When it comes to the pandemic, a significant portion of the population of the United States has succumbed to magical thinking. But a natural process like the transmission of a contagious disease doesn’t care one bit about the lies with which a person, a community, or a country consoles itself. The virus will spread according to its own logic no matter what we think or how ignorant we will ourselves to be. That’s why I’ve begun to fear COVID is just going to mow us down.
What kind of social, economic, and political disruptions are we likely to see as it happens? I shudder to think. Especially after observing the unanticipated nationwide conflagration that followed the killing of George Floyd. As my colleague Noah Millman argued during the early, most volatile portion of the unrest, it made sense to think of the looting and burning as “the coronavirus riots” — because the video of Floyd’s final minutes of life was not sufficient to explain them. The manifest injustice captured on a cell phone and broadcast to the world online — like many others before — was of course the absolutely necessary condition of the protests, but there also needed to be a pent-up, bored, lonely, frustrated, and volatile population craving a cause for there to be destructive unrest.
Now imagine a nation in which the ranks of the unemployed grow every week for months on end, constantly provoked by its president, some terrified of infection, others claiming it’s a conspiracy, nearly everyone disgusted by institutional incompetence — and then the economy really starts to tank, with waves of bankruptcies and layoffs, a flood of evictions leading to a huge increase in homelessness, a bigger wave of urban crime than we’ve already seen, foreclosures that push banks to the brink and erase the equity of homeowners, and a belated stock market crash that wipes out the retirement funds of half the country.