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Erin Grace: The virus forces us to look beyond the toilet paper shelves at harder questions – Omaha World-Herald


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Erin Grace: The virus forces us to look beyond the toilet paper shelves at harder questions – Omaha World-Herald

The sun rose over Walmart on Friday, the end of a whipsaw week that saw life as we know it change by the hour. An outbreak became a pandemic became a national emergency.The pleasant sky above the 72nd and Hickory Streets superstore mirrored the pleasant faces within — the happy greeter, the chattering store clerks,…

Erin Grace: The virus forces us to look beyond the toilet paper shelves at harder questions – Omaha World-Herald

The sun rose over Walmart on Friday, the end of a whipsaw week that saw life as we know it change by the hour. An outbreak became a pandemic became a national emergency.

The pleasant sky above the 72nd and Hickory Streets superstore mirrored the pleasant faces within — the happy greeter, the chattering store clerks, the trio of young people mulling what alcohol to buy at 9 in the morning. Corona, of course!

It was a surreal gloss atop an underlying gloom that is the virulent COVID-19, its scientific all-caps-ness name underscoring urgency and mystery. Coronavirus disease 2019 has blasted into town and into all of our lives.

You don’t have to have the respiratory virus or know someone who does to feel the pandemic’s beginning and widespread effects: No parade for the Irish on Saturday. No holy water at church this morning. No school Monday or maybe for weeks. No office work for Mutual of Omaha and Conagra.

College campuses are shuttered. Class trips are done. No sports, no concerts, no big parties. The joys and necessities of life — try finding toilet paper — are put on hold as we hunker down. And hunkering down is becoming a moral imperative as health and government officials aim to slow the spread of the virus to save lives. We social animals are being asked to separate from the herd in order to protect it.

It’s not just Omaha going into hibernation during the unbasketballing of March Madness. It’s everywhere. Broadway is dark. Disney has closed. Movie releases are delayed. Distractions are shrinking.

This moment crystallizes what is important, said the Jesuit priest and scientist Kevin FitzGerald, an instructor at Creighton University’s School of Medicine. It’s a moment that forces us to reflect and in so doing face some big and unsettling questions.

“Is anyone stopping to say, ‘Why?’ ” FitzGerald asked during a phone interview conducted from the Walmart parking lot.

If Walmart, as America’s everyplace with everything for everyone, offered the on-the-ground view of what COVID-19 reaction might look like, FitzGerald, holed up on Creighton’s closed campus, offered the 30,000-foot view. A molecular geneticist and bioethicist by training, he took a philosophical approach to the virus among us.

First, life changes this way: We slow down. We are living fast and furious, he said, an “episode-to-episode” way of life that has us getting through the moment without generally taking a step back to examine whether this is right. This slowing down offers the opportunity to reflect on how our society deals with COVID-19: How our social fabric stretches or frays. How our systems help or don’t. How we individually will take action or not. How the way we live contributes to the way we suffer and the ways, as yet unknown, this illness will strike. How we are acting in accordance, or not, with our deepest values.

“This well could be a crisis we could use to our advantage,” he said, “in the sense of saying we need to think about these things. Live a reflective life.”

From the Walmart parking lot it was easy to argue for urgency. This is buy toilet paper time. Perhaps reflection time comes later?

FitzGerald said we are prone to postpone the difficult questions. We have no time. We don’t always want to give quandaries our energy. Other distractions, say Creighton’s great run this spring in college hoops, consume us.

Even a philosopher can recognize that life’s essentials are front-burner.

“A lack of toilet paper,” he said, “will bring one back to reality in a dramatic way.”

The run on toilet paper seemed symbolic of our efforts to take control of what we can, and the empty shelves at Walmart on this Friday morning were living proof. Shelf stockers said they did not know when the next shipment was to arrive. Shelves that previously held disinfectant were nearly bare. No hand sanitizer. Hardly any rice.

Those few empty shelves were about the only indicator something was amiss. Walmart otherwise had a surreal normalcy.

You felt it in the not-too-full, not-too-empty parking lot, in the full produce department where the only item running low was potatoes. You felt it in the teeming buckets of flowers, in the cheery Easter and St. Patrick’s Day displays, in the hanging racks of spring clothes. Here were toddler girl denim shorts with white eyelet trim.

But a close listener could tell COVID-19 was on the minds of employees.

“We better not shut down,” said a woman checking groceries, grimacing at the idea of a smaller paycheck.

The clerk was waiting on a customer who works at a hamburger joint and noted that business is still humming along. But when people stop coming in, hourly wage earners there are going to be hit hard. And what’s to stop a sick employee, she mused, from coming to work anyway, for the paycheck?

It’s a question that shows the leveling power of a virus. No matter how much bottled water, canned beans and fever reducer you buy in advance, someone you’ve worked with, shopped with, eaten with, worshipped with might have it and pass it along.

That raises another way of looking at COVID-19. It is not localized to a particular geography. This isn’t a hurricane that hit one city. It’s on every continent except Antarctica. It is not isolated to a particular event, like an act of terror. It’s not defined by politics or ideology or gender or race or social class.

But like any hardship, COVID-19 will pack its meanest punch for the most vulnerable: the elderly and frail who face greater risk of dying.

This is why we are being asked to keep our distance: Don’t stand too close. Don’t go to big events or places with crowds. Stay home.

FitzGerald noted the irony: Isolation helps against COVID-19; it hurts a different health plague, our higher rates of loneliness and depression.

“People don’t feel connected anymore, and that’s a really interesting thing to think about,” he said.

Reflection causes us first to ask: Why?

The second question might be: Now what?

That question was answered, in part, in the stocking up happening at stores across America, including this Walmart on South 72nd Street. One woman in line joked that all she needed was wine.

But the harder answers can’t be found on any store shelves. Now what about the hourly wage earners who, by virtue of the national hunker-down, could see paychecks shrink or disappear? Now what about a shortage of COVID-19 tests and limited numbers of ventilators and hospital beds? Now what about our collective responsibility to care for others while at the same time taking care to stay away?

“In the end, we’re all going to die,” FitzGerald said. “As people have always said, that’s one of the great equalizing points. We all have the same end. But what do we do up until that point? How do we spend that time?”

For starters, as we are faced with more time at home and to ourselves, we can ponder that.

COVID-19 may bring those answers more into focus.

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