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United States Capitol in Washington, DC. Photo/Getty Images

Notes on Covid-19 from Washington, DC

We’re just starting to understand the weirdness the coronavirus has brought to our lives, writes Jonathan Kronstadt.

It’s looking like a typically busy weekend in the most important suburb (Silver Spring, Maryland) of the most important city (Washington, DC) in the world, and yes, we Americans do indeed think highly of ourselves. Friday and Saturday night dinners and Sunday brunch with friends, projects around the house, a walk or two in the park.

And because spring is poking its cute little head up around here, my wife will spend hours quite literally laying the groundwork for the annual planting/watering/marvelling at the wonders of nature/harvesting and eating journey of her garden to begin. To the untrained eye, the only odd part will be that two of the three meals will be virtual. But look a bit more closely and you’ll begin to see the weirdness that the coronavirus has visited upon our lives, even though we don’t know anyone yet who has been infected by it.

Since schools and most businesses are closed, more people are out and about than usual. But there’s this eerie brand of weaving going on, as we master the art of staying as far away from each other as possible without being overtly impolite. I’m thinking of producing and marketing a backpack with a 2m telescoping rod that can be activated with the touch a button to keep approaching humans from violating the federally mandated social distancing, um, distance.

White people are now experiencing what it’s like to be eyed suspiciously and avoided by other white people. Moderate hoarding has visited eerily empty shelves upon many of the bigger chain grocery stores, but we shop at a small independent grocer that the hoarding masses don’t know about – yet.

We got Thai takeaways and sat outside at a neighbour’s house last night, a lovely night marred only by the ongoing battle they’re having with their 17-year-old, who wants to go camping with friends for two days in a world that could be unrecognisable by the time he comes back.

I came of age in 1960s and 70s America, an era of great turbulence and social upheaval, but one where even during its most unsettling moments, there was a palpable sense of common purpose – or at least common reality. We knew that we were in it together, even with those whose politics were so far from ours as to be barely visible.

Then came Ronald Reagan, and Americans drank the spiked Kool-Aid of nationalistic narcissism, which eventually led us to elect an orange-domed nationalistic narcissist as president. Comedian John Mulaney did a brilliant pre-pandemic bit about how having Trump as president is like having a horse loose in a hospital. You don’t really know what’s going to happen – will the horse learn to use the elevator? – but you have a reasonable hope that things will work out in the end. Problem is the horse is still loose, but now it has the coronavirus disease, so all bets are off.

Because the twin towers of my personal ethos are irrational optimism and limitless denial, I semi-firmly believe that when we get to the other side of this, a lot of Americans will have discovered the simple truth that we are all in this together. Many will prove to be intractable, irretrievable assholes, born and bred in a nation that thinks itself endlessly and effortlessly exceptional. How else can you explain the belief of so many that every other nation in the industrialised world is wrong and we’re right when it comes to universal health care?

But as with the tiny sproutlets in my wife’s garden, you can see the fundamental decency that lives within most people begin to emerge – even in the most important suburb of the most important city in the world. Have a nice weekend.

This article appears in the upcoming issue of the Listener, which is on sale Monday, but we are releasing timely stories early.

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