The only America I have known is an America at war. For my college-aged peers, the same is true. Our haziest, earliest memories surface after the Sept. 11 attacks — the U.S. already deep into its quagmire in Afghanistan after toppling the Taliban. The countries under American occupation jumped to two as we learned to take our first steps, to utter our first words. Through all this, the military remained fully voluntary, with ever-fewer Americans personally connected. 9/11 was the only instance of significant death on American soil. Our parents’ taxes flowed like oil through a pipeline into the Middle East until we became old enough CC “Iraq” on our own checks to the IRS. But aside from the T.S.A. hassle and the PATRIOT Act, life in the U.S. has carried on normally.
This all changed with COVID-19. It struck us like a fleet of bombers on Dec. 7, 1941 and flung us into total war.
Few people in America were prepared for the national mobilization that winning a war against a virus would take. Fewer still remember it. For not since the Second World War has the country faced a need to draft millions to the front lines, multiply its productive capacity, ration our consumption and confront the prospect of tens of thousands of our neighbors dead.
The college-aged generation, nicknamed Zoomers well before our lives were driven clumsily onto the teleconferencing platform of choice, has never experienced our country at peace. But our lifelong insulation from the personal stakes of our country’s conflicts is over. We all have to make masks at home. We all must base our daily actions on methods to curtail COVID’s spread. We will all know someone to fall sick. Most will know someone to die.
The America that had survived the First World War, Spanish Flu and Great Depression was not prepared for the paradigm shift wrought by the Axis Powers, but it was certainly primed by pain. Our America, instead, is a country run by denialists and convinced of its own invincibility. We are not ready for this.
Even now, with fatalities climbing over 10 thousand, we remain in the early stages of this rolling catastrophe. Even now, with the economy shedding millions of jobs each week, experts agree the worst is yet to come. Even now, with the national guard deploying in uniform to our streets, we stand merely on the precipice, looking over the edge toward a bottom too far to see.
Ours is the generation whose potential was plucked at the bud by Dick Cheney and buried by the Great Recession of 2008. But buried for long enough it has taken root. Push through this, and it will flower.
While many Zoomers were slow at first to adhere to social distancing guidelines (although no slower than an appalling number of governors and senators), now over 90 percent of Cornell students say they will not be attending parties and consider it their responsibility to stop the spread of the virus. We understand ourselves to be stewards of our country and communities no matter how new to them we may be. Inspiration abounds.
Mutual aid networks have formed with thousands of members to address the immediate needs of the crisis. Virtual protests to defend the most vulnerable have sprung up to fill the void left when marches and sit-ins ran afoul of health code. Many play their part by sewing masks for neighbors, hosting prayer over video call and staying home. As American women poured into the WWII workforce to cement the country’s role as the Arsenal of Democracy, we civilians will step up to be the backbone of this national effort.
Much like our seemingly endless conflicts in the Middle East, this disaster could have been largely avoided by competent national leadership. Unlike those tragedies, born alike by our brave soldiers and citizens of foreign lands, this one will be felt more acutely on the home front than anything in the modern era. We, of draftable age, step boldly into this epoch not with confidence in our leadership but in ourselves.
We may not be ready for what is to come, but we will be able to face it. Our knack for improvisation and powerful sense of compassion will guide us through this, not because it will be easy but because it will be necessary.
So far, our efforts seem to be working. Dr. Anthony Fauci M.D. ’66 just revised downward his estimated death toll, thanks to a successful commitment to social distancing. The coronavirus crisis of 2019-2020 will be a unique, generational moment sure to change us, but we are rising to it. Success is on the horizon.
Elijah Fox is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. What Does the Fox Say runs alternate Thursdays this semester.