We all have to adjust to what life throws at us — a bit of bad luck, a surprising twist in an important relationship, a new boss at work, maybe a health problem that demands a change of lifestyle. All of us face the unexpected at some point, and all but the stubborn and clueless find a way to adjust.
But not like this. Not all at one time.
It’s already a cliche to say we’ve never been here before, but we’ve never been here before. Never in modern memory have so many Americans, and people around the world, had to make such radical changes in behavior, and this to avoid getting sick or spreading a deadly disease.
The coronavirus brings us to a whole new level of strange and unsettling, requiring adjustments major and minor.
On the major side — sudden unemployment for millions of Americans. We’ve seen it before, but not like this. Mass unemployment was the stuff of the Dust Bowl and Depression, not something economists were predicting any time soon for the world’s biggest economy.
The national unemployment rate for February was 3.5%, for Maryland 3.3%. Last week, more than 6.6 million Americans filed jobless claims, some 84,000 of them in Maryland. That’s a seismic change.
Losing your job through no fault of your own is traumatic, and we’re all familiar with the most common reasons: Your company downsized its workforce in a recession or it might have moved operations to another country or it decided to replace you with a robot.
This time, it was a virus.
This time, people who had the same job for years are among those who find themselves idled.
It might have made more sense for the U.S. Treasury to subsidize companies to keep people on payrolls for a few months instead of boosting unemployment benefits and burdening state governments with a huge surge of claims. But that’s not the way we do things — Congress isn’t very good at making such adjustments — so we have a conventional approach to helping the unemployed, but at least on a more generous scale.
The enhanced benefits will help. Still, millions will live with double uncertainty for the next few months — uncertainty about the duration of the pandemic and uncertainty about whether their jobs will be there on the other side.
Another adjustment: Living with inevitably bad news. The predictions for the misery caused by the coronavirus have been breathtakingly grim, and the reality is right there beside it.
Not since the country was at war — Vietnam, and later Iraq and Afghanistan — have we heard casualty counts in the hundreds and thousands. But even then, the numbers were not always readily or prominently reported. And the loss of life, of course, was mainly military and overseas. Here we are, with coronavirus spreading through the civilian population, hitting everyone from children to grandparents.
The attacks of 9/11 made all of us feel vulnerable, but not like this. This time we’ve had to adjust to fear of something we cannot see. And what do we do about that?
We live with it. We try to be smart. We listen to leadership — the public health professionals and the governor — and do the right thing: We stay home and, if still employed, work from there if we can. We wash our hands. We keep our distance.
We go to the supermarket once a week, instead of twice or three times. We adjust our egos so that we’re not offended when another shopper sees us, drops her eyes and takes two steps back. We understand if the supermarket workers aren’t as smiley as they were a few weeks ago. We see people wearing gloves and masks and accept it as normal.
Maybe, out of worry or common sense, you make personal adjustments.
You’re probably more frugal, more discerning about the food you buy. You don’t gripe when there are only 10 kinds of cereal to choose from rather than 50. Maybe you don’t buy as much meat as you once did. You might still get carryout from restaurants with curbside pickup, but you’re probably doing more cooking and being conscious of wasting food.
Spring is here. Maybe you’re thinking about growing some vegetables in a garden or in a few pots in the backyard.
You do these things, or think about them, because you don’t want to feel completely helpless. You nurture a little optimism. You steel yourself to living better within the confines of your home. Exercise more. Spend time in the books you’ve been meaning to read. Pull out board games that have been stacked in a closet for months and play with your significant other or your kids.
Maybe you use the time to connect with old friends you’ve been meaning to call since you graduated from high school. Maybe you sit down with some stationery and write letters to relatives. If you haven’t written a letter in long-hand since the mid-1990s, don’t worry. It’s just like riding a bicycle, except with a pen.
There’s a primary election in a couple of months, and we’re going to be asked to vote by mail. We can do that, too. We can adjust. We might even like some of these adjustments so much that we keep them after the current misery ends.