Breaking News: Not Everything Is Terrible

Published October 14, 2020

The Bulwark

We devote a lot of mental energy to things that are going wrong or could go wrong. It’s human nature. As the sociobiologists teach us, our ancestors were not the ones who heard a rustling in the grass and figured, “Eh, it’s probably nothing.” We are descended from the ones who said “What the hell was that? Could be a cobra. Better run the other way.” Vigilance is our default mode.

But seven months after the start of this plague, we shouldn’t lose sight of the things that went more right than we expected for two reasons: 1) gratitude is good for the spirit and the soul, and 2) we must guard against catastrophizing.

Thinking back to the origins of the pandemic in March, we were beset by fear. Would the tanking stock market be the harbinger of another Great Depression? Between mid-February and mid-March, the Dow Jones Industrial average lost 35 percent of its value, wiping out years of investments. Though we’d seen comparable drops in 2002 (the dot-com bust) and 2007 (Lehman Brothers) only to see the market rebound, we worried that a pandemic of this scale could do far more permanent damage to the economy. We expected mass unemployment and cratering businesses. We worried that our savings could be decimated.

We feared that the virus would be impossible to vaccinate against. I recall listening to a virologist who noted that medical science has been searching for vaccines for the common cold, SARS, and MERS (all coronaviruses) for years without result.

In addition to worries about COVID-19 itself, we believed it likely that the pandemic would increase deaths from other causes as people shunned hospitals and routine care. We thought we needed thousands more ventilators than we could manufacture.

We were concerned that essential services like electricity generation, water purification, and trash collection might be affected, compounding the suffering and contributing even more to the spread of disease.

People hoarded canned goods, toilet paper, spaghetti, bottled water, and hand sanitizer. (I  hoarded coffee.) In March, we wondered whether fresh food, or in fact, any food would be available in a week’s time.

There was a run on guns. This struck me, even at the time, as overwrought. People feared that civil strife could be in the offing, and that they might have to defend their supplies of ramen noodles and peanut butter from marauding gangs.

We worried that the lockdowns would result in a spike in suicides and that school closings would rob children and teenagers of education and socialization.

And we fretted that Donald Trump would see a rise in approval rates due to the rally-round-the-flag effect.

Seven months on, some of those worries proved to be well-grounded, but many did not.

The stock market made up all of its losses by August. There are explanations. People aren’t spending money on other things right now, so they’re parking their funds in equities. Okay. But a few months ago we feared that we were at the early stages of a massive, worldwide depression that would feature huge firms declaring bankruptcy and people jumping from windows on Wall Street as in 1929. That did not happen.

That’s not to say the economy is in good shape. A number of marquee firms—J. Crew, Neiman Marcus, Gold’s Gym, and Hertz among others—have filed for bankruptcy. But they continue to operate, and may yet survive. Other signs of economic distress include the 163,000 businesses that have closed, almost 98,000 of them permanently. That represents real hardship for owners, employees, and customers. But out of 32.5 million businesses nationwide, that’s still a tiny fraction. Unemployment remains high at nearly 8 percent, but it has declined considerably from above 14 percent in March.

Prospects for a vaccine look promising. As the New York Times’s Donald MacNeil writes, “Sometime in the next three months, health experts say, the F.D.A. is likely to begin granting approval to vaccines now in the works.” There will be setbacks—Johnson and Johnson halted one of its trials over the weekend due to the unexplained illness of one volunteer—but the outlook for a widely available vaccine or vaccines by the middle of 2021 remains good. Even as the search for a vaccine stumbles momentarily in America, it continues around the world with unparalleled international cooperation. Medical science, to say nothing of the pharmaceutical companies (every populist’s bête noire), is rising to the occasion and on track to save millions of lives and livelihoods.

It turned out that ventilators were not as crucial in treating this virus as expected.

Fears about the pandemic increasing deaths from other causes appear to have been correct. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that in March and April, the US experienced 87,000 excess deaths—meaning deaths above what was experienced in those months during the preceding five years. About a third were attributed to causes other than COVID-19. People feared entering hospitals and shunned even doctors’ offices, which increased the death rate from heart disease and diabetes.

Thanks to the efforts of frontline workers (who deserve more gratitude than they get), public services like transportation, electricity generation, food safety inspection, trash collection, water purification, and emergency services continued pretty much without a hiccup. The lights stayed on. The heat and electricity continued to function. Supermarkets remained open and remarkably well-stocked. There were shortages here and there of various commodities—yeast! Dijon mustard!—but nothing that could be called hardship. And the shortages were temporary. Companies rapidly adjusted to consumer needs. Stores offered curbside pick-up. Hair salons (after they were permitted to reopen—speaking of hardship) adopted social distancing and masks. The toilet paper emergency was short-lived (and people in my neighborhood shared). Amazon continued to deliver just about anything you wanted in record time. We did not experience a Lord-of-the-Flies-style social collapse requiring armed defense of our pantries.

What prolonged school closings will do to children is a great unknown, and there is reason to think that teachers unions have exerted too much power in this matter.

As for depression, suicide, and other psychological effects of the pandemic, the news is mixed. Significant numbers of adults have reported increases in depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, particularly those caring for an elderly relative and essential workers who cannot work from home. And many women have dropped out of the labor force due to the pressure of being forced to homeschool their kids. Adolescents, on the other hand, are faring better.

According to a new report from the Institute for Family Studies, teen mental health has improved since the pandemic and associated lockdowns began. Compared with 2018, fewer adolescents described themselves as depressed, lonely, or unhappy during the COVID crisis. They reported better sleep. In 2018, only 55 percent said they regularly slept 7 or more hours per night. In 2020, it jumped to 84 percent. Teens are spending more time talking with their parents and sharing a family dinner. A solid 53 percent reported feeling stronger and more resilient as a result of the pandemic. Teens whose families have experienced economic hardship didn’t fare as well. Twenty-six percent of those who worried about their family’s economic situation were depressed, compared with 13 percent who did not have that concern. Yet another IFS report found that the enforced togetherness of the pandemic has improved marriages, with 58 percent saying it has made them appreciate their spouse more.

As for the effect on Trump’s approval ratings, well, it turns out that when people are confined to their homes facing a serious threat to their health and well-being, they are inclined to pay close attention to press conferences hosted by the president of the United States. And close attention is the one thing from which Donald Trump cannot benefit. They saw with their own eyes and heard with their own ears when he suggested injecting disinfectant into the human body. Since the president has since insisted that he was being sarcastic, here’s what he said:

And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning?

So it’d be interesting to check that. I’m not a doctor. But I’m, like, a person that has a good you-know-what [pointing to his head].

As awful as it has been, this disease was not the apocalypse we feared. Many aspects of our society proved more resilient than we expected. With the exception of the fellow with the not-so-good “you-know-what,” there is reason to look forward with something we haven’t felt much lately—hope.

Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a contributor to The Bulwark, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast.

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