Coronavirus, Penn Pandemic Diary

Penn Pandemic Diary, Entry #3: Bewilderment, Dread, and Hope - Thoughts on Life During COVID-19

March 30, 2020
By Anonymous | Penn Pandemic Diary

The author is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.

For the second time in my lifetime, we are witnessing a moment in history that will profoundly change many aspects of life as we have come to know it. I am just old enough to have vivid memories of 9/11 and its aftermath. My American friends and colleagues might also include the 2008 financial crisis in this list of generation-shaping events. The crisis did not affect me as much because it largely spared my home country.

Elements of daily life that we have taken for granted have suddenly vanished. The sunny day at the park, the afternoon coffee at a beloved neighborhood coffee shop, the small gathering with friends, even bumping against other people in a packed subway car. Losing sleep over a paper or a presentation. So many of these things have transformed from everyday nuisances or respites from a hectic daily schedule to health hazards. Others just don’t seem to be worth fretting over anymore.

But those are the little things. What has really come to dominate my thinking and efforts to maintain some sort of a work schedule is perpetual dread.

Today, we all carry with us the expectation that waves of patients will overwhelm hospitals along with concern for healthcare workers on the front lines. I fear for the health safety of my friends and loved ones. I worry about my parents, who are both in the high-risk group but still report for work every day because their jobs are deemed essential. I wonder when would be the next time I will be able to see my family, given that an ocean and two continents separate us and there is no telling when international travel will become safe. I watch beloved neighborhood businesses shut down and know that they may never open again. I think about my students and the rest of the university community whose lives have been upended by this outbreak. I’m concerned about those who do not have the benefit of being able to work from home, and their ability to recover financially when this is all said and done.

Of course, there is also bewilderment. Why has it taken so many countries so long to take the measures that experts agree are essential for weathering this crisis? Why do hospitals struggle to secure basic equipment they need to protect medical personnel and allow them to treat patients? Why is testing still so scarce in the United States and other countries? Why has the U.S. federal government not been more assertive in providing clear-eyed, reliable leadership, coordination and resources so desperately needed at the outbreak’s epicenters? Why has it failed to utilize tools provided for by law precisely for these kinds of emergencies and build on past standard operating procedures? What is the justification for the near-total absence of a social safety net in this country? What would be the implications for America’s global standing, as China is projecting an image of recovery and attempting to leverage the crisis to demonstrate its extraordinary mobilization capability and even offer critical support to other countries, while the United States struggles domestically and remains on the sidelines?

What is more, it appears that leaders elsewhere in the world are taking advantage of the crisis, rather than focusing on public health. Israel is a case in point. The country is run by an interim government after three rounds of elections in one year. The last two rounds have ended in deadlock. Nevertheless, the government refused for weeks to allow the newly elected parliament to convene and begin its work. The Supreme Court was forced to order the former acting speaker to convene parliament and hold a vote to choose a new speaker, only to be defied. The flagrant violation of the court’s order creates a full-blown constitutional crisis. Meanwhile, citing the emergency caused by the epidemic, the government has suspended the work of most of the judiciary, an independent branch that should not receive orders from the executive. In so doing it postponed the beginning of the prime minister’s graft criminal trial, originally set to being on March 17.

In just the first weeks of global emergency, an interim Israeli government that until recently lacked the support of the majority of parliament has been issuing immensely restrictive and invasive emergency regulations said to help combat the spread of COVID-19 without parliamentary supervision. Can the citizens of Israel trust that these restrictions were imposed in good faith? Are they truly necessary, or is this a way for the current government to leverage the sense of crisis and emergency to stem opposition and perpetuate its rule? These developments highlight the importance of preserving the rule of law even during emergencies. Precedents being set now will determine the nature of political life after the crisis subsides.

I do not want to end on this bleak note. Over the past few weeks, I have seen many causes for optimism. People maintaining social contacts in creative ways. People supporting each other. People donating medical equipment, supporting local businesses or paying the salaries of those who cannot work because of the pandemic. Local leaders and authorities rising to the occasion. Truly dedicated, inspiring doctors, nurses and others whose compassion and commitment at great personal risk is inspiring. May we be the kind of society that emerges from this crisis worthy of their sacrifice

The views expressed in the Penn Pandemic Diary are solely the author’s and not those of Penn or Perry World House.