This is like a science fiction movie, what’s happening right now as we shelter in our homes, waiting for a mysterious killer called COVID-19 to either get us or pass us by. Schools are closed, bars are closed, public events have been canceled. And, just like in a movie, we get news flashes from Europe, from Asia, about how other countries are dealing with the global crisis.
Or it’s like one of those near-future-dystopia films from the 1980s, not really sci-fi (“Brazil,” “Max Headroom”), in which they’ve got all kinds of technology, but civilization itself is in shreds.
No, it’s more like “War of the Worlds” (the 1953 movie, not the 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast and certainly not the 2005 film remake. The original story, by H.G. Wells, came out in 1897). The Martians have attacked Earth and they’re out for total destruction. Their war machines stalk through our cities, detecting us with their electronic eyes and killing us with their death rays.
We fight back with everything we’ve got, but not even the atomic bomb — not even the atomic bomb dropped by the Flying Wing — can make a dent in their alien force fields.
We are doomed, clearly, so lots of us flock to our churches to await the end while still praying for a miracle.
And the miracle comes: One by one, the Martian machines start dropping, their evil operators either dead or dying. But Why? How? Turns out, the all-powerful invaders had no defense against the common germs that we earthlings shrug off every day. The movie’s coda is delivered by the voice of the actor Cedric Hardwicke:
“After all that men could do had failed, the Martians were destroyed and humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in His wisdom, had put upon this Earth.”
Trouble is, now we’re in the position of the Martians. We’re the targets of a tiny, unseen microbe that came out of nowhere — or maybe straight out of hell — and we have no defense against it, no medicine, no vaccine, no weapons at all.
Except, perhaps, the weapon of self-restraint. “Do not be alarmed,” we are being told. “Remain in your homes.” Classic movie lines, yes, but it’s very hard to ask Americans — who have always been urged to work, earn and consume — to work less, in many cases to earn less, and to consume less. It’s just not in our nature.
But that will have to change, at least for a time. And we’re hoping that time will be measured in weeks; months at the very most.
An earlier generation of Americans went through the Great Depression and then World War II, putting off their wants and sometimes their needs for a period of years. Some went off to war. My mother fought Hitler from The Stanley Works, in New Britain, where she stamped out 50-caliber machine gun links and wrote patriotic poems as the Department 66 reporter for The Stanley World. My parents had married in 1937, but they didn’t feel secure enough to start a family for almost a decade.
We are being asked to do a lot less, and for a much shorter period. “Social distancing” is annoying, and the economic cost will be painful, but it won’t last forever.
We can do this.
Reach Glenn Richter at email@example.com.