Where The Comparison to Past Tragedies Falls Short

Many people and media outlets have compared the coronavirus to The Great Depression, WWII, 9/11, and other tragic events. These comparisons are apt. Unemployment is reaching levels not seen since The Great Depression; Americans, and people around the world are all bound together by this event we’re all experiencing, like we were in WWII; and the coronavirus will certainly reshape American policies as much as 9/11 did. Let’s hope we don’t repeat our past mistake of pursuing an unending war abroad while spreading racism and xenophobia at home. Yet, when I compare past tragedies to this one, I think there’s one aspect in which our current predicament is unique.

In the past, whenever we faced a life-shattering national event, we not only united as a nation, but we were also able to embrace our friends, our neighbors, and our family. Yet now, that is the one thing we cannot do. Sure, we can Zoom or call them, but as everyone can attest, virtual experiences just cannot compare to actual ones. There is just something unique about being physically close to other people and I’m sure someone can easily make an genetic argument for why that is the case. Regardless, that is now lacking. Those of us who are lucky are able to be with our nuclear families, but we still miss out on the other close bonds in our life. We even miss out on the little interactions with strangers. I can imagine people in line for rations decades earlier commiserating with their fellow man or cracking dumb jokes. Fortunately, we now aren’t facing nation-wide rations, but unfortunately, being at least six feet apart causes us to miss out on these little interactions.

I wrote this in part because I was thinking about David Brooks’s piece on the nuclear family in The Atlantic. I highly recommend reading it in full. Go ahead, I’ll wait. In summary, there was a multi-decade trend towards the nuclear family which had devastating consequences because it reduced our kinship with our grandparents, other relatives, and family friends. Happy families that are well off do pretty well in this system, but single-parent households and households with less means end up worse off in this system because they no longer have the broad support network previous generations have. In a way, we’ve all been forced to live in that word right now. We’re pretty much cut off from everyone besides the people we live with and there’s early studies (though probably take it with a grain of salt for now) that show mental health deteriorating.

If there’s any good that comes out of this, it’s that we prioritize our relationships with other people more. David Brooks, in his piece, says that the younger generations are already trending towards that right now. I think that being in quarantine will accelerate that trend. There have been many predictions about the long-term effects of the coronavirus. One of them is that remote work trends will be accelerated as white-collar workers realize how useless some meetings are and that they can do most, if not all, their work from home. I think that is true to a certain extent, but I think the other end of this is also true. We will also place added emphasis on in-person meetings because it signals how important we feel the meeting or the meeting’s attendants are. After all, if I could have done this meeting remotely, but I decided to personally fly across the country to attend this meeting, then you’d probably understand how much I value the meeting. Similarly, I think people will place additional value on in-person gatherings with the people the really care about. We’ll text and call some friends, but for those we really care about, in-person gatherings will always reign supreme.

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