Within the span of one hour on March 11, President Donald Trump said in a live, televised address that all flights from Europe would be suspended for 30 days starting Friday, news broke that actor Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, the NBA suspended its season after a player also tested positive, and (spoiler) former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was revealed as Bear Four on NBC’s The Masked Singer in a performance where she rapped a live rendition of Sir Mix-a-Lot's “Baby Got Back” in a neon-colored, furry, anthropomorphic bear suit.
This all happened just hours after the World Health Organization categorized COVID-19 as a pandemic, Harvey Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison, and the results of “Super Tuesday 2.0” secured former vice president Joe Biden’s position as the frontrunner in the Democratic primary, ahead of Bernie Sanders.
What the fuck is going on?
On Twitter, people called the evening of March 11 a glitch in the Matrix. An exception. In his address to the nation, Trump said, “This is just a temporary moment of time that we will overcome as a nation and as a world."
But really, none of this is temporary. Instead, the pandemic has exposed our long-standing national priorities and the resulting sense of powerlessness many of us feel. Nearly 30 million Americans lack health insurance. And so in Trump’s address to the nation, he said the health insurance industry had “agreed to waive all copayments for coronavirus treatments, extend insurance coverage to these treatments, and to prevent surprise medical billing.” But on Thursday, the industry’s lobby rushed to clarify that while copays for testing might be waived, treatment costs would not be. As public health officials nationwide urge Americans to avoid public gatherings to slow the spread of the coronavirus, tens of thousands of immigrants are being held in crowded detention centers, many of whom have no access to urgent medical care. And 2019 was the second-hottest year on record, and the universal scientific consensus is that we are facing a climate crisis. Yet Trump announced that he was considering giving federal aid to shale gas companies.
This disconnect between what needs to happen and what does happen is why our systems already feel deeply broken in unfixable ways — or at least ways that defy individual action. And it is exacerbated by our fragmented, information-dense, choose-your-own-reality culture.
For those perpetually online, social media distorts perception of time, amplifies the loudest voices, and facilitates self-sorting into social bubbles. Despite having access to ultrapowerful, handheld computers that can retrieve any information at any time, we have no clear guidance on what we should do, what we should postpone or cancel.
We have access to an overwhelming amount of information about the world — everything cruel, absurd, or both — but little to no information that we can act on. That’s not exceptional. It’s just how things are now.
We live in a world that needs overwhelming change to save millions of people’s lives — be it from COVID-19, climate change, expensive medical procedures, or something else — and there’s no clear path to do it.
Top US health officials have now admitted our health system is "failing" at providing adequate testing for the coronavirus. In lieu of adequate tests, the best guidance from experts is to participate, en masse, in “social distancing,” self-quarantine, working from home, avoiding public spaces, and frequent handwashing. Millions of Americans are cooped up at home — some stocked up with food and hand sanitizer, some not. People who aren’t used to working from home are already feeling the effects — fatigue, stir-craziness, poor concentration. People who don’t have the luxury of working from home are delivering groceries, packages, and takeout to their doors. They’re teaching in schools that can’t shut down, in part because millions of American children would not eat if they did. They are ringing up orders at pharmacies and taking our temperature in emergency rooms.
What we all have in common is wondering if things are better or worse than what people are saying on cable news, on Twitter, in their group chat, in grocery store and pharmacy lines. And for those who are shut in, aside from family or roommates, some people’s only form of human connection may come from the internet, where the worst parts of reality and unreality collide.
In the middle of all this, I’ve been thinking about the strange fetishization of young people online. Young people today are typically described in one of two ways: woke, intelligent, and here to save all of us, or completely and utterly overloaded with terrible information that’s rendered them indifferent, nihilistic, and helpless.
But I think most people, not just young people, flutter in between.
I’m writing this from my bedroom in Brooklyn, which I’ve left sparingly over the past few days. My hands are possibly cleaner than they’ve ever been, as I’ve been diligent about washing them for 20 seconds, using the recommended technique, kneading and folding my fingers, much more frequently than I usually do. Before I open a can of soup. After I do it. Before I empty the dishwasher. After I do it. My knuckles smell like a mixture of hand sanitizer and shea butter moisturizer. They’re also dry, cracking, and bleeding. I’m doing what I can to control things in my own little life.