Today, COVID-19 is triggering solidarity but also selfishness, with people hoarding, panic buying, or allegedly selling stocks based on insider information. The lasting image of the coronavirus may be shoppers fighting over a pack of toilet paper. The economic shock and the lockdown of entire industries risks immense social harm. The ties that bind the global economic system are coming under strain as societies turn inward and become more autarkic. How long will people tolerate social isolation? How long before suspicion becomes distrust and then boils over into anger? If people grow desperate, they may scavenge for supplies, sparking exaggerated stories of “looting” that breed paranoia, like after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The virus reveals—and may widen—the country’s economic divides. Members of the upper class work from home and have the resources to teach their kids and have supplies delivered, whereas for the working poor, losing their job may be a greater concern than catching the virus. America in the era of the coronavirus is less like a train engine pulling everyone along, and more like the movie (and upcoming television show) Snowpiercer, in which a cocooned elite rides out the storm in luxury.