The video game Death Stranding takes place in an America that’s in the throes of a perpetual pandemic, one whose occasionally violent flare-ups suggest that what seems to characters is a new, very inconvenient normal is in fact a slow-moving extinction-level event. Few people go outside, and when they do, they risk getting caught in an otherworldly rainstorm that rapidly ages any organic matter that it touches; if you try to wait it out, you might find yourself wading through a pool of hands rising up from the underworld, attempting to drag you down to a watery death. Towns and cities have moved their entire populations underground, sealing themselves off from the world with electronic domes, while others have built compounds, self-isolating in remote areas and communicating with their infrequent visitors via hologram.
The most vaunted individuals in this world are couriers, the people who regularly brave the supernatural elements in order to deliver goods that keep the game’s residents both alive and sane. Do even a middling job at, say, ferrying a couple cases of beer from an isolated wheat farm down a craggy plateau and past a camp of bandits to a faraway city, and your client will gush with gratitude, giving you a favorable rating which increased your stats and potentially caused them to open their coffers so that you could access resources that might make your next delivery even smoother.
While playing through the game a couple months ago, I found this mechanic endearingly goofy, but fairly removed from my day-to-day life: Death Stranding was offering a commentary on the gig economy by teasing it out to its logical conclusion, but surely, I would never find myself living out a real-life version of it. Yet as the novel coronavirus continues its exponential spread throughout the country, first cutting sports seasons short and causing major event cancellations, then leading to the mass closure of bars and restaurants as we attempt to impose social distancing to slow the virus’s pace enough for our medical infrastructure to catch up to it, the world of Death Stranding has increasingly begun to resemble our own. Yesterday, my partner and I ordered groceries to our house; our delivery driver was the first person who didn’t live in our building that we’d seen in days, and the fact that she was out there ensuring people got what they needed made her a genuine hero in our eyes.
Whenever I start thinking too hard about coronavirus, I start touching my face, unconsciously so, jerking my hands away once my brain has caught up to my body. It’s an impulse that I imagine many people are having right now, as a threat we cannot see or feel has nevertheless disrupted the fabric of our day-to-day lives. We’re in genuinely uncharted territory here, dealing with an issue whose scope is unknown but which affects even those who don’t have it, leaving us bracing for a socioeconomic impact that may be sudden and resolute, or which moves so slowly that we’ll only fully be able to comprehend it in retrospect.
I’ve been thinking a lot about freaking out. People are doing it. I am doing it. My dogs can sense that something is up and are close to doing it too. The urge to freak out, like the unknown impact of coronavirus, seems to be exponential. Is there a point at which we will have freaked out too much?
The simple fact is that we don’t know how bad things are going to get and what it’s going to take for this to subside. The direst official projections warn that left unchecked, 214 million of the 331 million people living in the U.S. could catch coronavirus, and that it could cause 1.7 million people to die. But with every preventative measure that we take — closing schools and universities, limiting public gatherings, staying away from bars and restaurants, staying home in general — we drastically drive those worst-case-scenarios down. This requires a sort of collective action, which is not exactly our country’s specialty, but it is heartening that some people, at least, are giving it their best shot.
It’s harder to quantify the toll that this is taking on our mental health. It’s easy to go a little crazy when you can’t leave the house and you’re constructing a reality piecemeal from TV news, social media, and YouTube without the ability to stress-test the coherence of those messages by comparing to what you see and experience in your daily life. Self-isolating from coronavirus can feel like being in a zombie movie, where you’re worried you might be the only survivor left, and you’re on the edge of your seat just waiting for it to come for you next. And, given that healthy people can carry the virus without showing its symptoms, you may already be a zombie yourself.
The urge to freak out, like the unknown impact of coronavirus, seems to be exponential.
Everyone’s level of too-freaked-out is different; if you’re a person who works in retail, the gig economy, the service industry, or many other hourly-wage jobs that require working with people or being in a specific location, now is probably a pretty good time for freaking out. These are the least secure jobs in America, with little worker protections or benefits to speak of, yet they’re the jobs that are the most vital to the day-to-day functioning of society. Though a few employers have, out a sense of benevolent self-interest, redeployed their workforces — small liquor distilleries around the country have repurposed all the alcohol at their disposal to make hand sanitizer, while many restaurants have adapted to community-wide social distancing guidelines by closing their dining rooms and offering takeout, delivery, and even drive-through windows — because of the gaping holes in the coronavirus sick leave package currently moving its way through the legislative process, there is nothing being done on the federal level to account for a lack of work, whether it’s through getting sick on the job or if their employer suspends operations or goes under altogether. Similarly, if you’ve been laid off or have a loved one in a nursing home the answer is probably you can never be too freaked out. These situations are why freaking out exists.
“While some amount of information about coronavirus cases is required for us to be prepared,” wrote the psychologist Ellen Peters in a recent New York Times op-ed, “does too much information distort our judgment and cause us to needlessly worry?” She goes on to cite research she and a colleague conducted whose findings suggest that those who follow coronavirus closely are more likely to experience anxiety about the virus, focusing their attention on the worst-case scenarios that they could find. Such individuals, she concluded, “become unduly afraid, and their fear distorts their sense of how dangerous the situation is.”
At the same time, it’s not like the media is doing anybody any favors. Everyone wants to read about coronavirus, and outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, which usually limit the number of stories a non-subscriber can read, have lowered their paywalls for coronavirus coverage. These articles tend to garner massive amounts of traffic, and if you work in such a data-rich field as ours — there are industry-standard tools which allow us to see how well our stories perform, and more importantly, they let our bosses see the same thing — you have a financial incentive to run as many of them as possible. While on an individual level this is simple economic principle in action, firms responding rationally to market signals, with each successive wave of stories published, everyone must find specific and specialized angles to differentiate their coverage from the competition, having the cumulative effect of making it seem as if the coronavirus is everywhere.
And, to be fair, it may be everywhere soon. The virus has reached a level where we’re no longer just seeing news reports about new cases in this state or that town, we’re hearing stories about people in our networks being infected. We have reached an inflection point, and the actions we as a society take now will help determine whether the virus moves quickly or slowly. There is an argument, recently articulated by Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases on this weekend’s Meet the Press, that “we should really be overly aggressive and get criticized for overreacting.” This is a good and necessary stance for government officials to take. Anyone in charge of getting ventilators to hospitals should be thinking about nothing else. But you and I sitting at home might need to give ourselves a break every now and then.
Once we’ve taken the steps we need to take to protect ourselves and others, sitting around getting all worked up over coronavirus isn’t going to help matters in a time as trying as this one. Fear is not the best prophylactic. If we simply start at “freaked out” and stay there, we’re all but guaranteed to accept anything that’s done to mitigate this ever-evolving crisis and only work towards a world in which this simply goes away. Instead, once you’ve hunkered down and prepared to ride this out, allow me to suggest that you redirect your nervous energy into more useful territory. Like anger at the people who allowed this to happen both through prior action and present inaction, and at those in both government and industry who are exploiting this crisis for personal gain. Or compassion for those most affected by it, and support both emotional and, if warranted, financial for people who have the most to lose.
Fear is both a necessary and dangerous emotion in a moment like this: if we have the luxury of worrying about something other than our own survival right now, we should do what we can to work towards a world where something that hurts so many others never happens again.