The second week of March crashed upon an unsuspecting America with a force that only a precious and dwindling handful of Americans can appreciate.
In a twinkling, life as we knew it ended, swept away in a global tsunami of panic over COVID-19, a virus that science doesn’t fully understand and the United States can’t track or quantify. Amid pervasive fear and social chaos, markets crashed hard enough to end an 11-year bull market. Rather than gathering close, as Americans have in times of trouble from Pearl Harbor to 9/11, we’re compelled to disperse and isolate ourselves at home — unmoored from traditional community refuges like schools and houses of worship.
Workplaces large and small, schools and colleges sent their employees and students home with orders to telecommute if possible while others go without paychecks. Flights overseas are grounded and ocean liners docked indefinitely. Major sports leagues suspended play; no March Madness and no 2020 college basketball champion. Theaters on the Great White Way are dark. Sanctuaries were empty and silent with ministers streaming sermons via social media. Supermarket shelves are picked bare of staples like cleaning supplies, bread and toilet paper. And the “happiest place on Earth,” Disney’s theme parks, are locked until further notice.
Markets responded violently. On Thursday, hours after an Oval Office address that President Donald Trump hoped would reassure Americans and quell rattled markets, the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 10 percent of its value in a 2,300-point plunge, the worst single-day dive since 1987. Retirement funds and investments melted like a Popsicle in August. A Friday rally made up some losses but could not resuscitate the bull market, and Congress sought to enact an emergency aid package.
The few Americans who have seen their world so profoundly changed as it was last week are well into their 90s – the last of what Tom Brokaw rightly called “The Greatest Generation.” These children of the Great Depression endured social upheaval, poverty and privations, including food and fuel rationing, far more dire than the 2008 recession.
Bit by bit, they restored the country’s wrecked financial foundation and, in the middle of it all, they vanquished murderous fascist tyranny in World War II. Postwar, under Democratic and Republican leaders, that same generation created in America the greatest standard of living the planet had ever known, began to reverse the evil of slavery-rooted inequality, landed humans on the moon and won the Cold War as Soviet communism collapsed from within.
Is this pandemic a harbinger of times as challenging as those? Let’s hope not. But much of that depends on how U.S. leadership handles the crisis now before it.
The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.