Among the many things disrupted by the spread of the novel coronavirus and the global mobilization against it has been our sense of time. In part, this is simply the logic of exponential growth at work: it took months for rumors of a virulent new disease halfway across the world to become reports of a handful of cases in the United States; weeks for that handful to become hundreds; and days for those hundreds to become thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. Experts told us repeatedly that what we were seeing in China and Iran and Italy was bound to happen here. Warned to act before it was too late, we instead watched with a kind of skeptical fatalism as our future unfolded elsewhere in the present tense.
Then it was too late, and we jumped into action. Measures that seemed unthinkable one moment went into effect the next. Just hours after New York City mayor Bill de Blasio said he was “very reticent” to close schools, the city’s entire school system was shuttered. The NBA went from planning to play in empty arenas to suspending its season so quickly that one game was still in progress when the announcement was made. Many people—the staff of this magazine among them—packed up their offices for what they expected to be days of remote work, only to realize that they would be unlikely to return for months.
Once we entered the social-distancing phase, these two tempos were jarringly superimposed. For many of us it feels as though time has paused; we live in abeyance, awaiting the word that it is safe to return to our normal lives. But outside our walls, we know, the crisis continues to develop at an alarming rate.
Like everyone else lucky enough to still have jobs, we at Harper’s Magazine are attempting to maintain some semblance of business as usual. This month marks the magazine’s 170th anniversary—more than two thousand issues, few of them produced under such challenging circumstances. But even before the pandemic, there were peculiar difficulties to putting out a monthly general-interest magazine in our accelerated age. Whatever story is dominating the headlines when we ship an issue to the printer is likely to have faded by the time the physical copy arrives in your hands. This is generally true even with events of obviously lasting importance. (If we had assigned a comprehensive report on Trump’s impeachment trial, it would probably have appeared in this issue.) But the thing that makes editing a magazine such as Harper’s so difficult—the need to constantly ask ourselves what will matter to readers months and even years from now—is the very thing that makes the magazine valuable when we do our job well.
As I write this, in mid-April, there are hopeful signs that the number of hospitalizations and deaths may be cresting in the hardest-hit American cities. While there is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic is a story of enduring significance, precisely what its enduring significance will be remains to be determined. Among the few things that the crisis seems so far not to have disturbed are most of our prior ideological commitments. For the Sandernistas, the crisis is dispositive proof of the need for universal health care; for Trumpists, of the need to control our borders; for the Bidenites in between, of the need for nonpartisan expertise. (That there is some truth to each of these might tell us something.)
I recognize that I’m retreating to my own priors when I suggest that one lesson here is the limit of viewing every problem through the provincial framework of American electoral politics. I offer this point tentatively, fully aware that coming events might soon make it sound facile. There is no doubt that Trump’s failure to appreciate the severity of the threat posed by this disease—along with the narcissism of his response once he did—has cost lives. But there are people suffering and dying all over the world right now, in social democracies as well as dictatorships. The virus is a threat far greater than Trump—something that many of his opponents seem to think impossible.
While the connectivity of twenty-first-century life aided the virus’s rapid spread, infectious disease has always been a reality of the human condition. Epidemics have long instilled widespread terror. For this reason, the current pandemic flies in the face of one of our most cherished contemporary beliefs: that the challenges we face are unprecedented. Illness, suffering, death, and the limits of our efforts to stave them off—these adversaries have been with us forever. We can no more blame our mortality on Donald Trump than Trump can blame it on the Chinese. It is an existential fact of our humanity that we can only ignore for so long before it forces its way back to the center of our attention.
Another such fact, which many of us are coming to remember, is the need for human contact. There is a certain irony to our use of the term “social distancing” to describe the temporary curtailing of physical proximity, since the word “social” has come to be associated with a host of communication technologies that treat such proximity as entirely superfluous.
Admittedly, this moment has made us more reliant than ever on those technologies. It has been remarkable to see how many things that only a generation ago required large groups of people to be in the same place at once—including publishing this magazine—can now be done remotely. At the same time, when physical proximity is taken from us, we become more aware of its worth. I know several inveterate texters who have taken to old-fashioned phone calls out of a desire to hear another voice. Perhaps the yearning that everyone feels right now for real human connection may lead us to rethink what we mean by the word “social,” and to recognize the limits of the media that go by that name.
Or perhaps not. I can’t pretend to know what this time will come to signify to those of us who survive it. But while not everything in the pages that follow speaks directly to the pandemic, I believe you will find much that speaks to the larger truths the pandemic has exposed. (And much that entertains, which is no small thing at such a moment.) In the months ahead, Harper’s will not be the place readers turn to for the daily case count or the most up-to-the-minute mortality rates, but as those numbers continue to grow, we hope to be a place you can turn to for help figuring out what they mean.