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Column: This viral crisis will test all of us

  • Will Lange. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 3/24/2020 10:20:13 PM
Modified: 3/24/2020 10:20:10 PM

I’ve often thought, over the years, that what humankind needs in order to realize its potential for cooperation is an extraterrestrial — or at least a single worldwide — threat. Actually, over the years, I’ve thought all sorts of stupid things. We haven’t progressed, essentially, since we migrated out of our natal valleys in East Africa. In the words of a poet interviewed on PBS a few years ago, “We’re still just rolling rocks down on each other.”

What calls this to mind, of course, is the current crisis — real, perceived, or pooh-poohed — concerning the spread and severity of the coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease. A lot of us old folks, no longer able, metaphorically, to bear arms, listen for its distant thunder as it approaches our domestic retreats and note ruefully the loss of services, goods and conveniences. It’s easy for us to fail to appreciate that millions of our fellow citizens are without jobs or income. While I, for example, wonder whether my late May plane reservations to a granddaughter’s wedding will still be valid, so many more are worrying about rent, car payments, health care insurance — even groceries — that such concerns seem embarrassingly petty.

Given the ubiquity of cameras and instant mass communication nowadays, we no longer have to rely on the news or the testimony of witnesses to appreciate what’s happening: Italians in lockdown in an old-fashioned neighborhood leaning out of their windows and singing together; college kids on southern beaches practicing conspicuous ignorance; families sheltering at home as creatively as possible; teachers using Zoom for teaching remotely; supermarket patrons reenacting Black Friday over, of all things, toilet paper. Self-sequestered myself with my dog, I’m unable to yodel out my back door to anything but the woods (though a friend about a mile away, a singer, did serenade her neighbors recently); and the days of even wanting to join spring breakers are many decades in the past. But the scrabbling for, and hoarding of toilet tissue — one video showed a woman loading a pickup and an SUV with cases of it — can’t help but cause a twinge of anxiety in a codger with only two months’ worth already stored away in cabinets.

It reminds me a bit of World War II. Our president has announced that we are “at war,” and called himself “a wartime president.” That may be so, though I can’t imagine how he’d know. Born a year after the war and assiduously absent from any subsequent conflicts, he has no personal experience of it. A lot of us old folks do. We remember rationing, when households were issued color-coded stamps or tokens to buy prescribed limits of sugar, meat, butter, tires or gasoline. Fruits and vegetables weren’t rationed, but good luck finding any in any groceries. Instead, we planted “victory gardens” and buried our garbage in compost pits. City buses cut their stops by at least half; we walked an extra few blocks to catch one. Most of us had at least one family member serving in either Asia or Europe. The windows of many houses displayed blue-starred service flags; some were hung with a heart-breaking gold flag. Every day’s efforts went into providing our armed forces with the materiel to prosecute two wars on two faraway sides of the world.

It would be Pollyannaish to claim that Americans were unanimous in their responses to the war. As one of my heroes, Joshua Chamberlain, once observed, “It makes bad men worse and good men better.” This seems as true today as it was then. During America’s participation in World War I, rationing — managed skillfully by Herbert Hoover and the Food Administration — was voluntary and largely successful. The Second World War clearly called for government regulations to restrict hoarding and its result, price-gouging. (I must admit that my pals and I felt like war profiteers when we got $3 for each bushel of ripe, unopened milkweed pods.) The likes of the toilet-paper woman with the pickup exemplify capitalism at its worst. If the store-sacking shortage persists, you’ll soon see tissue on eBay.

Looking on the bright side, Albert Camus, in The Plague, offers the conviction that times of existential stress bring out the praiseworthy in people more than the despicable. From what we’ve seen in Vermont, this appears to be true. Volunteerism is up. The free community lunches at our churches have had to shut down, but the loyal weekly workers now hand out bag lunches at the door. Many people I’ve heard from are planning to give their government checks, should they arrive, to charity.

Think of it as a test, this viral pandemic, if that’s what it turns out to be: a test of our medical facilities and preparedness, our laboratories, and our capacity to produce necessary supplies and equipment. Never forget the prodigies performed by American industry and workers for three terrible years after Pearl Harbor. That attack also caught us flat-footed. But we were willing to sacrifice — as many are now. It’s impossible to convey the sense of community purpose we felt during that prolonged crisis. I pick up a little of it now: People are friendlier than usual everywhere, and seem to share a willingness to live in somewhat straitened circumstances to get through this. The better angels of our nature, one president called it.

Willem Lange can be reached at

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