The Terrifying, Liberating Lesson of the Coronavirus Lockdown

Six months later in America, we’re learning how to live again—and to accept the unimaginable.

A grandmother's face split in half. The left side shows her sad and lonely. The right side shows her happy, being kissed on the cheek by her great granddaughter.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

This is part of Six Months In, a Slate series reflecting on half a year of coronavirus lockdown in America.

A little more than six months ago, I sent a Slack message to Slate’s top editors that said “I think things are about to get really bad, virus-wise. We probably need to start thinking about that.” It was roughly a week before America’s shutdowns began and around the time when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was still telling people “there is more fear, more anxiety, than the facts would justify.” At that point, alongside reporting on some of the basic science of the “novel coronavirus,” Slate had told the stories of a Chinese restaurant devastated by xenophobic fear and a woman who had canceled a $24,000 anniversary cruise, and published dispatches from Italy, which at the time seemed like the darkest possible reflection of what might lie ahead. But still, it felt like no one was quite convinced a pandemic was arriving here.

One week later, much of America started to shut down, in some form or another. Slate started to order its employees to work remotely March 11. President Donald Trump gave a speech from the Oval Office that night about the virus, but it felt like it was the suspension of the NBA season and Tom Hanks’ announcement that he’d tested positive that jolted the public consciousness. As the death toll rose, the warnings from abroad got louder alongside our own public health officials’, and it seemed to finally hit many of us that we had to stay inside, isolated, alone, for real, with the occasional sanity-preserving walk. In a span of a few weeks, we went from trying to tell stories of how the virus had disrupted some people’s lives to realizing that the virus was disrupting everyone’s lives, and would be for some time.

As I write this, at the beginning of September, there are two things that feel equally true: Back in March, I would never have believed that I would still be working from home and living mostly locked down in September, but also, here in September, it feels completely inevitable that I am still here, working from home, mostly locked down, bracing for an even worse fall. There has been plenty written about the obscene failure to get this virus under control, from the president’s complete unwillingness—inability, even—to do what he needed to do to the ways in which the underlying conditions of America, from our broken health care system to our lack of safety net to our racism, have made everything worse.

Back in March, once I had been in my house for more than two weeks, I spent some time trying to answer the question that felt like it was on everyone’s mind: Are we doing the right thing? Many were just starting to adjust to the reality of what lockdown would feel like—the loneliness, the reticence to go to the doctor for non-COVID reasons, the insanity of children not having school and parents not being able to work without interruption, the unprecedented job loss. All of this boiled down to a fear, essentially, that the protective measures we were taking against the virus might have their own very high costs, and that those costs might end up being worse than whatever they were intended to prevent. At the time, this was mixed up with a lot of discussion about the “economy,” a national conversation that largely got things backward: Many assumed lockdown itself was killing the economy, rather than realizing that a society without a functioning public health response to a lethal virus could not have a functioning economy.

Despite so much personal sacrifice, we did not do the right thing back in March, because we did not put real effort into the relatively simple public health steps that could have helped us contain the virus. We still aren’t doing that today. So to me, the question at the heart of this six-month lockdown period is simple, sad, obvious, personal—in the absence of any centralized response, how do we figure out how to live with the coronavirus? For months now, doctors and public health experts have been pointing at risk tolerance and risk management as the most important tools you can deploy in the name of “getting through this,” even as there is still not really an end in sight—even a vaccine won’t be the switch back to normalcy we crave. Many people have already had no choice but to work in high-risk jobs, and live intergenerationally with family while doing those jobs, and have had to learn, by necessity and early on, how to try to protect themselves. There are others who are choosing to ignore the virus, at least while they can, maybe finding comfort in political conspiracies. But for the people who actually can and generally do stay home, the next steps come down to what level of risk you can stomach, and how badly you want (or need) the things that are risky. This manifests in the simple, everyday decisions like whether it’s OK to dine out at a restaurant or whether it’s acceptable to hug a parent. But the true stress comes from the bigger decisions, like what kind of school your kid should do (if you even have an option) or whether it’s worth it to travel for the funeral of a loved one.

Everyone has their own worst coronavirus quandary. Mine is to worry about my grandma, who not long ago lost her husband of more than 60 years and was just starting to get used to living alone when the coronavirus hit. She’s been in generally good spirits and is certainly a glass-half-full kind of lady. The thing that haunts me, keeps my family up at night, is wondering what decisions we would make if we could just have more information. Not information that is possible to obtain, mind you, just answers to the dark questions: If we knew this was her last good year, would we still make these choices, to cancel family gatherings, even when we know that those gatherings and the presence of her great-granddaughters are the things that bring the most joy to her life? When we first started talking about the cost of isolation, it felt a bit silly compared with the unimaginable death we faced, but six months in, loneliness is no joke. These days, the line between surviving and living feels blurrier.

At the same time, we’ve learned a lot over the past few months, about which activities are safest, which mitigation strategies work best. And yes, a lot of this depends on what activities you value, so it is extremely subjective. But as we recognize the long-haul nature of the virus, one way many of us will get through the next six months—and beyond—is to figure out how to incorporate a little more personal indulgence in our choices about what to do. Everyone’s calculations will end up looking a little bit different, which means that things can get emotionally charged; a truism of the coronavirus is that everyone who is more cautious than you seems insane, and everyone slightly less cautious seems reckless. But we need to do it, because these six months—they have been exhausting and devastating and demoralizing. Things have gotten bad, virus-wise. We think about that all the time now. It certainly does not help that we are all also going through this—this horrible time, this moment of stress and poverty and grief and mourning—at exactly the same time, meaning that no one is particularly suited to pick up some of the slack anywhere. We are all just sort of muddling through.

I don’t believe there are “silver linings” to this pandemic, but I think there are ways for us to let in a little more light. We’ve learned enough about transmission—and how to reduce it—that there are plenty of things we’ve figured out how to do again. In late July, I sat in the shade of my grandmother’s garage, the door wide open, six feet from her, to have lunch as she told me about how she’s turned the concrete space into her social salon. Just last week, I actually made a new friend—something I didn’t expect would be possible during a pandemic, but with masks and careful distancing, it actually seemed relatively safe. I’ve even been thinking about going back to my co-working space occasionally, where I can reserve an isolated table on the roof. These are the small ways I am trying to keep myself sane, along with spending as much time as possible outside. They help. They also make me worry, because they make me wonder how much my brain has simply accepted these new conditions as normal, and how much I’m now actively working to make them tolerable.

That brings me back to the question I have now, six months into lockdown, and another part of it that worries me even more: How do we figure out how to live through the next six months—how to live with the coronavirus—while not losing our rage at how the pandemic has unfolded in the United States and the brokenness of the country? The horror of the pandemic is that we might get used to it. The impossibility of the pandemic is that we have to, to make it through.