As we live through historic events that arrive not every day but every hour, I’m thinking of the future as well as the present.
It is ever fascinating to me to wonder what I might remember, years and decades from now, about changes which in their immediacy and sheer volume seem so monumental that their vibrancy can’t be tarnished by time.
Sept. 11, 2001, for instance, was a milestone — one of a handful of epochal days in American history and probably the most notable in my lifetime (I was born in 1970).
Yet my recollections of that sunny September day lack the clarity I would have predicted, even at the span of nearly two decades.
I think the coronavirus might well be different — dramatically so.
Indeed I think it’s plausible to believe that for Americans old enough to form lasting memories of these days in the winter and spring of 2020, the coronavirus crisis will attain a prominence not so dissimilar to that of World War II among the generations that lived through that conflict.
I don’t mean to suggest the two events are comparable on certain levels, to be sure.
America was directly involved in the Second World War for close to four years, and nearly half a million service members died.
There is good reason to believe that coronavirus in our country will not approach the war’s longevity or death toll.
But no single event since that war has caused such upheaval to our society, at the most fundamental levels, as coronavirus has done.
The repercussions arrived so rapidly that I’ve felt a trifle overwhelmed, as though I were caught in one of those terrible dreams in which the tasks accumulate but I seem helpless to deal with even one.
(And like as not, while clad only in my underwear.)
In the span of a few days, all manner of traditions that seemed as reliable as the passage of the seasons became casualties.
Sports all but ended.
March Madness, a symbol of spring as certain as the chilly north wind buffeting Baker Valley (but much less annoying), was canceled.
Sit-down meals at restaurants are banned, and theaters dark and silent.
Terms such as “social distancing” have entered the vernacular, and I suspect they will be more difficult to dislodge than the slogans of past crises — gas lines, for instance.
It is natural, and reasonable, to compare these precautions, some of them unprecedented in our lifetimes, with the level of the threat and decide for ourselves whether we think the scales are balanced.
I understand why some people say they are not — indeed, that the response is grossly exaggerated.
Doctors agree that the coronavirus, though quite infectious, has a relatively low fatality rate of roughly 2% — and much lower yet for young, otherwise healthy people.
I suspect many people, including those who dismiss the more dramatic precautions as hysteria, assumed — if they ever thought about the subject — that only a disease that was both easily spread and widely fatal would prompt this level of response.
There is, I’ll concede, a certain comfort in the statistics. The same is true for our individual risks of, say, dying in a car crash. Most of us, after all, probably will not contract coronavirus. And most of those who do will survive, quite likely without even knowing the virus breached our defenses.
Yet despite this relatively remote risk of any one of us suffering severe illness, much less dying, I don’t believe America’s response to coronavirus is unreasonable.
This is partly because of the uncertainty.
We know much more about how dangerous coronavirus is now than we did even a few weeks ago. But I am not comfortable making broad assumptions about a virus that, until around the turn of the year, few people who don’t work in virology likely had heard of.
Moreover, the restrictions we have either taken voluntarily, or that have been imposed by the government, are indisputably effective at reducing the spread of the disease.
And although the short-term effects can be serious — most notably the economic harm — absent these precautions the coronavirus would infect far more people, and the blow to business likely would be even more persistent and dire.
None of this, obviously, can be proved now.
Which returns me to my original point about pondering the future.
It seems to me that budding sociologists and other observers of human society will have plenty of topics to keep them academically occupied for years, if not decades.
By 2040 bookshelves will sag, I suspect, with the work of historians who have examined every aspect of the great coronavirus crisis of 2020 (ideally, of course, it will be confined to a single year).
I like to think I’ll pass enjoyable hours in my dotage reading some of these.
But I wonder how much I’ll remember of what it was really like. How vividly will I be able to recall when the closures were arriving in my inbox with stunning rapidity, when toilet paper jokes were the epitome of humor, and when the issue of airborne droplets was suddenly, shockingly, more important than the Final Four.
Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.