My friend’s mother is retiring. She was a nurse.
I was in a cubicle on the third floor of Seymour Library when the email was sent out. “Important Information about Spring Term.” I remember looking out the window to the parking lot below, where a crowd of students was streaming out the building—all of them calling someone and all of them sharing the same news.
It seemed sudden, but I see now how while we trudged through the snow, complained about cafeteria food, attended class and fit our keys in and out of dorm rooms the virus was speeding towards us all along. Finally it jumped the ocean and entered the United States, entered our lives.
Two months later, the end of the school year swiftly approaches. Provided the same cannot be said for the pandemic, I think we have phased into a new stage of its existence. We contended with the initial shock and surreality. Now this crisis cannot be characterized by the arrival of one single, freakish event but the experience of bearing continuous hardship and obscurity.
Among the various qualities of this hardship, one is how quickly the days may pass in their uniformity and so I have found myself losing track of the passage of time. Our previous way of life—cafes, study halls, theatres, parties—is becoming more and more alien, like that life has long elapsed. The effect is that its replacement, the present routine of separation, becomes the mundane.
Which is not surprising, as marrying one’s expectations to their present reality helps to cope and get work done within a routine that may stick around for much longer than we first thought. But as useful as it is, there are also consequences to assimilating. Given enough time, you may be tricked into not expecting to return or not being able to recall exactly what life was like pre-assimilation.
So in order to keep the pandemic in perspective, I take stock of what has changed. Just as shocking as the pandemic’s arrival, perhaps, is what has not.
Above, I see fewer planes in the sky. I like to take moments between my computer sessions to stand on our front porch and notice the joggers pass by, the new row of veggies in our garden. Likewise, lawn chairs and old sofas prop up against every dumpster—the proliferation of home improvement projects serving up overdue evictions. Face masks have joined the ranks of common litter. I find them in gutters, flattened amid the debris of plastic bottles and paper bags.
My father noticed how you can no longer tell what expressions people are wearing. When two thirds of everyone’s face is covered, we only get wide eyes and wrinkled brows.
On Mother’s Day, he and I went to a garden store and bought a tray of flowers. The cashier was penned in with tall shields of plexiglass and as we slid the sweet alyssum across the table, jostling their delicate petals, I had the impression the barricade was bulletproof, the man overseeing the queue not a grass-stained gardener but armed security.
Which is to say I am not sure exactly what the atmosphere is like in places of less density, but somewhere on the northside of Chicago in a Whole Foods of the supersized variety it felt like we were behind enemy lines, like we had plunged down into the electrified crevice of a giant game of Operation and if we grazed against our limits a red buzzer would sound and the virus would locate us in the frozen foods aisle.
I say this with an awareness of how privileged I am that my only real windows of exposure are when I go grocery or gift shopping.
But besides the changes that have taken place to make such errands surreal and stressful, I am also aware of what around me has not changed.
We have spent the past three and a half years witnessing the president disregard every fact that does not maintain the illusion of his appeal. We have witnessed him sustain a spigot of lies and revisionism and be rewarded for it, as he has continued to evade a drop of substantial accountability.
The cost of this outcome is that Trump has dismantled the authority of truth. The cost is that we have spent the past three and a half years assimilating to this dismantling truth, collapsing our expectations—for anything but our present inability to arrive at a consensus of public understanding, public justice, reality—into the void of its absence.
Now, in a pandemic, the fact our executive has continued to promote convenient fallacies over the health of the public exhibits how even the unprecedented severity of a pandemic cannot summon the allegiance to reality, the competent leadership we need in order to staunch the blood flow of unnecessary death.
In this way, we may see how this pandemic may represent the most severe culmination of this condition of the Trump presidency, because while the public at large has assimilated to this drastic new reality, Trump has not changed his M.O. His commitment to his prize narrative (the strength of the economy), his commitment to his means of sustaining power has not wavered—even if that commitment requires he make capital out of American lives, sacrificing them in the name of his image.
To Trump, the death of Americans is no impediment. The pandemic reveals just to what extent it never was.
But the difference between life in a pandemic and life under Trump presidency is that one day there will be a vaccine for COVID-19 and one day we will leave our quarantine, enter each other’s arms. One day this routine of severe isolation and precaution we have assimilated to will no longer be mundane. One day this crisis will end.
However there is no vaccine for Trump, not even November will be a hard stop to the habitual misinformation and polarization that has become intertwined in our public debates. Further, whether Trump will be held accountable for his bungling of crisis leadership remains to be seen.
If we remain assimilated to a reality in which what the president says is always accepted—no matter who if it is consistent with fact, no matter at whose expense or benefit the message is—our expectations of a government to the people it governs will shrink so small in our rear view mirror to the point we may find it hard to believe such a luxury ever existed in the first place. Or needs to again.
The challenge built into that threat is there will be no email in our inbox to notify us when that day arrives. We will arrive there by a process of a gradual assimilation. But once we reach it, how ripe will we have become for someone to convince the public of anything, to justify death for the sake of the preservation of their power? Then get away with it?