I’m not even going to preface this. Everyone knows what’s going on. And it sucks. The uncertainty of it—when will it end? Who knows? Not even the experts can agree—isn’t that comforting?—and the sudden shift. Just last week my semester was chugging along like normal. I was hanging out with my friends, my projects were moving forward, I got all my graduation stuff in order. Maybe I’d miss a week of school. Maybe two.
Now states are on lock-down, Trump can’t make a nationwide policy, people are out of work, and it’s become apparent we’re in this for a longer haul than anticipated. The end of April is now considered a stupidly optimistic deadline for things to return to “normal.” Social distancing is in effect and within days it’s become more extreme than anyone could have predicted—or at least, wanted to predict. I know I didn’t.
Of course the conversation has shifted from how to stop the virus itself and towards “How long will this last?” The lack of definitive answers is troubling, because it means even our leaders and top scientists don’t want to make optimistic predictions they can’t back up. It’s even unclear what the ultimate goal is right now; some experts are still talking about “flattening the curve,” or getting the virus under control enough to where everyday life can resume. But some are already speculating this may have to be kept up until a vaccine can be readied, which will take over a year—implying the goal is to fully overcome the outbreak before resuming our everyday routine.
The “how long” mentality has been criticized by experts working to get the outbreak under control. Sarah Fortune, a chair of the department of immunology at Harvard, was quoted in The New York Times as having said “We need to change the conversation from: ‘How inconvenient is this to me?’ to ‘Who are the people who are suffering most, and how can we help them?’…Think of it as a community service.”
A positive message to be sure, but I take issue with her framing, which has been a prevalent one in the media—that people need to stop being selfish and brace through this one. But this fundamentally misunderstands most people’s fears.
No doubt a chunk of us are simply more inconvenienced or disappointed by this turn of events. I myself am graduating this year, and it pains me to think these past four years have built up to a sudden and unexpected end to my last semester, and that I’ll be graduating in an online ceremony, that I won’t get to celebrate with my friends, that all of the things I actually enjoyed at school—the extracurriculars, the social gatherings, etc.—are probably over. Is this an immature and selfish thing to worry about? Yeah. Does that mean it’s an invalid emotional response? I don’t think so. I’m only human, after all.
But my worries are by far the most manageable type. And this is where I disagree with the sentiment posed by Fortune. For a lot of people, inconvenience and FOMO are the least of their worries. People are losing their livelihoods. The proposed government stipend is not going to cut it for a lot of people, especially those in California. Or what about students who don’t have a job, and whose parents are now in dire straits? Or those who were on the hunt for a job right before this outbreak? Nevada is allowing people to collect unemployment regardless but I doubt every state will do this. Businesses may have to shutter their doors permanently. People can’t pay rent, and then the landlord also loses their source of income. It’s not good for anyone. A month of this would push many people to the financial brink. 4 months? 8 months? You’re looking at a disaster.
Not to mention how on top of the stresses about the virus itself and the sudden and stressful changes to people’s livelihoods…cabin fever is real. Getting to go for a quick jog or walk is not enough over the long term. People need diversity in their social interactions. We actually need to see each other. Not just through a screen. The physical presence of others is a necessity for our psyche.
Psychologist Harry Harlow conducted controversial experiments involving rhesus monkeys during the 1930s. He placed the infant primates in a closed space with two options for a mother: one made of cold wire which nurtured them with a milk feeder but was hard and unfeeling to the touch. And one “clothed” wire piece that offered no sustenance but which possessed a wool cloth that felt like the embrace of a mother monkey. The monkeys overwhelmingly spent time cuddling with the wool mother, only visiting the wire mother when absolutely necessary to feed. Harlow’s experiments are important in understanding ourselves as well, as monkeys are our evolutionary cousins—we are also primates—and we share a number of behaviors.
Humans, like other primates, are social creatures. We require close bonds and physical contact with others. Not just the mere contact of others over the Internet, but actual face-to-face interactions. There’s an energy to meeting people in person that humans deeply crave and need in the long term. To expect people to remain apart for a long time is unrealistic not because people are inconsiderate or selfish—it’s something that is hardwired into our brain. And yes, obviously, if you live with people then that seems to solve that issue.
But like I said, we also crave diversity in life. It’s why we make friends outside our immediate families. And even outside our already established friend groups. We do not enjoy spending every waking minute with the same group of people, even if we usually enjoy their company. Humans, unlike infant monkeys, also have more complex issues to deal with that come to the surface in scenarios like this.
No doubt relapses will take place and others will have newfound addictions. It’s easier to drink at home out of boredom and make that a new part of your daily routine. Or what about those in AA, NA and other addiction programs without regular access to the Internet who now can’t attend meetings? Addicts who are newly sober and need that constant social reassurance from others in recovery?
Depression will potentially skyrocket. Possibly suicide. The combination of social isolation and the financial anxiety and the uncertainty will build over time. What about those who already tend to self-isolate and need to get out of the house in order to talk to people? While counseling services are available online, again, there are those people who have limited access to the Internet, or who can’t afford those services if they aren’t already covered by their health care provider. People who may have never dealt with depression seriously may begin to suffer just from the sheer anxiety of their situation.
What about the children for whom school is an escape from broken homes? People in toxic or abusive relationships? People who just don’t get along with their family all that well? Or even those who just don’t realize how irritating their loved ones can be until forced into constant interaction—it’s like an awkward Thanksgiving conversation that never ends. There will be plenty of strained interpersonal relationships if this goes on for an extended period of time.
I know this sounds like a lot of speculation and it’s all a bit doom and gloom—and it is—but hey, that’s what most media outlets are operating on right now, the worst case scenario for this whole thing, so why should I hold back?
But what about the people who really are just ignoring advice, like the people who were partying on the beach in Florida a few days back? What about those who aren’t in financial or psychological crisis but who just don’t seem to care? Ultimately, I think this crisis is exposing how unprepared we are as a culture for this type of situation. The reports of selfish millennials and zoomers who keep going out—even as everyone tells them they’re causing harm—have been featured in every op-ed section in the nation. Yes, they’re ruining it for everyone by forcing the restrictions to get more extreme and prolonging the need for the restrictions in the first place, but why are they doing it? Well, it’s a part of our cultural fabric.
America has always prided itself on the concept of individualism. The pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality, the strike-out-on-your-own dream. Our system is capitalism, which rewards these ideas and behavior. It’s everyone for themselves in the world of business at the end of the day. So our culture and our economic system perfectly feed each other—until we’re hit with a crisis where we must put aside our own desires for the common good overnight. And then we’re shocked that a chunk of people just don’t respond to communal calls for action.
In the end, we created that selfishness and arrogant determination within them. Within ourselves. I say “we” because, as I stated earlier with my rant about my ruined last semester of college, I’m not above being selfish. Even in the face of something a lot bigger than myself. After all, we can only truly understand something if it happens to us, so we can only really process these events in the ways they impact us and those we know. Americans are not one big gang of sociopaths, obviously; we have shown a great communal spirit in the face of disaster before. But there is without a doubt an undercurrent within the shared ideologies of Americans that downplays that communal spirit. And now it’s appearing in the guise of those pesky millennials and zoomers who just don’t care about quarantines. But like I said, this is an aside. The fears surrounding a prolonged period of social isolation are a lot more serious than some spring breakers who just won’t cut their vacation short. There is and will continue to be real suffering.
Despite experts’ calls to just strap in and hope for the best, and to stick it out for however long this takes—people can’t. They can’t psychologically, financially, perhaps not physically—because I also suspect physical health will decline quite a bit if this is a prolonged process. At-home workouts can be great, but it’s undeniable that this new, more sedentary existence will have negative effects on physical health in the long run. And I’m sure staying mostly indoors for extended periods of time isn’t going to do wonders for your immune system—and a TIME magazine article from last year states that too much indoor time can upset your circadian clock and sleep cycle, which are imperative for your physical and mental well-being.
There will be a point down the line—if this really does persist through the summer—where the country may have to make some difficult choices. What comes first: Coronavirus, mental health, or the economy and the financial security of millions? We can’t really tell yet how bad any one of these things is going to get. I still hope that within a month or so we’ll see massive drop offs in the numbers of cases… I hope. Because if not, those affected by the other two factors will start to crack. So for now, try to stay inside so that Coronavirus can subside. It’s not easy, but if we can fight the urge to get outside for the next 30 days or so, then hopefully we can see results sooner—before we have to reach that choice.
Matt Cotter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MattCotter12.