I have been fascinated by your accounts of your own turning points in the onrush of the COVID19 Crisis. They fascinate me both as a lapsed historian and also because they refresh my memory of an abrupt historical transition that is still less than two months old. Back in early March again and again we were hearing that the key signal of transition and the onset of a crisis footing was the closure of schools. Most people are only casual consumers of news. It is difficult for even important news to break through the routines of daily life. The closure of schools directly impacts almost every aspect of social life. It upends the life of kids. It upends the life of parents of school age kids. It upends all commercial and organizational life because vast numbers of workers have school age kids. Precisely because of these dislocations the decision to close schools unmistakably signals crisis. Again and again readers reported from around the country that it was in response to a school closure that the whole tenor of life in their community changed.
This role of school closure as social signal is unquestionably the case. But I was struck that retrospectively few mentioned school closures as a moment when they realized their lives were about to change drastically and not for the better. To the extent readers mentioned school closures it was closures in other countries, particularly Japan which closed schools on February 27th.
Yesterday I mentioned the conference call with CDC official Dr. Nancy Messonnier in which she said with ominous understatement that the public needed to prepare for things to get “bad” and that it was no longer a question of if but when COVID19 would spread through the United States. Her comments were a turning point for many TPM Readers as well. It got President Trump’s attention too. He called HHS Secretary Alex Azar from Air Force One as he returned from his state visit to India and threatened to fire her.
(I should add that I was not on this conference call. I heard it reported via various news outlets soon after Messonnier made her comments.)
Two other shared turning points emerged from your mails.
One of these came two days later on the February 27th edition of The New York Times’ ‘The Daily‘ podcast. I’m not a huge consumer of podcasts, though more during quarantine. I had only listened to The Daily maybe once or twice before. But I listened on this day either by happenstance or because someone suggested it to me. It was an interview with Donald G. McNeil Jr, a science and health reporter for the Times. The subject was COVID19. As I sat in a cab driving up 6th Avenue I remember distinctly listening to McNeil say COVID19 seemed comparable the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic. He then said “in 1918, not everybody died, but everybody knew somebody who died.”
As with Messonnier, here was a highly knowledgable person not telling me not to worry or providing reassuring context but clearly saying it would likely be very bad and to prepare.
The other recurring reference was to the NBA deciding to cancel its season. In fact, this was likely the single most common reference in all your emails. As TPM Reader AG put it: “The next biggest U.S. turning point for me was nearly 2 weeks later, when the NBA cancelled all games and postponed their season. I knew how much money was at stake in the decision, and that reinforced the seriousness of the situation nationwide.”
Please keep sending in your recollections and your moments. This is the post on this that other TPM Readers are responding to.