America during a pandemic: A moment for reflection

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and American politics.


As a septuagenarian, I have never envisioned in my lifetime what we are experiencing. I could have conceived of a nuclear exchange occurring; it almost happened during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. 

But not this. After all, other pandemics had come and gone without causing much alarm. We could feel sorry for others during SARS and other outbreaks, but the effects on the vast majority of people here and worldwide were minimal. In contrast, in the wake of the coronavirus, the woke and unwoke alike are having their worst imaginable nightmare.

It is time for humanity to engage in the most sober act of reflection.

Up to now, as a baby boomer spared World War II, I would say that the two most traumatic moments my generation have encountered were the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the 9/11 attack in 2001.

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However, neither could compare with the current situation, in which not only is the  American economy at risk of collapse, but so is our very existence. I, like so many others, especially the vulnerable elderly, am expected to spend the foreseeable future living as a hermit, sheltered in place, unable to interact with friends or even visit my children and grandchildren. I even am instructed to practice social distancing from my spouse. Whole states, encompassing 90 percent of the American people, have been placed under lockdown. This is most depressing.

Are we overreacting? At first, I thought so. A couple of weeks ago, when I started drafting this commentary, I had written: “Thus far, terrible as it is, America is witnessing only some 200 deaths a day from COVID-19, not much more than the daily number of auto fatalities (over 100); yet we have not closed our roadways.” 

Obviously, I was wrong, as daily virus deaths have now surpassed 1,000.

Still, we need to put the coronavirus in perspective.

According to the CDC, between 9 million and 45 million Americans have been infected with influenza each year since 2010, resulting in between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths annually — a substantial number, yet rarely publicized. The 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic infected an estimated 61 million Americans, and caused more than 12,000 deaths, according to the CDC. Yet who remembers any media coverage of this event or any criticism of President Barack Obama akin to the criticism leveled at President Donald Trump? 

Let’s compare the latter statistics with the COVID-19 numbers. COVID-19 is thought to be 10 times more lethal than the standard flu. Thus far, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, the total number of cases in the United States is over 380,000, and the total deaths over 12,000, with great variation among states (New York has seen over 4,700 deaths, and Missouri only 65). Globally, the numbers are approximately 1 million cases and 70,000 deaths, also with geographical variation.

Bottom line: A tiny COVID-19 microorganism has caused outsized effects, wreaking much more societal havoc than previous viruses that statistically were more deadly — at least up to now. That is the rub.  

Public health experts have warned that COVID-19 is projected to ultimately have a much wider spread in the United States and globally before it can be brought to an end. Nobody can answer the question when that might be. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has speculated that as many as 240,000 Americans might die. Under worst case scenarios, we are behaving as if the pandemic might have the potential to exceed the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed some 50 million people worldwide or, worse, the Bubonic plague, which decimated one-third of Europe in the 14th century. We just do not know for sure where this is headed, given the uncertainty over discovery of possible vaccines and treatments. 

Meanwhile, my son, a Lubavitcher, sent me a video produced by Rabbi Manis Friedman, who tried to argue that the current crisis may have a silver lining, as we are all being forced to take a break from all kinds of daily habits and routines that prevent us from valuing what is truly important. We are all being asked to make huge sacrifices for a common cause. The rabbi suggested we are being afforded a rare opportunity for extensive soul-searching and, hopefully, self-improvement.

A similar message has been conveyed by professor Marcelo Gleiser of Dartmouth, the 2019 Templeton Prize Laureate: “COVID-19 will change us as a species. … We would be foolish not to embrace the central message of our predicament: that we must come together to survive … that the tribal divisions that have defined our moral choices over the past millennia must be tossed aside for our own good. We are entering the age of tribal override” (CNN, March 29).

We can agree or disagree about what is wrong with our culture. Gleiser was referring mainly to the divisions between nation-states and the need for a new cosmopolitan ethos. He could just as well have been alluding to the many “tribal” divisions within the United States that now drive racial, gender and other identity politics that cry out for reconciliation.

I wish the rabbi and the professor were right that “the new normal” that might follow the end of the coronavirus will be a better world. But my guess is that people will tend to return to their former lifestyles and politics and, thus, I do not think all the suffering will have been worth it.

But maybe I am too pessimistic. We are hearing about many extraordinary acts of kindness done by neighbors for the less fortunate among us. It is true we have the luxury at the moment to pause and give some thought to the lives we have led, what we might have done differently and what we could do in the future that would represent our better selves. Families may even find themselves spending more, not less, time together and reconnecting.

My son says, “This is God’s plan.” Let’s hope and pray it is so.