Well, I’ll say this: I didn’t imagine that I’d intern with the State Department during the most significant challenge the world has faced in my lifetime. If you had told me that freedoms across the Western world would be restricted in response to COVID-19 just as in China, I’d have told you that could never happen. That we’re be facing a financial crisis that’s likely greater in magnitude than that of 2008 – it’s staggering. The world, the economy, the way of life that we all thought was resilient and stable, just isn’t. My boss at the State Department was repeatedly said that “everyone’s going to know where they were doing the Coronavirus crisis. It’s this [my] generation’s 9/11.”
From an overarching perspective, a few things strike me about this outbreak. First, the fragility of our economic system is shocking. Having watched this outbreak closely from a single nation’s perspective, its startling to see how a system that seemed so strong, so resilient, can crumble in the space of two weeks. When I got to Berlin in early February, we were just reporting on potential downstream economic consequences from China’s shutdown. We weren’t really looking at a potential outbreak in Germany. I don’t think any of us saw it coming; no one planned for an outbreak, much less one of this scale. And even two weeks ago, as of writing this, I was just a tourist in Copenhagen – flights were still mostly full, very few people had any sort of mask on, and life more or less went on as normal. Today, 90% or more of the scheduled flights in Berlin and Amsterdam have been cancelled and there’s probably someone with a mask on every row of this plane; there are no tourists. In airports, there’s a pervasive sense of impending calamity. It’s a different world than two months ago.
The fragility of the system has come through in my research on government responses to COVID-19 – it’s never felt like the government knew what to do. They’ve been playing catch-up, intensifying restrictions as the virus afflicts greater and greater swaths of the population. This isn’t just true for Germany – it’s true for virtually every nation in the Western world. The system that I assumed was solid enough to weather virtually any storm . . . just wasn’t.
Second, the human impact of COVID-19 is shocking. The terror of the virus came long before the virus itself. We saw “hamster buying” – hoarding essentials like toilet paper, eggs, and non-perishable foods – a stigma against those of east Asian descent (a stigma that still persists), and I’d argue a general discomfort of our fellow people (because we don’t know who has COVID-19). One needs only look at the disastrous situation in Northern Italy to see the necessity of quick and decisive action limiting social interactions, but we can’t allow these measures to pull our intention into ourselves exclusively. Now is not the time to lose our connection to others. There’s tremendous uncertainty on all fronts for us all – let’s not add isolation on top of the uncertainty that already permeates society.
As a part of my reporting on COVID-19 at the State Department, I read stories of hospitals being robbed of personal protective equipment (like respirators and the like). I’ve seen stories of people ignoring social distancing restrictions – choosing their temporary wants over the good of society. Let’s not be like them; let’s choose to act in ways that put the good of society first – if there’s one thing that came through virtually all the messaging in Germany, it was this: as citizens, we have the ability to control the effects of COVID-19 on the world. We can take actions that allow the healthcare system to support the burden. Chancellor Merkel said it well: this is the greatest crisis faced by Germany (and possibly the world) since WW2.
I don’t know what the future holds; when social distancing’s efficacy in slowing the outbreak will be seen, if we’ll become a more coherent or isolated society, etc. There are many unknowns. But one thing is certain: COVID-19 will change the world.