Coronavirus pandemic sparks feelings of wartime sacrifice among many Americans

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, it’s as though a natural disaster has taken place in multiple places at once in America, suddenly, in the course of a few weeks, a wartime nation.

Millions of people will likely lose their jobs. Businesses will shutter. Schools have closed. Thousands will die. Leaders are ordering citizens into isolation to stop the virus’ march.

For most Americans alive today, the idea of shared national sacrifice has been a collective abstraction — until now.

Will Americans step up?

“This is a new moment,” said Jon Meacham, a historian and author of “The Soul of America.”

“Prolonged sacrifice isn’t something we’ve been asked to do, really, since World War II,” Meacham said. “There was a kind of perpetual vigilance in the Cold War — what President Kennedy called ‘the long twilight struggle’ — but living with the fear of nuclear war is quite abstract compared to living with the fear of a virus and of a possible economic depression.”

CORONAVIRUS: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

The Second World War involved a common enemy and common purpose, with clear sides drawn across the globe.

Not since World War II, when people carried ration books with stamps that allowed them to purchase meat, sugar, butter, cooking oil and gasoline, when buying cars, firewood and nylon was restricted, when factories converted from making automobiles to making tanks, Jeeps and torpedoes, when men were drafted and women volunteered in the war effort, has the entire nation been asked to sacrifice for a greater good.

The civil rights era, Vietnam, the Gulf wars, 9/11 and the financial crisis all involved suffering, even death, but no call for universal sacrifice.

As President Trump  said at a March 13 Rose Garden news conference: “Through a very collective action and shared sacrifice and national determination, we will overcome the threat of the virus.”

Archon Fung, professor of citizenship and self-government at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said about civics and civility: “When we look back, we will see that some communities handled the crisis much better than others. We might well find that success came in states where government, civic and private-sector leaders joined their strengths together in a spirit of self-sacrifice for the common good.”

The U.S. is now more than a week into an unprecedented 15-day effort to encourage all Americans to drastically scale back their public activities. The guidelines, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are voluntary, but many state and local leaders have issued mandatory restrictions in line with, or even tighter than, those issued by the CDC.

On Monday, the U.S. saw its biggest jump yet in the death toll from the virus, with more than 650 American deaths now attributed to COVID-19.

Added Mark Lawrence Schrad, an associate professor of political science, about the future of patriotism: “When all is said and done, perhaps we will recognize their sacrifice as true patriotism, saluting our doctors and nurses, genuflecting and saying, ‘Thank you for your service,’ as we now do for military veterans. We will give them guaranteed health benefits and corporate discounts, and build statues and have holidays for this new class of people who sacrifice their health and their lives for ours. Perhaps, too, we will finally start to understand patriotism more as cultivating the health and life of your community, rather than blowing up someone else’s community. Maybe the de-militarization of American patriotism and love of community will be one of the benefits to come out of this whole awful mess.”

As a nation, Americans are accustomed to seeing swaths of the country destroyed by hurricanes, floods, wildfires and blizzards. But there is then a season of rebuilding and renewal. The coronavirus, with its rapid spread, is giving Americans a public-health Katrina that knows few borders or boundaries, even though some parts of the country are suffering far more than others.

To date, for many, the sacrifices have been mere inconveniences. No restaurants or movie theaters. Maybe the need to buy exercise equipment because the gym has closed. Or to leave the cardboard box from Amazon outside for 24 hours to make sure the virus doesn’t somehow enter the home.

A week of being told to work from home can resemble a working vacation. A week of not being able to work at all is frustrating but, potentially, eventually reversible.

But when a week bleeds into a month, or longer, how will we react?

“We used to tax in times of crisis. Now we don’t,” Julian Zelizer, a professor of history at Princeton, said. “We asked people to ration in times of crisis. Now we don’t. We asked people to serve in times of crisis. Now we don’t. So this is a sea change. The thing is, Americans might not have a choice.”

The pandemic has infected more than 450,000 people and killed over 20,000, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The number of dead in the U.S. topped 800, with more than 60,000 infections.

More than 113,000 people have recovered so far, mostly in China.

CLICK FOR COMPLETE COVERAGE OF THE CORONAVIRUS OUTBREAK

What the nation’s leaders do or don’t do will shape the course of the pandemic and its lethality. But it will be Americans’ willingness to sacrifice that may well matter more.

“In the end, this presents a great and compelling test of our national sense of ourselves as exceptional, generous and resilient,” Meacham said. “Perhaps we are all of those things. One thing’s for sure: We’re about to find out.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.