As we wait for more and better tests to determine just how many people have contracted the coronavirus, understand this: All of us are already being tested.
From the strength of our economy to the reliability of our political leadership to our individual resilience, we are all now in a crucible that will have profound consequences for how we work and how we act as citizens and neighbors.
We will be measured on our ability to handle adversity and uncertainty. On our ability to put the interests of the group ahead of any individual. It sounds easy, but it won’t be. As a nation, we have not been asked to sacrifice in a very long time. This will test our patience and our mettle.
Every conference planner, school administrator, employer, church official, campaign manager, concert venue or sports league honcho will be measured by the wisdom of their decisions. Our health care system and social safety net will be stress-tested. Even our ability to count will be tested: Infection rates — if the test kits are ever widely available — might not necessarily reflect reality but rather how many people could step forward for testing because they have health insurance and paid sick leave.
You wanted disruption? Here it comes. It’s on your back, at your doorstep and in your head as you count your canned goods and unused vacation days and try to figure out how you can keep your family and sanity in one piece.
Our fidelity to our neighbors will also be tested. Will we share supplies if the family next door runs out? Will we even answer the door? Our commitment to larger society will be measured, too. Each of us will have to take small steps to ensure the greater good.
More will be asked of some than of others. Have we considered what a two-week quarantine will mean for single working parents who cannot miss work or families whose kids get their only real nutrition through free or reduced-price school lunch programs? What happens to folks with those needs?
We are going to get a clearer definition of what the word “essential” really means. We are going to learn a thing or two about all the people who are willing to raise their hands and suit up in protective gear to deliver food and medicine to shut-ins, or report for their shifts as police officers, firefighters, public-works employees or garbage collectors.
Along the way, we are learning essential things about ourselves. Many of us just learned how to wash our hands the right way. Some have developed an unfortunate post-corona strain of bias against Asians and Italians and those who cough in public. Suddenly, we have to think about what we need for comfort or security if we’re stuck indoors for weeks. Wine? Frosted Flakes? A working internet connection? Medicine? Board games?
Ever wondered if you would turn into your parents by default? You’re figuring that out, too. Anyone raised by Depression-era parents now understands why Mom and Dad kept a closet in the basement filled with canned goods and rutabagas. Anyone raised in poverty knows why there was a secret can of oatmeal packed behind the towels and sheets. Anyone raised by boomers will understand why buying in bulk seemed strangely comforting to their parents.
The virus will also test our faith and trust in leaders. Some have already failed key measures of speed, credibility or willingness to work with experts who bring knowledge and experience to the table. While those leaders wrestle with their own demons, we will be mastering new and unfamiliar terms and phrases on the coronavirus vocabulary list. Community spread. Herd immunity. Contact tracing. Zoonotic. Super-spreaders.
History will hit this moment like a fist recalling a president who talked about miracles and magic instead of science, and a congressman who clowned around with a gas mask just days before going into a self-imposed quarantine because he had been exposed to the virus. The words “hunch” or “hoax” don’t belong on the vocabulary list.
Our assumptions about our country’s superpower status will be tested as well. The virus is not intimidated by our might. It doesn’t care about our military or technological strength. It is an equal-opportunity invader. Perhaps there is a lesson in that. Our racial, social, religious or geographic differences mean little to this pathogen. We are all human and all vulnerable, and everyone around the world is facing these tests at the same time.
Results will vary. There will be false starts and mistakes. There have already been missed opportunities.
But one of America’s true strengths is our ability to summon unity and collective confidence when facing an external threat. We’ve seen it in time of war. We’ve seen it during the race to the moon. We’ve seen it after the attacks on 9/11. Are we seeing that now with the spread of this virus? The fact that this is even an open question is terrifying.
This is a test we need to pass.
Michele Norris is a columnist and consultant for The Washington Post and founding director of The Race Card Project.