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The United States is usually a place of perpetual motion. But now society is stuck on hold

Because the US continues to fail to get to grips with the pandemic – with 60,000 new cases a day – life will remain on pause for longer than necessary. 

By Emily Tamkin

When the Covid-19 pandemic started, I was in India. I knew, I thought, how the rest of my year would go. I would be in India until early April, when I’d start this job at the New Statesman. In June, my fiancé and I would get married in New York at a dinner with our families, before returning to Washington, DC, to have a cocktail party with our friends. We would travel to Vancouver, Canada, for our honeymoon. In July, my first book was to come out. In August, we would stop renting and move into a place that we would find and buy after I got back from India. These events would be the ones by which I would measure the year. 

Instead, I ended up leaving New Delhi weeks early, rushing back before travel between the US and India became impossible. I have been here ever since. We postponed the wedding, postponed the party. The restaurants asked us if we wanted to choose another day, but I didn’t want to look forward to another date and then watch it pass by. We did not go to Vancouver. My book is indeed out, but the things I thought I was going to do to mark its publication, such as giving a talk in a bookshop – or, for that matter, going to a bookshop – remain undone. We didn’t move.

Some have observed over the course of the pandemic that we have moved into a sort of time out of time. Against this backdrop, the best viewing is the TV series Russian Doll or the movie Palm Springs, both of which adopt the concept of the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day, where the protagonist is cursed to repeat the same day over and over again. But as the days, which are indeed very alike, have ticked by, it has occurred to me that it is not only that I am doing largely the same things repeatedly, but that the events that I thought would mark the passage of time are not happening. 

“I feel like our life is on hold,” I sobbed between sips of wine to my fiancé one evening, when I was feeling especially sorry for myself. But I know that I am not the only one going through this. I shared stories with a former co-worker who also had a wedding planned. An acquaintance whose first book was published during this time too messaged to congratulate me, acknowledging what a weird way it was to have such a big experience happen – at a time when a book seems so small. 

In the grand and not-so-grand scheme of things, these are fine problems to have. What’s a postponed wedding or an unthrown book party? Roughly 40 million Americans have lost their jobs over the course of this nightmare; I do not have a statistic for how many personal plans have been lost with those jobs. There are students graduating into this economy and, as a person who entered university in 2008, I can say with some confidence that many will have found their careers were put on hold before they were able to begin. 

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Then there are the people who have had to put their existing careers on at least semi-hold, as they find themselves part-time home-schoolers to their children. And there are the children whose education is largely on pause, because neither their schools, nor their teachers, nor their parents were prepared for any of this. Childcare was already both scarce and unaffordable in the US, and an absence of accessible childcare was, for many families, a private nightmare; the pandemic has made it a national one. The fight over what happens when schools are due to reopen in September will further divide an already divided country. We don’t know what will be lost if children do not go back to school in the autumn; we don’t know what will be lost if they do. 

In the business world, firms are not being founded, investments are not being made, ideas are not being turned into realities. Entrepreneurs have been hit by the pandemic. According to data from Startup Genome, more than 70 per cent of start-ups around the world have had to terminate contracts with full-time employees. As of April, more than 40 per cent of start-ups only have enough cash for, at most, a few months of “normal operations”. 

In the civic sphere, it is true, the Supreme Court is still handing down historic decisions; protests against police brutality and state-backed violence against black Americans have already led to some tangible changes; a presidential campaign is underway. But there, too, a certain stasis persists. Congress was largely suspended for two months at the outbreak’s start and is now in its pre-election lame-duck phase. Combine that with a president uninterested in constructive initiatives and the heavy inertia grounding the rest of the US, and you have a stuck society. A society on hold. In a country known around the world for its fluidity and flux, its manic rush towards every new horizon, this feels odd and wrong. 

“The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by sceptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were,” declared President John F Kennedy in a speech to the Irish parliament in 1963. Today, all of our horizons are limited by the realities of the pandemic, quotidian illness and death.

And because the US continues to fail to get to grips with the pandemic – there are now around 60,000 new cases a day, concentrated in previously blithe southern states such as Florida and Texas – life will remain on hold for far longer than necessary. But that statistic also puts our stuck society in perspective. The real tragedy is that those of us with our lives paused are the lucky ones. We are not one of the roughly 140,000 Americans who have died because of this virus. My life is on hold, yes, but it is still mine. It may feel like I’m holding my breath, but I still have the privilege of breathing. 

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This article appears in the 15 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Race for the vaccine