Mike Branom doesn't know what to tell his 5-year-old daughter. Brooke is home from school like most of the kids in the U.S., who knows for how long, with a Chromebook provided by her public school district in Pasadena, California, so she can continue classes remotely. But she doesn't really know what's happening, and Branom is careful not to let his own anxieties and fear show when he's around her. "There's a difference from admitting you're sad versus daddy with an ugly cry," he said.
He's not just sad. "Freaked out, scared, anxious, distracted" are the adjectives he uses. And who could blame him? COVID-19 has caused thousands of deaths worldwide, and may yet cause many more, no one knows how many. The U.S. healthcare system is overwhelmed with coronavirus cases; in New York City, the pandemic's latest hotspot, hospitals are running out of space for corpse storage. Last week, 3.3 million Americans applied for unemployment, a record by an order of magnitude. A recession is coming, or is already here—that's another thing no one is sure about. We're advised to stay inside our homes, and all the usual places we might expect to get human contact have shut down, churches and bars and coffee shops and pickup basketball games; now even parks are closing in the name of social distancing.
So far, the people who have caught the brunt of this catastrophe are the people who always get hit the hardest and fastest by every crisis. People without health insurance can wrack up coronavirus-related medical bills that run into the tens of thousands. Workers living paycheck to paycheck can't lose income without facing eviction and homelessness. People with existing health conditions are at greater risk of getting hospitalized or dying if they contract COVID-19. Those with mental health issues can be triggered by the public panic and paranoia.
Branom, a 48-year-old former journalist whose wife works in crisis communications for University of Southern California, isn't in any of those categories. But he still worries. His parents and his in-laws are old enough to be vulnerable, and he knows that in coronavirus-ravaged Italy, people have been unable to visit loved ones in the hospital or even attend their funerals. Could something like that happen to his family?
"There have been many anxious moments where my mind kind of ran off for me," Branom said. "It's not quite in control when I wish it was."
You can measure the coronavirus's impact by looking at diagnosed cases, deaths, job losses, or the teeter-tottering stock market. But the psychic toll the pandemic is exacting on all of us is harder to quantify. It's a global crisis made up of millions of different personal crises brought on by confusion, panic, uncertainty, serious health problems and sudden economic uncertainty. Some people and businesses may be helped by the stimulus package just passed by Congress, but the fear we all feel runs too deep for mere material solutions. We need community, we need communion, we need reassurance, and we need to provide those things all to one another while never ever touching.
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If you look outside your window it may be sunny, the air might even be cleaner than normal, but every aspect of daily life has been warped by the pandemic. I avoid strangers when I walk my dog now, mentally calculating the six-foot gap between us. I wear gloves and a mask at the grocery store, where shoppers move around in a state of careful dread and an employee stands by the door making sure no more than a couple dozen of us are inside at one time. Every journey outside the house seems fraught. Every scroll through social media is full of new horrors, or some new thing to argue about as the corpses literally pile up. Everyone is under a strain as invisible as the virus, a strain that reveals itself when you ask someone—on the now-ubiquitous Zoom checkin—how they're doing and they pause to tell you they're alright… they think.
"It just felt like too many things piled up on top of each other," said Keith, a 39-year-old from Ohio who did not want his last name disclosed for privacy reasons. He was already concerned with the way the world was going—climate change accelerating, the U.S. seemingly in decline—and was taking antidepressants, which he said were helping, but the coronavirus has made everything worse. "A pandemic on top of everything else… It felt gratuitous, like a cat was playing with me."
Both Branom and Keith said they struggle to open up to friends about what they were going through and how bad things had gotten. "I don't want to be the first one to admit, yeah, I broke down in front of my kid yesterday and sobbed for five minutes," Branom said.
"There's an instinct to just wait for the shitiness to go away, to not do anything, just wait until the storm passes. And that's the wrong thing to do," Keith said. "It's a powerful instinct to resist, though."
Tara Jungersen, a licensed professional counselor expert with the American Counseling Association and a professor at Florida's Nova Southeastern University, advised people feeling overwhelmed to take breaks from the deluge of news, to reach out to others and stay connected, to not drink too much, to get counseling if they need it. But video therapy is sometimes a poor stand-in for face-to-face sessions, and virtual hangouts are likewise a lousy substitute to actually being in the same room with the people you care about. You can do all the Zoom yoga you want, but many people in truth have good reason to be overwhelmed or anxious.
Take Keith: Until late last week, the fridge magnet factory where he works a minimum wage job was still open, and he was still going to work despite having a dry cough, fever and waves of exhaustion—symptoms he thought could be coronavirus. He couldn't afford to seek a test, and he couldn't afford to miss work, so he kept going in, taking Tylenol mixed with Aspirin to fend off the pain. (The factory is closed now, which Keith is thankful for.)
"I think that the biggest risk to any of my patients is me, potentially bringing the virus into the facility."
All over the world people have had to make awful choices. A woman I'll call Sara, who was not authorized by her employer to speak to the media, works as a psychotherapist in assisted-living facilities in Florida. Some of her patients are anxious from watching TV all day, and others who suffer from dementia aren't sure what's going on. She loves her patients, and knows they need her help now more than ever, but she also knows that even if she doesn't have symptoms, she can spread them to people likely to die from complications of coronavirus. Some facilities have barred her and her colleagues from entering, but others have asked them to continue coming in, even though she wants them to stop.
"It really is a very difficult internal struggle. The first thing you learn is 'do no harm,'" she said. "At this point in time, I think that the biggest risk to any of my patients is me, potentially bringing the virus into the facility."
Sara is a "fixer" in her personal life, someone who always tries to solve other people's problems, and she worries about her friends and family in both the U.S. and Italy. "Today I made sure my parents, and grandmother, and my best friend, and her family all had masks. I was hoping to procure a bottle of 190-proof Everclear in case things get end-of-the-world extreme, but my mom informed me that there was none available," she said.
Daniel Weiner, the senior rabbi at Temple De Hirsch Sinai, a Reform congregation in Seattle, says that his congregants have concerns on two levels, the first of which is practical. "Am I going to get it? What does that mean? If I have it, but I'm asymptomatic, and I visit a loved one who is more vulnerable, am I putting their life in jeopardy? There are health-based life-and-death questions, concerns, odds-playing that people are engaging in," he said. "The next level is more, how do we attain some degree of normalcy in this crazy isolated and isolating situation that we are in?" His temple now live-streams its Sabbath services and he's conducted bat mitzvahs by Zoom. He anticipates having to figure out how to hold funerals remotely too; last week Seattle and King County banned any mourners or officiants from attending burials.
The questions people have are endless. Slate's advice columnists and podcasts, a site spokesperson told me, were being flooded with coronavirus-related emails. Charles Duhigg, the host of Slate's How To! podcast, which dispenses advice both serious and jokey to listeners, has been dealing requests that serve as a kind of cross-section of misery and confusion. One email was about how to cope with social isolation. One was from a woman worried about giving birth in a hospital. Another was about how to homeschool a toddler at the same time her income as a freelancer has dried up. Still another was from a woman whose sister-in-law, a nurse, does not "believe" in COVID-19. (Every email gets an answer, Duhigg said, and he is starting a running segment to answer coronavirus-related questions on the podcast.)
"To be proven right in such a huge and instant swoop about how cruel our system is, there's no solace in that."
Luke O'Neil gets a lot of emails too. The writer of "Welcome to Hell World," a popular newsletter basically about how bad America is and how hard life can be, often interviews people who have difficult jobs or gone through personal crises; last year he wrote about how Fox News addiction has destroyed people. His recent, coronavirus-flavored stories have been about how addicts are grappling with isolation and stress, the perils of being a mail carrier and how he is going through his own kind of unraveling. A lot of what's happening now—the sudden seeming collapse of so many systems at once—confirms for him what he's been saying about how fragile our society is, and how damaged.
"There's this real weird back and forth going on in my mind right now like, this is what I've been trying to say all along, people! This is how broken our country is!" he told me. "To be proven right in such a huge and instant swoop about how cruel our system is, there's no solace in that."
For Alex Brook Lynn, this was all very familiar. The journalist and New Yorker has vivid memories of 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy, city-shaking catastrophes that required everyone to come together and do what they can no matter how they're feeling. "I think 9/11 and Sandy prepared a lot of us for that kind of problem solving, the kind where you detach from anxiety," she said. "There is a crisis mode, a detachment I feel for this that allows me to find ways to help or support the city. "
There are worse ways to get through this. We just need to keep moving, day by day. At some point, flattened or not, the curve of this crisis will peak and then slope downward, like a huge wave rolling in and breaking over entire cities, countries, continents. It would be easier, maybe, if we could see that wave coming and know when it has hit us and when there will be time to rebuild our communities and economies, but this is a disaster we can't touch or taste or smell. Instead, we just feel it in the pit of our stomachs and ask, What comes next?
"I wish that we called ‘social distancing’ something else because right now we all really, really need each other."
Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard and MIT, wants to work out how the world might transform after all this. He thinks partly what is so devastating about the coronavirus is that it's disrupted the high standard of living so many of us have grown accustomed to, that the sudden shift has made these hardships seem especially daunting. "What I think people need to grapple with," he said, "is a way to achieve realistic expectations that doesn't feel hopeless."
But he doesn't have time to muse about the big picture. His job requires him to look out for his students, and they need looking out for right now. Some of the kids he's in touch with are very far away from home and have no way to return. Others are atheists or agnostics whose families do not accept them and therefore can't go back. A few were in such a bind that Epstein was wondering whether he needed to open his home to them as a last resort, but as of last week he thinks everyone at least has a place in which to shelter. (Some students are still living in the dorms and eating food prepared by the dining halls, according to a Harvard spokesperson.)
Even though they are all physically safe, Epstein remains concerned and monitors the students he knows on social media. "I'm looking for the Harvard students who are going to get so worried about their academics in the midst of this crisis… they'll literally work themselves to the point where we need to be afraid that they could work themselves to death," he said. "That's the kind of stuff that is keeping me up at night right now."
Over and over, I heard from people that they need to be together, they need to talk to people, they need to unburden themselves and describe what they were feeling, even if it didn't seem like it would do any good. Social distancing, Keith told me, was the wrong word. "We need to be socially closer to each other physically farther apart," he said. "I wish that we called 'social distancing' something else because right now we all really, really need each other."
Yet the only kind of connection we can get from each other when we need it more than ever is virtual, remote, mediated through apps that turn us all into floating heads. "Exclusively online community is not a great form of community in most ways," Epstein said. "It's a supplement at best, and we're going to have to chiefly rely on a supplement for what, weeks? Months? A year? Something like that. That's not great, but we can make the best of it."
We're trying. We keep trying. Reaching out to others, helping to keep everyone feel like surviving this is a project we're doing together, or just saying “hello, how are you?” and meaning it—all of that feels like essential work, just as staffing an emergency room or stocking a grocery shelf is essential work. The helpers are there, doing what they can.
Rabbi Weiner has continued to livestream Sabbath services every Friday, and they're not quite the same but he knows that they provide comfort. "One family even shared with me that they were with their dying mother," he said. "As they were watching the service, they shared an incredibly powerful moment of joy and connection. It was one of their mother's last experiences." Life, and death, go on.
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