Mar 15, 2020
The coronavirus pandemic is shutting down museums, theaters, and clubs. It’s forcing fashion shows to reschedule and talk shows to play to empty seats. Broadway’s going dark, March Madness is off, and politicians are rallying to audiences made up solely of their own aides. On March 12, an Olympic gold medalist lit the torch for a small, private audience then ran through trees alone.
The virus seems to be showing us what’s important: not sports or glamor, but health and family; not politics, but political action. It’s shutting down events that used to symbolize our connection as citizens and fans, while showing us how connected we have always been. We can now visualize that what happens to one of us in Wuhan can derail traders in New York and kill leaders in Iran.
But our response is also shutting down services that perform a vital function. It’s pushing an estimated fifth of the world’s students out of classrooms and shutting down the places we need most in times of crisis. Italy’s ban on public gatherings mean a ban on funerals. Saudi Arabia suspended pilgrimages to Mecca, and both the Catholic Church in Rome and the Governor of Kentucky called on churches to close doors that have stood open through flood and famine. The Pope, meanwhile, is holding an audience from the comfort of his plush, private library. We are left to mourn alone.
The mental cost is real. A 2020 report on social isolation by researchers at the National Academies of Sciences found that older people who keep to themselves develop a “significantly” higher risk of dementia. Life won’t be much easier for younger generations kept apart and forced to live on screens, whose effect on mental health we don’t yet understand. The pandemic is forcing our society to take a hard reckoning of what is essential, and what we can do without. But the costs of those cuts can never be tallied.