When historians mark the start of this nation's coronavirus nightmare, they will cite Jan. 21, 2020, the date a Washington state man in his 30s who had visited Wuhan, China, was confirmed as the United States' first COVID-19 case.
Since then, this global crisis has mushroomed into a national defining moment with as yet untallied cultural and economic repercussions. No one questions whether we will be talking about this for generations. If there is debate, it is over the proper historical comparison.
Is this like the 2008 financial crisis, 9/11, World War II? Or perhaps, as some economists predict and news that 3.3 million people applied for unemployment last week suggests, will this be remembered as a period of deep loss and poverty, something like the grim 1930s when unemployment hit 25%?
“This will be very economically disruptive, and an analogy to the Great Depression is the closest to what we may face,” says Stanford University economics professor Matthew Jackson. “These huge events can have profound changes on the views and beliefs people have.”
That we are in for difficult months and perhaps years ahead seems commonly accepted, as virus deaths mount, hospitals are overwhelmed and a decimated service-based economy spurs a $2.2 trillion wartime-scale bailout package in Washington, D.C.
But if there is cause for optimism in these bleak times, historians, economists and writers say, it is born out of the fact that we as a nation can choose to seize this moment to create an even greater society better poised to protect its citizens from future crises.
There are precedents for bold responses to watershed American events.
The Depression gave rise to the Social Security Act, which promised citizens financial safety in their later years. World War II drew women into the workforce and minorities into the military, leading to the equal and civil rights movements. And the 2008 financial meltdown gave rise to banking regulations and renewed scrutiny of illicit financial tools.
The possible positive national reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic – which as of this writing has infected more than 120,000 Americans and killed more than 2,000, out of a global tally of 680,000 sickened and more than 30,000 dead – are myriad.
They could include a renewed appreciation of government’s role in grappling with unprecedented crises, a remaking of manufacturing pipelines so they rely less on foreign suppliers, and a rekindled appreciation for friends and neighbors, experts say.
“As tough as things look now, I do see us possibly demonstrating a sense that we’re all in this together,” says Joseph Margulies, a law professor at Cornell University in New York and author of “What Changed When Everything Changed: 9/11 and the Making of National Identity.”
Margulies notes that in contrast to WWII, when Japanese-Americans were rounded up and interned, and the Red Scare, when those suspected of Communist leanings were blacklisted, this debacle has “governors from New York to California saying the same thing, 'stay home,' and they mean everyone, not one group.”
'Life may change for us all'
At the moment, most cultural observers note that the sharp political divide that existed before the virus arrived still persists.
That’s evident in everything from the squabbles that erupted as Congress debated the size and scope of the bailout, to the tension between President Donald Trump’s desire to see the nation reopen for business next month and a range of health officials countering that the worst is yet to come if life is allowed to resume prematurely.
But some semblance of a unified national direction will be crucial to rebounding from this historic moment, given the as yet unknown shifts in the way we shop, work, travel and learn, says Matthew Continetti, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
“Clearly, the cost of the virus in lives and resources will pale in comparison to the way life may change for us all,” he says. “Just like terrorism before it, this pandemic may present real challenges to civil liberties that we’ll have to grapple with.”
Continetti points out that at the core of the American ethos is freedom, which also can translate into a rejection of government-issued rules meant to ensure public safety. That could create problems if, say, the government were to echo moves by some Asian nations and track virus carriers via their cellphones and closed-circuit TV cameras.
“I don’t think most Americans are ready to embrace that,” he says.
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As this emergency eventually turns into a state of persistent vigilance, what could be on the horizon for us is in fact is a difficult push and pull. On the one side, a desire to return to our pre-virus lives at all costs; on the other, an acknowledgement that nothing will ever truly be the same.
Continetti says that what is coming next will represent a true paradigm shift, one in which a society long driven by the pursuit of happiness at all costs may have to rearrange its social and moral priorities.
“It’s a noble and frightening future we’re facing,” he says. “But it may also give us a newfound sense of national solidarity.”
A few things should happen rather quickly as a result of this seminal moment in our history, one that undeniably has parallels to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, says Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley.
Among them are a renewed appreciation for science, a rekindled admiration for doctors, and a funding bonanza for government health institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a once mighty and now underfunded institution that by most accounts has been caught flat-footed by this pandemic.
“In U.S. history, whatever rises to a level of national concern gets funding, and health should rise sky-high,” says Brinkley, noting that, in contrast, the impact of 9/11 was felt mostly in the Northeast and Hurricane Katrina in the Deep South. “Coronavirus is touching everyone, so what officials won’t want to be prepared for the next outbreak?”
Brinkley, who is working on a book about the environmental movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, is hopeful that another reaction to this historical turning point will be a more urgent focus on curbing climate change.
Many scientists believe that new viruses are bound to spread as global temperature rises lead to the migration of animals. There are suspicions that the new coronavirus may have jumped species from pangolins, an exotic scale-covered mammal that is illegally hunted in parts of Asia.
“You can’t wipe out rainforests in Brazil and not expect to have a health care payback,” Brinkley says.
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Coronavirus shows global connections
Another sober realization bound to hit Americans across the economic spectrum is how globally interconnected the economies of all nations have become.
That phone you’re holding or the car you’re driving may be designed or built in the U.S., but countless such products invariably have many parts made in countries whose manufacturing plants are now at risk as employees get sick as governments order shutdowns.
“The virus will end, we’ll have a vaccine in 12 to 18 months, but what will the world economy look like after 12 to 18 months of stagnation, let alone if the virus comes back?” says Jerald Combs, professor emeritus of history at San Francisco State University and author of “The History of American Foreign Policy from 1895.”
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Combs says that as the virus cripples supplier countries such as India and China, U.S. manufacturing ultimately will have to find new ways to make products or face economic hardships. Such adjustments could be required of American companies for years, given it remains unknown whether today's viral threat is an aberration or a preview of what’s to come.
“World War II had a huge impact on American society in so many ways, but they had one advantage over what we’re dealing with,” Combs says. “They knew at some point the war would end. We, on the other hand, are still not sure.”
To get a sense of just how much this Defining Moment has us concerned, consider that author Erik Larson has received what he calls a “surprising” amount of messages from readers who have found a sense of solace in the pages of his new book, “The Splendid and the Vile,” which chronicles how Winston Churchill led British resistance to the relentless Nazi onslaught of 1940.
“People must simply be getting lost in a time when you had this catastrophic threat to a nation and a charismatic leader pulling them through it,” Larson says. “There’s this heroic clarity to that time, Churchill defying Hitler and rallying the public, saying 'We’re all in this together.' I guess maybe people would like that now.”
After years of research that brought him close to heart and mind of the legendary British prime minister, Larson is convinced Churchill’s message today for any nation facing the defining challenge that is the coronavirus threat would be inspirationally simple.
Says Larson: “He’d have been quick to say that this is not the apocalypse, all our institutions will survive, our world will endure, and we will go forth when this is over.”
Follow USA TODAY national correspondent Marco della Cava: @marcodellacava
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus is a new defining moment for America, historians say