Some of us already have entered into a period of voluntary social isolation. (Some of us are writers and barely notice the difference.) This presents a classic coordination problem. If only a few of us isolate, then that provides essentially no value: Transmission of the virus will proceed unobstructed among the non-isolating population, and the social disruption and collective risks associated with the uncontrolled outbreak will be borne by all of us. We Americans are not very good at these kinds of voluntary-coordination challenges, usually, but the cancellation of major sporting events and the shuttering of Broadway (initiatives from the two poles of American popular culture) suggest that many of our institutions are, in fact, taking this seriously. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s proposal to provide financial assistance to hourly workers put out of a job by the suspended NBA season is the right kind of thinking — you’ll know his colleagues are serious when the checks clear.
The great American longing for a generation-defining crisis — Pearl Harbor envy — is strange and enduring, and it shapes thinking on both sides of the great sociopolitical divide: On the left, global warming is the Third Reich, the so-called Green New Deal is the moonshot, and whatever unnecessary immiseration and chaos is unleashed by the fantasies of progressives are only sadly inevitable casualties on the beaches of this new Normandy. On the right, it’s an Islamic caliphate, the coming civil war (there’s always one), the nation’s being overrun by hordes of Spanish-speaking people, or — it is almost a relief to consider it — Armageddon itself. With everything from right-wing survivalist novels to ironic hipster zombie shows, we have been preparing ourselves, in our low-impact way, for just such an eventuality.
And in the plague, we see whatever we want to see: the need for a universal health-care system and paid leave, the need for a wall and for severing our relations with the Chinese.