Together alone: The virus and the phone

April 1, 2020 at 12:50 am (By Amba) ()

National trauma. I read those words in The Atlantic and I think: Where is this “national trauma,” exactly? Is it located somewhere in the spaces between people, a fluid we’ve all been swept struggling off our feet by, like a toxic tsunami? Or is it granular, stuck as unique, angular shapes inside the hearts of individuals who can’t breathe or can’t pay the rent? It’s all around us but not within us, or it’s within us but not transmissible from one to another even though the virus is nothing but. We can’t get a grip on the trauma and make it real unless we get sick. And then we’re alone, in a basement or an apartment, or on a ventilator. Or shoulder to shoulder in a packed ER, where instead of our phones we’re now siloed by “social distancing” and respiratory distress. When we can’t hold and comfort our friends, rallying cries to drum up a “We” ring false. The only thing uniting us is fear, and fear is the most isolating of feelings.

“Nothing will ever be the same,” but so far it is all too much the same. We are 21st-century virtual people hologrammed into a brute 19th- or 15th- century reality. Not enough has changed yet. We’re meeting the new reality with the old tools: words, pills, takeout and streaming entertainment services. Maybe the “national trauma” is located in the yammerings of pundits, and I’d have to add us micropundits on social media. We’ve had words, words, words, decades of words, we expended so much vehemence and eloquence on much lesser ills, and the real thing hasn’t yet struck us dumb. We still have the same kinds of words and so we have no words. The words reduce this to just more of the same virtual unreality that we’ve been consuming for years in the floods of TV and op-eds and superhero movies and commercials and “social.” The silence of misery hasn’t yet engulfed the luxury of commentary. Note to self: We won’t get it till we shut up.

And we won’t shut up till we get it, and can’t breathe.


  1. Polly said,

    If we admit to being concerned about the economy, we might be accused of being callous, of not caring if people die. That was John Oliver’s message, and the message of many others.

    But maybe that’s because so many Americans have never experienced poverty, and never expect to. They can’t even imagine what it’s like.

    Most people used to live on little farms, where they could make or grow almost everything they needed. You didn’t absolutely need money.

    Now we need money for almost everything. Any control over our lives that we might be lucky enough to have comes from money.

    I understand not wanting people to die from the virus, but it can’t be the only thing we worry about. Poverty kills also.

  2. amba12 said,

    Very true. It is mostly the more privileged who have made “STAY HOME!” not just practical advice but a moral virtue.

    Hopefully we will be able to do “intermittent social distancing,” starting with a severe but fairly short quarantine to slow down the spread so that the medical system and its supply chain can catch up, research can progress, and treatment will be available for those who need it.

  3. Polly said,

    I hope so amba. Right now I get the impression that no one knows.

  4. tom strong said,

    Yes, a bad economy will increase mortality. Yes, we should care about that.

    But the supposed choice between the economy and public health is a false one – which is why the adherents of such a choice are retreating further and further back from their initial pronouncements.

    If you make everyone go back to work, as Trump and his devotees were arguing for a while, there will be even more strain on the healthcare system, possibly to the breaking point. Essential workers will be at more risk of disease and death. Absenteeism will skyrocket, and productivity will decrease even further.

    Before the Imperial College report, they were going to try this in the UK. That plan lasted what, a week? Even so, it’s already clear it was a mistake. 563 people died there yesterday, with a population that’s about 1/5th of our own.

  5. tom strong said,

    Oh and yes: it is a privilege to be able to work from home right now, absolutely. But it’s also a privilege that’s being used *correctly*. Healthcare workers, first responders, grocery workers, even people in logistics, agriculture, manufacturing are all safer because the rest of us are staying at home.

  6. amba12 said,

    True. And we micropundits who are not contributing materially (I’m talking to myself, not you) should remember to prioritize and support those who are. I was feeling last night like everything I do other than passing along vetted practical or scientific information—including writing this post—contributes nothing but hot air. Oh, and jokes, Jokes contribute materially to survival. Clowns and comedians are providing essential services. Viral antivirals. Passing on jokes is god’s work.

  7. Polly said,

    I didn’t mean I thought everyone should go back to work. I meant we should WORRY about the economy also, not just the virus. Maybe there can be some kind of compromise between health fears and economic fears.

    I felt that John Oliver, for example, has absolutely no fear of another great depression and extreme poverty. Because he’s probably rich and can’t imagine what that would be like. Or that it could possibly affect the whole middle class, and maybe even the rich.

    Our government feels invulnerable, maybe, because the whole world trusts our dollar, so infinite numbers of dollars can be printed. But what if that suddenly stops working?

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