I went grocery shopping at Safeway yesterday, which I usually avoid like–I’ll say it–the plague. But it wasn’t what I expected at all. The store did not look like Venezuela, although the toilet paper shelves were practically bare. I say practically, because there was still plenty of toilet paper left. There just wasn’t enough to fill a shipping container, which is what we have become accustomed to in this country.
But I did notice a shift in people’s attitudes since the last time I went shopping. I didn’t find the usual courtesies afforded when, for instance, shopping cart met shopping cart around a blind turn of Cheezits. People acted churlish, rushed, focused on themselves, including an elderly lady who had filled her cart to the brim with canned soup and beans. I thought about her sodium levels and imagined saying something to her, but she probably would have growled at me.
As I wandered up and down the aisles, grabbing a can of WD-40 here, a bottle of Irish whiskey there, I thought about 9-11. Whereas before the attacks New York exhibited many of the behaviors as the people cutting me off and glaring, afterward the mood of the city changed dramatically. I noticed it when I moved back nearly a decade later. Much of the repressed hostility was gone and New Yorkers seemed to treat each other in a civilized manner.
By the time I reached the cereal aisle, I had recounted the major tragedies I have lived through in my life: the JFK assassination in Dallas, the murders of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and RFK, the Challenger disaster, the Loma Prieta earthquake, and, of course, 9-11. These events happened in a flash, and the change that occurred in people took place afterward.
In contrast, the Coronavirus crisis is not instantaneous but evolving, heightening people’s anxiety on a daily basis, which points to a fundamental difference between tragedy and crisis. A crisis is ongoing whereas a tragedy is short lived. You could think of it in terms of the two theories of light: particle and wave. One is a point in time and space (e.g., the twin towers collapsing), the other an undercurrent like the tide.
With Coronavirus, the change taking place in people comes from a dread of contamination, illness, and death. It’s enough to make anybody churlish. But even though recent policies were enacted to protect the public, it doesn’t help that school districts have sent students home, municipalities have banned large gatherings, and churches have closed their doors.
Hemingway described courage as “grace under pressure,” but it is especially troubling when the institution that is supposed to be all about grace–the church–erects barriers, literally.
Even worse, mainstream media has gone on a Coronavirus binge with 24/7 coverage including interviews with experts, celebrity updates (who has it and who doesn’t), and scathing commentary about what is not being done by the current administration. “Novel” seems to be the favorite adjective attached to the virus, although I have read and heard such hyperbole that you would think an asteroid was about to smash the planet to smithereens.
This is the new March Madness, and if you’re not in a panic about it, you must be a climate or Holocaust denier. I deny neither, nor do I make light of a pandemic in which thousands have died. But you have to admit the irony, even humor, that dogs cannot get it. It may be their revenge against China. I see a Tom Hanks movie in the offing.
My final stop at Safeway was the beer aisle, and I just had to do it. I had to buy a twelve pack of Corona. I justified it later by pointing out that it was on sale. Funny, but I didn’t see anyone else buying it at the time. The shelf was fully stocked. Maybe I should have bought more.
Actually, that’s the Italian reaction to the crisis, although they replace Corona with vino. They know in the end that everything will turn out fine, andrà tutto bene, which is something along the lines of Stay Calm and Carry On.
They even made a public service video about it.