Riegel: Reflecting on coronavirus and the new normal

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I often think about the title float of a Mardi Gras parade I saw in New Orleans several years ago, in part because of its stunning artistry—a combination of twinkling lights, delicate flowers and rich hues of orange and gold.

But I mostly conjure up the image of this float because its theme, scripted fancifully on the open pages of a huge, paper-mache book, was so simple and beautiful: “The Magic of an Ordinary Day.”

It’s a magic many of us take for granted most days, as we scurry about our busy lives, going to meetings, hitting deadlines, shuffling kids around, squeezing in a workout, cooking dinner, planning a tailgate or a party.

It’s a magic I desperately longed for this morning, as I scrolled through the news feed on my phone to read about the growing list of closures, cancellations, catastrophes and collateral damage that the spreading coronavirus is causing worldwide.

The days won’t be ordinary again for a long time.

The uncertainty is the truly terrifying thing about this global pandemic. It’s like nothing we’ve ever experienced.

We know how to handle economic downturns and we’re experts at national disasters. When a hurricane or flood is threatening, we know how to prepare, we brace for the worst and once it’s over we start the difficult process of rebuilding. Though the recovery might take months or even years, the disaster itself is short lived, a matter of hours or days.

This is a slow-moving monster and it hasn’t even gotten bad here yet.

We don’t understand it. We don’t know how to combat it. We don’t know how widely it might spread and, even though we do know that it does not seem to afflict the young or cause serious illness among the vast majority of those who contract it—thankfully—the 10%-20% who do require hospitalization represents a number far greater than our hospitals can handle.

I’ve heard many say the economic effects caused by the measures designed to mitigate the coronavirus spread are worse than the disease itself. This is not true, if the experiences of those in Wuhan and northern Italy, where some funeral homes won’t even go collect dead bodies from peoples’ homes, are to believed.

What is true is that the impacts to business, industry, the economy and the state budget will be devastating. Oil prices have plummeted. Petrochemical expansion projects are suddenly on hold. Hotels have seen their event business dry up overnight. So have caterers. It’s all happened in a matter of three or four days. And the ripple effects will continue.  

“It’s so fresh, it’s hard to look forward,” says Baton Rouge Area Chamber President and CEO Adam Knapp. “Every employer is working through this in real-time, right now.”

The immediate concern at the moment, for most workplaces, is how to deal with the statewide shutdown of all K-12 schools, beginning Monday.

“Because there is so little day care available it creates incredible constraints on employee availability,” Knapp says. “So some amount of personnel for every company is going to be affected.”

Some business leaders are more optimistic than others, hoping that the virus will be short lived and that things can get back to normal by summer.

Perhaps. But the history of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920 and projections from scientists who know a lot more about this than most of us suggest a far bleaker outlook. Summer may give us something of a respite, but this thing isn’t going away until the population has developed natural immunities and a yet-to-be-developed vaccine has been administered to a huge swath of the population.

In the meantime, how do we, as a society dependent on creature comforts and addicted to immediate gratification, deal? Do we have the fortitude to weather something that isn’t going to be over by Easter?

We’ve become dehumanized to the mass shootings, migrant crises, natural disasters and garden variety tragedies that dominate the daily news cycles. We talk about them, fret over them, then move on to the things that really matter to us, like the fortunes of the LSU football team.

But this crisis is different. It’s happening everywhere, at the same time, a time—not insignificantly—of tremendous global uncertainty and instability to begin with. There’s nowhere to turn for help.

It’s trite and cliché to say it’s time to pull together. That goes without saying. And, if past experience is any indication, we will rise to the occasion. Hardship and disaster have a way of bringing out the best in our human nature.

But it’s important to realize that we’re in this for the long haul, months, at best, or years, and it will get worse before it gets better.

Dealing with COVID-19 will be our new normal, and when it is finally behind us, whatever things look like on the other side, we will hopefully appreciate the magic that comes with a simple ordinary day all the more.