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Shocking the National Heartbeat

I remember the first time I heard it — or saw it rather. It was during the Gulf War in 1991 and SCUD missiles were being launched into Israel, putting Israeli citizens on high alert. The television news was showing a family hunkered down with all their survival gear; the adrenaline radiated through the screen. And when the newscaster announced another incoming SCUD, live as it was happening, a little moving ticker appeared out of nowhere in the chyron strip at the bottom of the screen. It reminded me of an EKG, only it was an instantaneous display of the stock market’s fluctuations — the national heartbeat — synced up with the drumbeat of the Gulf War.

It stunned me that the “health” of our nation’s stock market was somehow as important as the well-being of people fearing for their lives. But over the years I’ve grown accustomed to seeing our economic indicators tied to other historic events. I’d notice the ticker whenever our national stability was threatened — during moments “small” as the Waco, Texas siege, and as momentous as 9/11.

Although I stopped watching most television news a while ago (news as entertainment and negative sensationalism doesn’t offer me much), I still hear the national heartbeat: on the radio, in podcasts, and in everyday conversations. What’s funny-not-funny is that in the past few weeks the stock market “heart monitor” is showing our collective “viral volatility” in ways we’ve never seen before, due to our tight interconnectivity. Announcements about Covid-19 are followed by plunging stock indices. As the movement towards self-isolation and social distancing sink in, “things that people will need” sets off a feeding frenzy at grocery stores while the news highlights the soaring prices of grocery company stocks.

An Irregular Heartbeat

Also funny-not-funny is that even without the close monitoring, over the past few years I’ve seen signs of “arrhythmia.” Something’s been off for a while. And as abnormal news becomes normalized, the signals become harder for me to ignore. Whenever I notice it, my personal emotion-meter gets confused on where to land the needle — somewhere between judgmental disgust and collective national shame. It appears as social media commentary in my feed or pops up in conversations:

  1. The US withdraws from The Paris Climate Agreement as the EPA is gutted and environmental regulations are rolled back: “My portfolio is doing great, though.”

  2. Families are being separated and kids held in cages: “Yeah, that’s not good, but you can’t complain about your 401(k), can you?”

  3. And then there’s a president who insists that everything is humming along nicely by sharing an autographed screenshot of this “heartbeat” as proof of our national “health.”

Yet now, as we face one of the biggest tests in our country’s (and our world’s) history, we need to monitor our health as a nation — literally — and we don’t know how to do it. What we DO know is what science tells us: social distancing and self-isolating is our best means of surviving minimally scathed. How ironic that this necessary strategy will put our familiar economic health indicator into something akin to severe heart failure, with small businesses and a vast portion of our economy facing an uncertain prognosis.

But instead of freaking out in anticipation of the worst, I see a rare opportunity here.

As we go into our collective “cave” in the coming weeks, entering anxious uncharted territory, let’s embrace the unknown with hope. Perhaps this period can result in a grand reckoning, at least for a critical mass of us. After all, this trial is revealing the truth that we are a fragile interconnection of people reliant on each other. The wealthiest among us won’t be able to buy their way into survival when doctors and healthcare workers are maxed out and under-equipped. And as the lowest-on-the-rung workers get sick, we will quickly learn how dependent we are on those who grow our food, for example.