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A deep craving for 'normalcy' goes up against the reality of Covid-19's deadly risk

Editor's Note: (Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of "Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics." She hosts the history podcast "Past Present" and created the podcast "A12." The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN. )

(CNN) On Wednesday, several thousand mostly-conservative activists surrounded the State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, to protest the governor's coronavirus lockdown orders.

Nicole Hemmer

That same day, CNN reported that, in just one month's time, 30,000 people in the U.S. had died from the virus.

Those two stories — one of people demanding a return to normal, the other of a harrowing body count that shows how far away normal remains — are a national snapshot of the struggle many Americans are having on a very personal level: a deep craving for a return to our old lives and a rational fear that old habits are now life-threatening risks.

It's the cognitive dissonance of Covid-19, created not just by a set of personal desires but by a set of conflicting messages from public health officials and politicians across the country. And while some of the conflict does reflect willful misinformation and political maneuvering — including, most dangerously, from the White House — much of it comes from something Americans as a whole have not faced in generations: ongoing, life-threatening uncertainty.

Not everything is unknown, of course. Pandemics are not new and epidemiologists have provided us with countless models, regularly updated, to suggest where we might end up. Even as they change, the models serve as lifelines: something we can grasp onto, that give us some sense of security and groundedness, even while we're still at sea. But they're easy to turn into talismans as well. If I can just find the right model, if I can seize on scientific certainty, then I'll be safe. It's why so many of us compulsively look at numbers, hoping to grasp the crisis with a specificity that makes it knowable, and therefore controllable.

And one day we will know much more. More about how the infection spread, how many have died, how much immunity is conferred on those who have and recover from it, how best to treat the symptoms we still don't entirely understand. Covid-19 will be understood and almost certainly controlled, eventually.

One way of controlling it, by slowing its spread, has already been successful in some parts of the country — at least for now. Even here in New York, the hardest-hit state, nearly a month of sheltering in place has led daily hospitalizations and deaths to begin to dip. At a briefing earlier this week, Governor Andrew Cuomo reassured New Yorkers, "I believe the worst is over if we continue to be smart." He added, "I believe we can start on the path to normalcy."

Comforting words. But for historians, the word "normalcy" carries a note of false promise. In 1920, it was Warren Harding's pledge: a return to normalcy. The world had passed through a period of turmoil that outstrips even our moment. The devastation of World War I, the first global industrialized war, combined with a flu pandemic that took millions of additional lives. The president had become incapacitated by a series of strokes; the nation had been rattled by a series of strikes and fears of revolution (anarchist or socialist, take your pick).

Normalcy, for many Americans, sounded pretty great. But it never arrived. US culture and politics had been fundamentally remade. Women secured recognition of their right to vote, a new wave of racist violence churned through the country, the consumer economy took off, the U.S. emerged as one of the most powerful nations in the world. Whatever life had looked like in 1910, it would never look that way again.

Now, too, normalcy is unlikely to return. The two major national crises of my lifetime — the September 11 terror attacks and the 2008 financial collapse — have now become a casual metric for gauging the devastation of this pandemic: a 9/11-level death toll every day, a Great Recession-level leap in unemployment each week. Think how those events changed our laws, our language, our habits. Covid-19 is doing so much more: rewriting our lives on a granular level, from the ways we work and play to how we dream and talk and touch.

In the past month, I've thought a lot about historical parallels to this moment. One that I keep coming back to is not 1918 but 1945, when the US unleashed the first nuclear weapon, creating for the first time a technology that could end all human life. That new technology shattered many Americans' optimistic faith in progress, a belief that the future would always be better than the past.

In 1946, poet Hermann Hagedorn called that change "the bomb that fell on America." He wrote that the bomb "dissolved something vitally important ... their links with the past and the future. It made the earth, that seemed so solid, Main Street, that seemed so well-paved, a kind of vast jelly, quivering and dividing underfoot."

That jelly-like uncertainty has returned with the pandemic, leaving us with a longing to return to normal and a painful awareness that our old normal no longer exists. Most of us are experiencing some range of denial, shock and grief. And while public officials can offer us information and solace — two things we desperately need — they cannot give us answers for what our new world will look like, because it is a world we have not yet made.

That's why right now we need two kinds of leadership: expert-driven, science-based information to keep us safe, and creative, honest and radical political thinking to help make what we create something better than what we have left behind.