During a lull in the flow of copy one day a few decades ago a Wall Street Journal editor challenged his fellow editors to write a headline, in the Journal’s understated style, on the last news story ever, one for which there would actually be no reporters or editors alive to cover it. The whimsical winning headline: “World’s End Changes Many Plans.”
Something about today’s traumatic times brought that ancient bit of drollery to mind. Coronavirus isn’t the end of the world, to be sure, but with no sports on television and many cities turned into ghost towns as scared citizens self-quarantine, this disease feels eerily like the end of the world. The headline could almost be an echo: “Coronavirus Changes Many Plans.”
Does it ever. Out the windows of my Washington, DC, home office, I can see K Street from 25th to 27th. A minute ago, at a normally busy time of day, there wasn’t a single car on K. The only businesses open in the neighborhood are the grocery stores, the pharmacies and the hospital.
And it’s not just Washington. The Atlantic just published an online photo essay of shots of empty streets in 20-plus cities, broad peopleless vistas in places ranging from San Francisco to Orlando, from New Delhi to Paris. The essay was headlined, “The Quiet Emptiness of a World Under Coronavirus.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/…)
Many Americans have already been laid off, especially those in restaurants, retail, travel and other deeply affected industries. By some estimates, the unemployment rate could reach 20%. By way of comparison, during the financial crisis a decade ago it hit 10%. During the Great Depression of the 1930s it peaked at 25%.
Farmers and ranchers are still on the job. Living and working in sparsely populated areas, they are less at risk of being infected. Many of them also have no choice: They must prepare the soil; they must plant; they must feed and care for animals. Or else. As the National Pork Producers put it, “Telecommuting is not an option for us; we are reporting for work as always while taking all necessary precautions to protect our health and the health of those we work with.”
Thank goodness, because Americans are depending on farmers and ranchers to stay healthy and keep producing food. Disease or no disease, everybody has to eat.
What we city folk need to grasp is that the people who feed us have their own coronavirus-related problems. For one, the shutdown of US consulates in foreign countries is complicating life for producers who rely on foreign labor. As DTN’s Chris Clayton reported, the processing of routine visa applications has been halted. If a solution isn’t found, there could be serious farm labor shortages in the near future.
Labor isn’t the only problem. Cattle prices have tanked, and if that wasn’t bad enough cattlemen have to worry about coronavirus closing processing plants. Self-quarantined Americans are driving less and using less gasoline, so ethanol demand is down, which undermines demand for corn. It’s not a pretty picture.
According to the Poynter Report, a daily newsletter for and about the media, veteran NBC reporter Lester Holt says coronavirus is the “biggest story we have ever seen,” bigger even than 9/11. “This affects the entire world,” Holt told Poynter. “Each and every one of us.”
Holt is right. There’s no rural-urban divide on this one. The city and the countryside are affected differently, but we’re all affected, many of us profoundly. Maybe this virus will be the catalyst to depolarize, at least partly, a polarized nation. For if there’s one thing that’s certain about coronavirus, it’s that we are all in this together.
Former longtime Wall Street Journal Asia correspondent and editor Urban Lehner is editor emeritus of DTN/The Progressive Farmer. This article, originally published March 20 by the latter news organization and now republished by Asia Times with permission, is © Copyright 2020 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved.