What a Year! The Coronavirus Crisis in Retrospect

December 31, 2020. What a roller-coaster of a year it has been.

In January, congressional Democrats were busy trying to impeach the president of the United States. That same month, news of a new, highly contagious virus leaked out of China and began to circulate in the West. The stock market stumbled, then recovered and went on to new heights, flirting with the magic number 30,000. Unemployment was at historic lows.

Then more worrying news about the virus emerged from China. It was difficult to wrest the facts from the secretive Communist Party. At the end of January, President Trump suspended all flights from China, a decision for which he was roundly condemned as “racist” and “xenophobic.”

It was not until March that the narrative shifted. In January, Trump had overreacted. By mid-March, he was accused of under-reacting. For weeks on end, there was only one subject: coronavirus, the “Wuhan virus,” the CCP flu.

It seems long ago now, but the dual onslaught of the new coronavirus and the resulting economic meltdown turned the world upside down.

For a brief period, hysteria reigned. The stock market plunged by thousands of points, erasing trillions of dollars of wealth. Whole states went into virtual lockdown. People started parading about—to the extent that they went out at all—in latex gloves and medical masks. All businesses deemed “non-essential” were shuttered for weeks. Many schools and colleges closed, first for weeks, then for the rest of the semester.

Suddenly, millions were out of work. Unemployment claims soared, and people began asking who it was who determined what counted as “essential.” (Some wags even wondered why it was that the people assigned with making such determinations never seemed to lose their jobs. Why was that?)

President Trump began holding near-daily press briefings. It became clear that some government intervention would be necessary. Trump at first mentioned the figure of $2 billion. Congress said $8 billion. When all was said and done, the aid package exceeded a staggering $2 trillion.

You could practically see some Democratic politicians salivating at the prospect of so much money floating about. Representative James Clyburn (D-S.C.) spoke for many when he said so much federal money provided “a tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision.” Was this not an opportunity to fix “climate change,” support wind mills, solar panels, and all the other items of the menu of the Green New Deal?

But where was the House of Representatives? It was not in session at all from March 13 to March 22. From March 23 to March 26, it was in session for 10 minutes. The “rescue bill” was finally passed on March 28, a week late. Only a week, but see if landlords and grocery stores regard getting paid on time as “nonessential.”

A new, vaguely Orwellian argot cropped up as the phrase “social distancing” was everywhere employed to describe the anti-social practice of shunning friends and neighbors. Books like Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and Albert Camus’ The Plague enjoyed a new vogue. Aspiring Jeremiahs predicted mass death and societal collapse. CNN commentators rubbed their hands in glee at the prospect. “The ratings, Darling, the ratings!”

Then, around Easter, things began to change, gradually at first, and then suddenly.

New cases of the virus peaked and then began to decline. People began taking a harder look at what became the epicenter of the epidemic, New York City. The demographics were illuminating. In early April, Julie Kelly noted something that the so-called mainstream media was reluctant to acknowledge. Queens was the hottest spot of the hotspot New York.

“[T]he borough of Queens,” she wrote, “now represents nearly 10 percent of the total number of coronavirus-related fatalities in the entire country. In most neighborhoods in Queens, at least 50 percent of COVID-19 tests came back positive; several ZIP codes in the borough have positive results upwards of 60 percent.”

Why? Well, the hardest-hit area, Elmhurst, includes one of New York’s three Chinatowns. Some of its residents had recently traveled back from Wuhan, China, where the virus originated. The area is densely populated and, as Kelly reported, quoting John Liu, a state senator for the district, many households include multiple generations or groups of single workers living “on top of each other” under one roof.

But that was a long time ago. As new cases plateaued in April, aggressive testing showed that many more people had been infected with the virus than was originally thought. Millions upon millions. But since many are infected without getting sick, or suffering only minor, flu-like symptoms, they did not know they had the virus.

One result of this new understanding was a sharp decline in the projected fatality rate. At one point in late March, it was predicted that without full-bore “mitigation” (keeping businesses closed and “sheltering in place”), there would be more than 2 million deaths from the virus in the United States. With full mitigation, the projected number of deaths was between 100,000 and 240,000.

But April came and went with a much lower number of fatalities. People began to reflect on the fact that, since the overwhelming majority of fatalities occur in elderly people with serious underlying health issues, the claim that someone died from the coronavirus had to be taken with a grain of salt. There was a big difference between dying from the virus and dying with the virus.

But, again, it all seems so long ago now. As soon as it became clear that this was not a modern-day reenactment of the bubonic plague, normality began to reassert itself.

People calmed down. They appeared in public without medical masks, then without latex gloves. They still were cautious. They washed their hands more often and more thoroughly than they had before. Some researchers noticed that the hand-soap industry was doing very well, and stock in those companies soared.

Soon, in fact, the market generally soared. Donald Trump was reelected handily in November, and that was another shot in the arm for the market. It will take a while, however, to repair the damage of this extraordinary assault on the economy, not to mention the wounds left behind on the national psyche. How long it will take to address the incontinent discharge of fantasy money into the nation’s lifeblood is an outstanding question.

There is no question, however, that the extraordinary events of the winter and spring 2020 had many lessons to teach.

One sobering lesson concerns the world’s relation to the Chinese Communist Party. As we got a handle on the disease and then the economy, it became clear that the CCP, to a large extent, was to blame for the world’s subjection to this epidemic. They blatantly lied about its extent and severity, and their decision to let millions of people travel from Wuhan to celebrate the lunar new year endangered populations around the world.

In a more general sense, the Wuhan virus caused many countries to reconsider their taken-for-granted assumptions about the risk-free beneficence of the new-world globalist order in which nations were to be subservient to the ideology of transnational progressivism (and all were meant ultimately to be subservient to the “inevitable” rise of Chinese hegemony). By the end of 2020, people were rediscovering the importance of nation-states, and therefore of borders.

I said that normality began to reassert itself. That happened in late May. But it was a new, more skeptical normal that asserted itself. For the crisis had led to a new appreciation of contingency—an appreciation, that is to say, of the fact that our world is beset not only by the fragility of normality but also the normality of fragility.

About Roger Kimball

Roger Kimball is editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the president and publisher of Encounter Books. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine's Press), The Rape of the Masters (Encounter), Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee), and Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (Ivan R. Dee).

Photo: Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

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