As we face a so-called “second wave” of the coronavirus, we remember the day we learned that our lives were put on ice. The first shelter-in-place order in the country came from California Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomHere are the states requiring masks in public The Hill’s Coronavirus Report: Geopolitical adviser Parag Khanna criticizes US, China leadership on virus; US COVID-19 cases reach highest single-day level Disney postpones reopening of California theme parks past July 17 MORE on March 19, seemingly a lifetime ago. The rest of the country followed suit; New York instituted a similar order only a day after. Some states never did so. All this is now a blur amid fast-moving reopening, just in time to un-reopen given the recent surges in cases of coronavirus in more than 30 states.
And while we appear to be getting back to normal, most Americans are exhausted. We are tired of the public information whiplash from the lack of consistent institutional messaging. We were told by federal officials in the United States and by the World Health Organization — which the U.S. is now defunding — that masks did nothing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and then that they may indeed help. We were told that there would be enough tests for COVID-19 and then that there will not be enough for months to come. We were told that these tests are reliable and then that they were not. We were told that this pandemic would be over in a month or two, and then that we are in it for the long haul.
We were told that a vaccine is near, possibly at the end of the year, and then that we may have to wait for a year or 18 months. We were told that coronavirus is seasonal, and then we learned it is not. The U.S. government provided stimulus packages to help us get through this disastrous economic period, but then we learned this largesse is not helping enough or going to the wrong people and corporations. We were told that we are reopening our economy, but in some states, that reopening is taking longer than in others.
All of this means that many of us — who may have escaped suffering from the virus itself — are suffering from “COVID-19 fatigue.” We want to go back out into society, to our jobs (for those of us lucky enough to still have them), to visit our families, our friends, and to take in sporting events, concerts or political rallies. We want to do so with relish, even as we are warned that a “second wave” of the coronavirus — a misnomer since the first wave never went away — is coming.
But with more than 30 states reporting spikes in cases of the coronavirus, and the reopening still under way, we may have to go back home again soon, even if we did not fully leave home yet. Staying at home has become confusing, but what is so difficult about sheltering in place? We were not asked to go fight in another country; we were not asked to sacrifice our sons and daughters to the vagaries of war. We were not asked to do much of anything except to do what we are good at — sit at home and watch television.
Yet even in the midst of all the bad news, bad governance, bad information, and bad behavior, there are some positive signs. Americans learned that we can work from home and do so efficiently and diligently. We have learned that expensive business travel for meetings and conferences is not really necessary. Many of us have quickly adapted to a world of distance learning, telemedicine, and Zoom happy hours. It would have taken years to move companies, government agencies, universities, and nonprofit organizations to go online and effectively shift away from physical sites. They did all this in a week or two in many cases. Technophobes, Luddites, and naysayers be damned — we showed that humans are resilient, adaptable and quick studies. We still might not know how to share our screens, but we will get there.
As awful as this pandemic has been for the millions of people affected by the coronavirus, the more than 125,000 who tragically lost their lives, and the millions forced out of jobs, we must try to find the good things. The environment is cleaner, people are connecting like never before, and innovation is driving new solutions for our times. In these past 100 days, we have seen the best of humanity and the worst. We have seen courageous selflessness from our health care professionals and other frontline workers, but also the banal carelessness of people refusing to wear masks, companies price-gouging, and demagogues stirring divisions.
And soon — but not soon enough — we will see vaccines, therapeutics, and some good old common sense prevail.
James Cooper is a professor of law at California Western School of Law in San Diego, where he teaches torts and international law. He advises governments and corporations on regulatory matters concerning technology.