Community and Family, Again

Even if I am right in my optimism that effective control of the coronavirus will come in a few weeks and that the virus’s actual death toll will be seen, in retrospect, to have been statistically insignificant (and I write that phrase mindful of the cruelty of Stalin’s observation that “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic”), it will have left deep scars, analogous to those left by a heart attack. Perhaps it will also have changed some attitudes for the better. 

Over the last week or so, most of the American public began to take the pandemic seriously. Individual behaviors changed abruptly. As the economic effects of a severe slowdown of unknown duration were considered, and the high probability of significant, lingering aftereffects – in terms of changed behavioral patterns – also came into prospect, the markets accelerated their sharp declines. And both the government and the private sector focused urgently on tracking and stopping the virus.

There are many reasons that I am optimistic that the virus itself – as contrasted with its economic ramifications – will come under control fairly promptly. The disease’s spread will undoubtedly be slowed by widespread social distancing. Tracking (and ultimately halting) its spread will also be much more effective than it has been as a result of the wider availability of tests.

More fundamentally, several companies have created vaccines that they think will be effective, and testing of the first of these began yesterday in Seattle; I take it as a given that the FDA will approve such vaccines much more swiftly than it would have done under normal circumstances. And finally, I have been reading for several days now that a medicine long used to treat malaria – chloroquine – has proven effective as a coronavirus treatment (  Apparently, chloroquine is inexpensive and widely available, so even if it proves to be only largely effective, its use may dramatically diminish the effects of the virus.

Maybe I’m just a born optimist.

I do not, however, believe for a second that even if my optimism about getting control of the virus proves to be well-founded, all of our lives will go back to the old normal in a few weeks. The repercussions of the economic heart attack now being suffered by society – the temporary cessation of much productive activity and the prospect of innumerable likely bankruptcies in the hospitality, transportation and sports and live entertainment fields – will leave millions of people in dire personal circumstances.

Patterns of personal consumption will not snap back – they will only very gradually reassert themselves, and this process will mean that sectors that depend on crowds will undergo long term retrenchments. The personal costs that many individuals will experience as a result of these sudden dislocations will undoubtedly be severe.

With luck, the longer term beneficial economic effects of the virus – onshoring the production of more medicines – and other goods, as a means of creating more reliable supply chains – will (on a macro basis) offset many of the costs of the likely dislocations. We are also very lucky that we entered this crisis with an essentially full-employment economy; that circumstance will presumably help many unemployed service workers and executives find new places.      

Many of those of us who get through the crisis relatively unscathed should – and undoubtedly will – do something to help those who don’t. As illustrated by our consistently high rates of charitable giving (, Americans generally take the personal responsibilities of community-mindedness more seriously than other nations.

Perhaps the fright – and then the very real changes – that the coronavirus pandemic is putting us through will also force us to think more about what is – or should be – really important to us. I, for one, am very lucky in that regard: the Beloved Spouse and I are spending our time during this crisis in the company of one of our daughters, her husband and their small children; when we look back on this period, I’m guessing, we’ll remember this uninterrupted time with family as having been a rich and unexpected blessing.

Warm regards and good health to all,  

M.H. Johnston       

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