It was an incongruous image to say the least, the Google doodle that greeted many of us the morning of the first day of spring, a bunny sailing serenely through blue skies below a pastel balloon. Down below, the rest of us were getting grounded in the dark implications of the coronavirus pandemic, a threat sufficiently virulent to grind livelihoods to a virtual standstill.
In time, the historians will place the COVID-19 crisis in the context of the other great disruptions in history. The 2020 footage capturing exhausted doctors and nurses donned in protective suits will take their place alongside images of seaside villages left splintered in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Africa’s famines, migrants trudging through Dust Bowl America, and our cultural memory of medieval Europe’s suffering in the Black Plague.
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Over the eons, the human body has proven over and over its incredible powers of resilience and restoration. The same holds true for the lifeblood of the U.S. economy, which has coursed anew after each shock it has sustained. In recent history, those have included the housing market collapses of 1990 and 2009, the oil crises of 1973 and 1979, and the internet bubble of 2000.
But if the massive banking industry bailout of the Great Recession represented an extraordinary intervention, it pales next to this one, with the U.S. Treasury doling out cash to help people meet basic living needs, hearkening to the ration books issued during World War II.
And so, human resiliency and economic resiliency soldier forward in the great stress test of our time. But this time around, we have an economy buttressed by an internet infrastructure that allows us to connect in any number of ways. While it is not even close to a cure for everything that can go wrong in a crisis as pervasive as the pandemic, as we found out in March with the initial wave of stores and restaurants shuttering in Connecticut and the country, for many families the internet helped keep food on the table by allowing employers to shift many activities online and keep up some semblance of commerce.
And with Amazon proving out over time the dependability of online purchases and deliveries — by extension giving rise to digital payment platforms as an alternative to cash and credit — households had an extra security blanket, perhaps helping ward off the bank runs of earlier times.
Over the eons, the human body has proven over and over its incredible powers of resilience and restoration. The same holds true for the lifeblood of the U.S. economy, which has coursed anew after each shock it has sustained.
We are now entering an unprecedented moment in the history of credit, however, both for the overall economy and as it relates to each of us in the decisions we make on how to pay for most of life’s expensive needs — a roof over our heads, vehicles in the garage, college education for our children.
With the mass shuttering of the U.S. economy entering the spring of 2020, the Federal Reserve adopted a zero-interest rate policy, the second time in a decade it has done so. This time around it is different, however, coupled with the unprecedented stimulus packages negotiated by Congress and the Trump administration.
On the first day of spring, nobody could say how it would all play out. Today as summer inches closer, any projections are likewise just guesses, given the uncertainties for any new round of coronavirus that could emerge next fall, prompting a fresh contraction of commerce.
But know this — our hospitals, medical equipment suppliers, research labs and policymakers will be in a far better state of readiness the next time around. So will you, your school district and the employer you depend on for food on the table. It may be the same employer as at the start of the year, and it may be a new one. And it’s possible you or the lead earner in your household is already the boss, born of a prior entrepreneurial success or of necessity after a recent layoff.
For those of us who heard our parents’ and grandparents’ stories of daily life in the ration economy of World War II, or of the privations of the Great Depression, we now have our own tales of an extraordinary moment in time to pass to our children’s children.
The tale is still being written — but the power of the pen we now wield is of the pixelated variety, with the phrase online commerce now taking on an entirely new connotation as internet connectivity keeps a nation afloat, with both traditional and emerging financial systems as a foundation.
The green shoots will surface for a new spring in the U.S. economy. But we may never regard our livelihoods again in the pastel hues of the recent past, instead remaining vigilant for any fresh catastrophe — and being better prepared.