Watchin’ the end of the world on TV

I grew up watching television, and have had a TV in my home for my entire life. My childhood was filled with cartoons, bloodless westerns and Walter Cronkite soberly delivering the CBS Evening News. Everything about television has changed, of course; today TV is a globalized content delivery system increasingly integrated into a digitized communications network. Twenty-four hour news broadcasting is now normal, and what’s happened halfway around the globe is presented as quickly as if it happened across town.

The Corona Virus pandemic is now the leading story, almost the only story, in the 24-hour news cycle. Yet, I’ve watched so many dramas and documentaries over the years that all this coverage feels unreal, like I’m watching just another apocalyptic mini-series. A part of me knows that this pandemic is all too real, while another part of me feels like Rachel Maddow and the other talking heads are just continuing to read their scripts. Frequent commercials aren’t helping.

None of us knows where things are headed, but when the media begins talking about “herd immunity” you know projections of illness are getting bad. Herd immunity is a statistical view of humanity, the calculation of how many human beings will survive being infected with the Corona Virus. Like all statistics, the particulars about victims get lost, and those that succumb are assigned a number, dutifully tracked and reported by the CDC. Names and faces are too numerous to mention, and it’s left to friends and families to mourn in silent isolation.

I find myself wishing I were watching a different show, and to be honest, switching from the news to a stupid movie on Netflicks happens. That distracts me for a while, but the pandemic is actual Reality TV, not the phony Reality TV about housewives in Atlanta cheating on their husbands, but real reality. Donald Trump is trying to turn all this into his new Reality TV show, and I constantly have the uncomfortable feeling he’s stuck in his own bad script, particularly when he contradicts Anthony Fauci, the well-respected head of CDC.

If things get terrible — infections spreading like wildfire, hospitals overwhelmed, people dying all around us — for the first time in history we will be treated to watching the end of the world on TV. When I say “the end of the world” I really mean the end of the world as we’ve known it for the last 70 years. Herd immunity means many people will survive, but the social, economic, and cultural life of the world is going to undergo a fundamental change, and that’s true for America as well.

The depression that began in 1929 didn’t really end until the outbreak of World War Two, when ramping up the defense industry spurred America’s factories into action. If this pandemic leads to a depression, it may well take a decade or more for things to recover. How America will look after this event is pure speculation, and it’s too early to tell just how far down the rabbit hole we’ll fall.

In 1971, Gil Scott Heron famously sang, “The revolution will not be televised.” The same cannot be said about the end of the world; the whole story will be told on TV. A decade from now, after the pain has passed, it will likely be a mini-series.

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