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Crises Have a Way of Accelerating History

Crises like the one we're in upend the social order, reveal long-festering conflicts, and throw open the doors to futures both bleak and transformative. We can emerge from this crisis a more just society.

A man wears a face mask as the city streets are empty due to the coronavirus on March 24, 2020 in New York City. Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / Getty

“Everything just fell apart so quickly,” my student wrote, explaining why she was late submitting the midterm paper — as though any explanation was needed. After all, we had all gone to sleep in one world and woken up in another.

The elevator news stream in my high-rise building should have provided some warning. In late December, over the holiday break, it reported that a novel coronavirus had appeared in the Wuhan province of China. Sixteen people had it, then forty-one. Then the news stream was turned off. But still the crisis seemed far away, on the other side of the world; New York, by some illusion of exceptionalism and cushion of privilege, a space apart.

Crisis has a way of accelerating history, as things that seem impossible become real in moments. If someone told you in January that the NCAA basketball tournament would be canceled, that the New York Public Library system would be shuttered, that academic conferences years in the making would fail to be held, that Major League Baseball would have no opening day, that the bars and restaurants and stores of New York City would be closed, that universities would send their students home — all of it would seem preposterous.

And yet the consensus shifted so rapidly. For parents in the New York City public schools, on the last Friday that school was open (March 13), not sending your children because of the coronavirus seemed an extreme, difficult decision, one that had to be weighed against the immense upheaval it would cause. But over the weekend, the mood was changing, and many parents had elected to keep their children home the following week. By Sunday night, the system was shut down, and 1.1 million New York City schoolchildren were cast adrift from the daily and familiar world, the ballast of school suddenly absent, the great old buildings quiet except for emergency food.

At the same time, crises also reveal changes taking place beneath the surface, suddenly making stark and unavoidable developments that had previously been in the background. In this case, many of the long-standing conflicts that make a coherent response to the coronavirus difficult seem only too evident.

There are decades of underfunding public health and the public hospital system; in New York, as the city prepares to repurpose university dorms as makeshift intensive care units and the army sends a hospital ship, one cannot help but think of the hospitals closed following the 1975 fiscal crisis. There is the drug of poisonous nationalism, undone by a germ that knows no borders and that a wall could never keep out.

There are the assaults on public education, on science, on reason, and on solidarity — the building blocks of the capacity to understand risk, to think of our individual actions in terms of a larger whole. And there is the exaltation of wealth and consumerism above the unbearable daily heroism of emergency medical technicians, nurses, hospital orderlies, doctors, care workers of all sorts — those who carry out the essential functions of our society, whose courage and labor are suddenly etched on the public consciousness.

Finally, it is true that crises so often consolidate power at the top. Looking for stability, it is easy to fall back on authorities that claim to promise it. Crises can become moments of austerity and extreme reaction, and it is all too easy to imagine movement in this way today.

But at the same time, it may be impossible for the old order to seem so safe again. Out of the upending of ordinary life perhaps something new can come. If things can change so suddenly, so dramatically — what else might be possible, what new spring might come forth?