COVID-19 cases are slowing down in numerous countries. But they are rising in the United States, leading to panic, stress, fear, death. How soon can we flatten the curve? And will our society ever be the same again?

Minding my own business, trying to sort through produce in a neighborhood grocery store that has been thoroughly worked over by panicky shoppers, a guy wearing a surgical mask sidles up. Right next to me. Less than one foot away.

I can’t hear what he is saying. My mind goes blank. I resist the impulse to physically push him away and scoot back four or five feet. “I don’t work here,” I say.

“I know that,” he says. “I just wondered how tall you were.”

“What?” I ask in amazement. This guy is wearing a mask so I know he knows something about the coronavirus that has captivated the world, sunk stock markets and empires, paralyzed communities to the point that even longtime neighbors and family members become suspected carriers, and thus a threat to their health and lives.

“You look like you’re taller than that guy,” he says, pointing to someone across the store.

I don’t look at him. Ordinarily, I’m fairly friendly to strangers who make such inquiries. Sometimes I even joke that I’m 5-foot-19, letting them decipher the math. But not these days. “6–7,” I quickly say and dash away to safer territory, the cracker and cookie aisle. We don’t have much toilet paper. Or hand sanitizer. Or alcohol wipes. Or thermometers. But we have plenty of chocolate chip cookies.

The coronavirus has taken society back centuries to cave-dwelling times. We’re gripped in paranoia, camped out in our makeshift shelters, stirring the fire, spear in hand, ever vigilant for that threat to our existence. We not only fear the guy in our neighborhood store. We fear the postal carrier. We fear the next-door neighbor bringing food and supplies. We fear the knock on the door. We fear the unseen pathogens that could be coming into our homes in ways we have yet to imagine.

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It can be hard to find toilet paper in U.S. stores these days, but sometimes you get lucky. This Target store in Maryland had several packages on the shelves around noon on a recent day, thanks to a policy of limiting that to one per shopper. [Kevin Shay photo]

The fear has made people respond in different ways. Some hoard toilet paper and hand sanitizer like they are gold, prepared to hunker down in their residences for the long haul. Fights have broken out in stores over such products. For some, a simple trip to the grocery store can cause more anxiety than medical operations might have in the past. During my most recent trips, I have worn a mask or scarf, even though authorities are still advising people not to wear one in public unless they are showing symptoms. But since people can have the virus without exhibiting symptoms, how do you know that person who walks slowly past you down the aisle is not a carrier? Better to be safe than sorry. And wearing a mask tends to make people steer clear of you. In addition, it reminds people of the serious, at-war times in which we live.

On grocery story runs, I find myself focusing more on how I can avoid fellow shoppers around me than finding what I need on the sometimes barren shelves. I scan an aisle before I proceed, searching for one that has few people. A shopper slowly pushing a cart past me down the aisle sets off a brisk reaction, as I quickly stride by them, even if I’m trying to locate something on the shelf. I don’t make eye contact, partly because I want to minimize the time there and partly because I wonder if someone with the virus can transmit it merely by looking into your eyes. I’m told they can’t, but I was also at one time told we wouldn’t be taking the current measures we are taking.

Some preachers proclaim it’s the end times and instruct followers to keep congregating in large groups at church. One in Florida even claims, “The Lord has helped us to secure our congregation,” saying the megachurch has machines “that basically kill every virus in the place… The only time the church will close is when the Rapture is taking place.” Despite such protection, some church followers have contracted the virus.

Others profit off the situation, selling sanitizer and toilet paper at insane prices and trading stocks to cash in on the market decline. Some U.S. Congress representatives reportedly cashed out stocks before the market crashed, using insider tips obtained in meetings that are not privy to most people. These are our leaders who are supposed to guide us through pandemic hell.

Some continue to act as if the coronavirus is nothing more than a common cold. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson received a wake-up call after he tested positive, following weeks of downplaying the situation and even reportedly shaking hands with victims in hospitals. Others take it more seriously. NBA star Steph Curry performed his greatest service when he interviewed Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who has been a voice of reason in the wilderness, an adult among immature officials. Curry ran the conversation live on Instagram, reaching tens of thousands who might not be taking the crisis as seriously as they should. That’s a much better use of social media than most celebs who crave the spotlight and their social-media influencing cash even in a pandemic.

More people have stepped up to help others in need. Young people run errands to get groceries and supplies for older neighbors and those with compromised immune systems. People sew masks and donate them to medical workers on the front lines. Auto companies and others are going into overdrive to make ventilators.

Emergency and medical personnel continue to perform heroically, as COVID-19 cases in the U.S. have risen to more than 180,000 and swamped many facilities, especially in the metro New York City region. An emergency department doctor at Columbia University Medical Center noted that federal officials largely ignored warning signs months ago, and that “under-reporting and under-testing has made us fundamentally unable to combat this effectively.” At least two nurses have died in New York, and many more medical workers become sick.

Craig Spencer, director of global health in emergency medicine at Columbia UMC, added that the spread can be slowed through staying home and social distancing when venturing out for food and supplies. That, in itself, is the best thing most of us can do to help stem this pandemic and flatten the curve. It can be easier said than done, as many call for the country to reopen closed businesses.

The good news is that 97.7 percent of the roughly 180,000 active COVID-19 cases in the U.S. report only mild symptoms, according to Worldometers, which was named one of the best free reference websites by the American Library Association. The bad news is that deaths have risen substantially in the U.S., from about 400 on March 22 to 3,500 by March 31, and there is not a real treatment for this virus like there is for the flu.

Italy and Spain comprise about half of the world’s coronavirus fatalities. There is light at the end of the tunnel in numerous nations, with the number of new deaths trickling to almost zero in China, South Korea, Canada, Australia, and Japan, among others.

The numbers are particularly striking between Canada and the U.S., with 8,500 and 180,000 cases, respectively. What has Canada — which saw its first case only four days after the U.S. had its initial one — done that the U.S. has not? Sure, Canada has fewer people and less population density, but Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and others are still substantially large cities. Canada’s leaders took decisive action more swiftly than counterparts did in the U.S., for one.

Many people grieving for possible end to society as they know it

The situation is not unlike how it was directly after September 11, 2001, though an unseen virus is a different enemy than a terrorist. Deep down, many of us are grieving, knowing that our society will likely never be the same again, said David Kessler, an author who has written on stages of grief and loss.

“Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change, and this is the point at which they changed,” Kessler said. “The loss of normalcy, the fear of economic toll, the loss of connection. This is hitting us, and we’re grieving, collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.”

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Dark clouds may threaten us, but we will still hold our torches high. [Kevin Shay photo, Creative Commons freeshare license]

To combat such grief, it’s important to get to the stage of acceptance, where you can take steps to control your situation, he said. Washing hands frequently and thoroughly, keeping six feet from others, and working from home are important steps. If feeling anxious, focus on present surroundings in your residence, such as meaningful photos or mementos, Kessler said. Realize you’re surviving and you have what you need, while visualizing best-scenario outcomes.

Doing the latter might seem particularly difficult, with many aspects of the economy coming to a halt. No airline flights, bus trips, sporting events, live concerts, book readings, restaurant outings, discussion groups. When the pandemic slows, will many people — especially those older and who might have compromised immune systems — want to be in even a small crowd again? Will more meetings, educational classes, and work be done online? Will sports and entertainment events go virtual, played in front of few fans? Will dating change to a more virtual experience, though the HIV wave of the 1980s didn’t stop many from pursuing romantic encounters?

Will how we visit our doctors change? Will there be more appointments by video and phone? Will used bookstores and second-hand shops still purchase items from individuals? Will you want to bring used, or even new, items in your home, not knowing where they came from? You can wash and sanitize such items, but will that still give you pause?

Will we turn into a society of germaphobes?

Such questions can go on, adding to anxiety. It’s important to maintain some historical perspective, such as remembering how our grandparents’ generation survived a world war and deep depression. While being holed up in your house fending off a virus doesn’t compare with people in Europe during World War II being forced to hide from the German Nazis, you can still gain some inspiration and perspective by reading books like Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. The book documents two years of her family hiding from the Nazis in some concealed rooms behind a bookcase in the building where Frank’s father worked in Holland.

Among Frank’s journal entries that showed she was wise beyond her teen-age years were:

  • When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But, and that’s a big question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer?
  • Women should be respected as well! Generally speaking, men are held in great esteem in all parts of the world, so why shouldn’t women have their share? Soldiers and war heroes are honored and commemorated, explorers are granted immortal fame, martyrs are revered, but how many people look upon women too as soldiers?
  • It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.

Written for 45+ newspapers/mags. Written some books — see Visited 48 states, 30+ countries.

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