Coronavirus and the Common Good

Lacking competent or timely national leadership, Americans are stepping up in almost unprecedented ways to combat the deadly coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. 

My inbox, undoubtedly yours too, is flooded with announcements of cancellations. The spring sports season, cancelled.   Broadway shows, shuttered.  School systems in a dozen states, at last count, closed. Conferences, libraries, museums, colleges and universities, all closed for the foreseeable — and unforeseeable future. Late night talk shows that feed off live audiences, canceled for the duration.  Dystopia has arrived in the form of an invisible threat.

But not quite.

The yoga studio I try to visit twice a week is offering online classes, using ZOOM.  Many churches, synagogues and mosques are closed for the duration, or in the case of the one to which I belong, discouraging attendance but streaming worship services online. It is indeed unique to see the service leader chanting as if to himself, in front of empty pews. For now, coronavirus be damned, life and prayer go on.

Still, the pressing questions of the hour are: To shop or not to shop, to travel or not to travel, to dine out or in? There are many individual decisions to be made, given the unchecked  spread of the disease, the fear of contagion bordering on panic.  In some respects, we seem to be mirroring the reaction to the 1918 flue epidemic, which killed 50 million people worldwide, during which schools also closed to arrest its spread.

Ten years ago, I wrote about that epidemic and its impact here in my suburban Maryland county for Bethesda Magazine.  You can read it by clicking here. That epidemic flowed and ebbed, then flowed again before it suddenly ended.

It is impossible to predict what will happen here and now. Clearly, the pandemic — its human and economic toll — has eclipsed all other news, even the presidential race.  I am reminded of a 1950 film “Panic in the Streets,” starring Richard Widmark as a public health officer in New Orleans seeking to find the individual infected with the Bubonic plague  before word gets out and politicians try to exploit the news to their own ends.  Sound familiar?

Yet, if there is something to cheer about, it is this:  For the most part, Americans are rising to the occasion, united in our mutual efforts to apply common sense (and soap) to the challenge.

In a time that has been largely characterized by political polarization, Americans largely seem to be pulling together for something we had almost forgotten, identified with a phrase once part of the lexicon and for too long seldom heard.  The common good.


  1. Ellen Zimmerman on March 15, 2020 at 6:08 am

    Nice article, Gene! And yes, I don’t remember the last time we used the term common good and meant it!

  2. Pat Tyson on March 16, 2020 at 11:31 pm

    Excellent, Gene. Thank you.

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