When I am worried I buy sausages, usually Andouille. For a few weeks, easily by 16 February, I had been buying tubes for a few weeks because of the intensity of what was on NHK every morning. In January, my partner asked if we needed to continue watching NHK on the regular, as the wall to wall virus coverage was not exactly pleasant for our children. We persisted, James Tengan is a great anchor, heavy on the gravitas. The coverage of the virus was pitch perfect. On the 16th, later in the afternoon I would watch the end of the Daytona 500 with my children due to rain delay, the crystalizing moment was in the early afternoon, while writing some code to analyze disinformation related to the Corona virus, the tone of Deutsche Welle hit different: Cossack groups were the leading force for containing the virus in Russia.
Processes of Change
Pooley and Sokolow make the point clearly: there was no War of the Worlds Panic. Full stop. We tell the story of the War of the Worlds because it fits with how we want to think about communication, masses, and publics. Yelling fire in a crowded theater is not an abstract example — Holmes chose it because people were ready to flee a fire after so many tragedies. Panic isn’t the result of a single stimulus but a speech act, we act according to certain protocols once we are engaged by the relevant utterances. Much like the truth of economic bubbles (people bought $GME because they wanted a rocket ride to the moon and beyond, not because they were fools), panics as a social phenomena are interesting because they are rational. It was not the evening of March 12 and the hard stop on March 13, but the slow diffusion of the truth that the virus was a serious threat. People were not taken by surprise.
On March 6, we purchased a tumbling block, an indoor swing set, and a trampoline. We knew the kids were going to be in the apartment for a while… Notice that the economy was in utter free fall by March 9. Circuit breakers were tripping, I was advising parents in the school parking lot that there was a lot further to fall. Without getting to far into the weeds of my own life, we were in full prep mode for the crisis at work by March 10. I don’t think we were alone.
At this point I started taking pictures at store, some of those pictures will be presented here. Cookie samples had once been ubiquitous. On March 11, the sample program ended. While the hand sanitizers had been gone for days, the bar soaps were still in good supply.
Saying I Do
Speech act theory, see JL Austin if you like to party, supposes that if the parties are willing, aware, and complete a certain sort of procedure in language the results will have real force. In the context of the panic process, ending cookie samples, or not allowing customer cups at the coffee shop are early phases. In a wedding the ceremony hinges on the performative “I do.” Of course we all know the truth is far more complicated, typically the wedding is done when the contract is signed and witnessed before the event, the act of buying a dress, renting a hall, and doing all that stuff with rings matters too. The critical moment was the closure of all schools. It was not out of the blue or sudden, but the moment we all were waiting for.
While the official announcement would not come for another five hours, the paper products at my Winco were already long gone. This is the hire a wedding band portion of the process of panic.
To protect privacy, I won’t publish any pictures of the lines in the Winco. That afternoon the lines were at least one hour long. That night, Sarah Palin was revealed on the Masked Singer.
I returned closer to 10 pm to actually buy some things, the lines were still long. What I found was haunting: cart after abandoned cart of groceries. The items in the carts didn’t even make sense, they were literally whatever people could get, the lack of flour, toilet paper, and medicine seemed to really throw people toward wine. It was as if people could finally feel what was to come. The store was still busy, the employees who should have gone home were haggard on the check-stands.
There were multiple employees re-shelving the carts, but there were still so many. Here are a few, I have more…
Thousands of people successfully shopped that afternoon. The point of all this is, it has been a year. These people knew what was to come and in many ways, they acted to do what they needed to do, if that meant securing adequate toilet paper or two gallons of wine.
I began wearing a mask in March, the first version had a terry cloth liner, it was not pleasant. It was obvious. The point, if it was not clear, was that March 12, is the moment where the speech act was complete for the change in society needed to contain the virus, but that it was unfolding long before that moment. These carts are not something to mock, after all, my anxiety smoked sausage habit opened this essay.
The evening of March 12 or March 13 was an event that changed everything. For me, the moment will always be about a fleet of abandoned carts, that is how we said “I do” to the effort to stop the virus. The effort didn’t begin that day, but that flurry of activity was the commitment, by so many to do what needed to be done. The events of March 11–13 were not a panic, they were a commitment.