Commentary / World

Washington’s coronavirus revolution

The people of the U.S. capital are learning a new way to live and conduct business

by Kent Calder

Kyodo

Every springtime, without fail, the blooming of the sakura binds Tokyo and Washington despite the vast distances that separate them in so many other ways.

Nestled both on the northeastern rim of their respective continents, the cherry trees of the American and Japanese national capitals often bloom in unison. Hanami parties under the blossoms are a venerable tradition for both Ueno Koen and the Tidal Basin.

This year the sakura season has been unusually beautiful and enduring here in Washington. The skies have been clear, with little wind or rain, and the weather unseasonably cool. The petals, however, began floating gently down, in the sakura fubuki that nostalgically signals the bitter-sweet end to an unusually radiant spring.

This year, despite the magnificent weather, Washington has had few hanami parties. When the sakura were beginning to bloom, Washington’s restaurants ironically began closing. The traditional Sakura Matsuri, a highlight of the U.S.-Japan cultural calendar, was abruptly canceled.

By late March, virtually all commercial establishments except drugstores, banks and government offices were shuttered. Washingtonians remain blissfully untouched by the pandemic, compared with the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in New York City. Yet life in the shadow of the virus has nevertheless changed profoundly for Washingtonians of late, sharply contrasting with the relative continuity of Japan.

During my last visit to Tokyo in mid-February, I noticed many people wearing masks, especially in closed spaces such as restaurants and bullet trains. The pattern in Washington, despite the rising shadow of the coronavirus, is decidedly different. Almost no one, except pharmacists preparing medicine for patients, wears a mask.

Washington banks have long forbidden them, as they also forbid hats, since such facial coverings allegedly obscure identity. Both bank tellers and many common citizens fear that masked people could be bank robbers, terrorists or possibly themselves infected with the coronavirus.

Rather than thinking of such people as considerate local citizens, sparing the public from common maladies like colds, as might be common in Japan, many Washingtonians react suspiciously to mask wearers.

Rather than wearing masks, as might be common in Japan, Washingtonians have been protecting themselves and the broader public through self-isolation while unwittingly triggering a surprising social revolution in the process.

SAIS/Johns Hopkins University, where I teach, was faced by the prospective spread of the coronavirus and suddenly decreed a shift from conventional instruction to virtual education, whereby the professor instructs students online.

I found that online teaching created a surprisingly personal new bond between me and my students, and a new ability to communicate and learn on both sides, despite the physical distance separating us.

Until the end of the spring semester, I expect to meet my students in my home office, online, and almost never set foot on our Massachusetts Avenue campus. Yet both I and my students feel that we will learn more together than we ever have before.

The self-isolation provoked by the coronavirus is also helping me to discover an exciting new borderless world for my own research that I had never before known, thanks to the new forms of communications technology that I have been compelled to use since the coronavirus arrived.

Through a combination of email, telephone contact and Zoom conferencing, I have found it remarkably easy to organize “webinars,” or seminars on the web, with colleagues in Japan and throughout the world.

Our university, Johns Hopkins, is fortunate to be home to top-class medical and public health schools, and has established a well-known website keeping track of COVID-19 infections and fatalities around the world on a real-time basis.

We thus have particularly exciting new opportunities to present our work on health care decision-making throughout the world amid this crisis, and don’t need to even leave our front door to do so.

Indeed, if we felt free to go out the front door and traveled to confer with colleagues in the conventional way, this remarkable post-coronavirus Zoom revolution likely never would have happened.

As I walked down “Think Tank Row,” past Brookings, the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for International Economics to my Massachusetts Avenue office for the first time in a month, I recall meeting only two people — a watchman and a delivery man.

Everyone else was at home, working remotely and protecting themselves against the coronavirus. Yet the researchers and commentators of Think Tank Row were online to all corners of the world, in a quiet, inner-directed, yet cosmopolitan way that could well be the norm in our new post-corona universe.

Washington is home, after all, to the U.S. national government and to the pre-eminent think tanks of the world, as well as major universities and key multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

It is, together with New York, a quintessential global city. It is also now, like New York, obsessed with the new possibilities that Zoom provides for sustained connectivity that transcends the dangers posed by the coronavirus, to both travel and even everyday human contact.

The strange lack of Washington pedestrians and traffic in this coronavirus-infested sakura season, together with the eerie quiet at Dulles International Airport in the Virginia suburbs, is in one sense an ominous symbol of the broader crisis of globalism that is infecting major cities across the globe.

Yet amid that crisis, a new and highly dynamic world of flexible, transnational and surprisingly intense and personal social communication is also being born. The remote conferencing app Zoom is lifting Washington beyond the physical constraints imposed by the coronavirus into revolutionary new forms of contact with the world, and we may never be the same.

When people are out and about on the streets at all in this dynamic yet strangely quiet new coronavirus-infected Washington, it is mainly to exercise.

Many Americans are jogging enthusiasts. Indeed, joggers are omnipresent on Washington’s wide streets these days, particularly as those streets these days are so strangely devoid of cars.

There are also lots of families on the more suburban streets, with parents and children riding bicycles together even on weekdays. Most companies, after all, have shut their offices due to the coronavirus, and schools are also closed, so cooped-up children are naturally pressing their parents for a chance to go out and play.

Exercise, including endless walking at the beginning and the end of the day, is a natural stress-reliever, and Washingtonians are experiencing considerable stress these days.

Rattled by the raging pandemic of metropolitan New York, home to half of America’s confirmed COVID-19 victims in early April, Washingtonians are understandably concerned about their own futures.

National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, a key adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump on COVID-19, predicted recently that the United States might easily face the tragic prospect of 100,000 deaths or more due to the COVID-19 virus.

The president also abruptly extended the national shelter-in-place advisory to the end of April, to help minimize future tragedy.

Clearly there are coronavirus shadows on Washington’s horizon as the sakura blossoms fade, and Washingtonians quietly contemplate the new patterns of global connectivity now dawning.

Kent E. Calder is vice dean for Faculty Affairs and International Research Cooperation at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington and director of the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at SAIS.

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