repercussions on their lungs. Some jog through the infection experience like it’s a mild flu, other like it’s a near-death experience, while others never even knew they were infected.
In a society so polarized that we believe nothing outside our personal experience, and even that we understand through a locked political lens, the diversity of the coronavirus experience has proven deadly among the living.
If China could have predicted the hyper irrational American response to the coronavirus, this would have been the most effective biological weapon ever created. But that is not the case. This freak virus is not the intelligent design of a belligerent geopolitical power. It is the exposure agent that revealed the real enemy of American society. The enemy is us!
Rather than cooperating, we became paranoid and accusatory. Facemasks became a point of contention. One portion of the country explained wearing a facemask was a sign of submission to an authoritarian government. At the same time, they deposited stimulus checks sent to them by that authoritarian government. Another side pushed for hotlines that citizens could utilize to turn in neighbors and businesses who did not abide by facemask ordinances. (That hotline exists in my hometown.)
The incompetence of our governing system was on full display as America’s leaders locked down the economy long enough to shove more Americans into unemployment than any prior point in American history – but did little to turn back the pandemic.
Unlike the Great Depression, the unemployment crisis of 2020 did not include long lines of former workers. Lockdown orders forbade lines due to the infectious pandemic. The web sites where the unemployed could apply for unemployment from home crashed over and over again. The stimulus checks arrived then we stopped trusting the US postal system.
Instead of developing a strategic cohesive national plan for reopening the economy and aiding cooperation among a frightened and confused American population, each state had its own strategy, and each state plan was colored in levels of absurdity by the red or blue political base of the respective state.
State leaders looked at the virus politically rather than biologically and assumed their political persuasions would turn back the coronavirus tide. They weren’t. And the virus kept spreading and spreading, and people kept dying.
While the whole country shut down for New York’s pandemic, a hodgepodge series of state-based responses followed. The rural Midwest was ordered to shut down while New York’s numbers surged then encouraged to reopen when the pandemic arrived at their meat processing plants.
Americans grew frustrated and bored as they waited, doubted, and wondered when normality would return. We couldn’t go to the mall, to the baseball games, out to eat, shopping, graduations, funerals, or even to church.
Then all of that melted into the next wave of crises. Even as the pandemic was far from its peak in America, the tensions of the lockdowns exploded into the streets after the death of George Floyd. It was the first, but not the last, shocking display of violence against black Americans amazingly caught on camera that triggered protests across the country in 2020.
A Convergence of Crises
In the face of a once in a century pandemic, Americans took to the streets to protest racism. While local officials (rightfully) cracked down on pastors who resumed church services amid the lockdowns or small business owners who tried to save their business – the race protests were exempt.
Even the media, while faithfully tracking the surge of new cases after each major holiday, political gathering, and socializing event, looked the other way as crowds of protesters from Minneapolis to Washington DC to Louisville marched side by side in the streets.
The protests against racism became the new blood of the lamb that exempted Americans from the lockdown orders and a global pandemic. The lack of social distancing at these protests was not only tolerated but embraced. Going to church, saving your small business, that was against lockdown regulations, but protesting racism was immune from restriction. In many cities, the police even took a knee to honor the protesters. Mayors and talking heads meanwhile began publicly discussing an idea to “defund” the police. This anti-law enforcement slogan took shape even while cities required the police to enforce facemask ordinances.
The impotent response from the government and media further inflated accusation of the suspected political nature of the virus and increased the divides in American society. The virus spread. The paranoia increased. The distrust intensified. The deaths total climbed.
Then came the hurricanes. Then came the floods. Then came the wildfires.
And it has only been six months since this all began!
America is not facing a singular crisis in 2020. America is crumbling. Each response to the dire circumstances created new problems, from economic recession to social unrest. Americans became more polarized, suspicious, and doubting.
Historically, when America has confronted a crisis, our strength was modeled in our resolve and unity. On September 11, 2001, after Pearl Harbor, and nearly every major crisis in American history, the nation has responded with a surge of unity and collective determination to overcome the shock. The long historical moment of 2020 has demonstrated the exact opposite. The state of the nation today is defined by our lack of unity, our insistence on resistance and noncooperation.
The varying postures employed to justify our resistance to any form of cooperation or purpose made us susceptible to each new wave of crises over the last six months. It is all self-interested and deaf to any voices but the one inspired by our self-will.
One group says we don’t believe there is a pandemic and so we are not going to abide by the rules. Another group retorts we believe there is a pandemic, but we don’t believe the nation’s leaders or experts, so we will comply with our own rules. And yet another group shouts back; we don’t believe there is systemic racism, so we will not support or participate in this moment of social awareness. A final group barks we believe there is rampant injustice, so we are exempt from participation or obedience to the government’s demands.
The variety of responses and norms with which each individual is confronting the chaotic world today can be felt as we walk through our local communities. Wear a facemask (or don’t) into the different businesses and locations you visit this weekend. Feel the stares, the perspectives, and the throb of mostly silent opinions. We are dividing into camps of our self-will. The boundaries are not clearly defined yet; it is easy to accidentally wander into the other camp at times.
Running on Empty
Most of us are caught in the sense of suspended frustration. We are waiting for the elections in November as though things will change at that point. We will be proven right. We will be delivered. We will be able to relax. We only need to make it to November.
But the 2020 pace of crisis, unrest, anxiety, and noncooperation cannot continue much longer. The irrational hope that an election day event will resume normal is not in line with the unfolding of history in the year 2020. Based upon everything that has preceded them in 2020, the November elections will not be an end to the great chaos of 2020 but a moment of furth
We tolerated the converging crises of 2020 to this point with a hope that everything would soon pass, and we could return to normal. We are about to step into a new phase, the great transition, where we realize all those things we regard as normal are not going to return. The world has shifted, and the consequences of our dysfunctional responses to those shifts are about to begin revealing themselves.
To date, Americans have tolerated the inconvenience of the converging crises. While business shut down, neighbors died, and riots filled the streets of cities far away; for most of us, our personal experience was not attached to these events. We were inconvenienced, but this would pass. Supply chains broke down. The sky turned red. We held our breaths, literally and figuratively, as we waited for this to move on and for our long-delayed normal to return.
The US government spent trillions of dollars to hold the country afloat through this interim period of chaos while we impatiently waited for normal. At the beginning of 2020, economic forecasters warned the US federal debt would surpass US GDP (the nation’s debt would exceed its production) sometime around the year 2030 if we did not change course. Then the pandemic hit. The US passed that dismal boundary in June. In other words, the January economic warning of what could happen in the next decade occurred in the next six months. The US government has accumulated more debt than any point in history except for World War II – but we are not at war.
This level of spending seemed justified to buy time in the face of the crisis. But six months later, we are not better off. We do not have a plan. There is no reason to believe the host of crises facing the country are about to improve.
In fact, there is reason to believe things are about to worsen!
The simple fact is America is not facing a singular crisis. We are facing a great transition. The concerns and anxieties which we hoped would pass if we were patient are about to fade into a new normal, a new reality.
Today we marvel how six months ago we packed into crowded arenas to watch musicians and athletes perform. Six months from now, we may marvel that a time existed when we paid these celebrities salaries in the hundreds of millions of dollars while teachers received so little. While major retailers quickly adapted to the new normal with home delivery and online purchases, far more aspects of our economy and society have not. This is evident in the consistent line of shortages we keep encountering from toilet paper to Dr. Pepper. The system is strained, and it cannot withstand this pressure indefinitely. Landlords must collect on leases. Office spaces that sit empty mean businesses and owners are going broke. Colleges that cannot offer learning cannot charge for their services. Theaters without movies cannot sell tickets.
The ripple of economic and social consequences of the last six months is about to roll out. America is not prepared for what is coming. The patience and tolerance for this moment are about to expire, and a new state of permanence is dawning. Many Americans will be unable to handle this reality. Many aspects of our society will prove incongruent and irrelevant to the new normal.
This is the moment of the great transition, and we will never be the same again.