On Oct. 17, 1989, the ground under the city of San Francisco started to move. When the shaking stopped, there was $5 billion worth of damage and 67 people were dead.

That was a natural disaster that was over in 15 seconds.

With the coronavirus, the whole world is in the middle of a natural disaster, only this time the earth will be shaking for months, not seconds. And it will be a long time before we have any idea of what the damage will be.

This is new territory for all of us, and any analogy we can dredge from the past won’t work perfectly.

For one thing, most disasters happen in one specific place, but this one is everywhere. If you want to say that what we are experiencing is as scary as a global earthquake, you have to acknowledge that we are in about second No. 5, with no idea how much longer it will last.

If you want to say that this will have the world-changing impact of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, you’d have to concede that the place we are standing is about 11 o’clock on that Tuesday morning, trying to make sense of the cloud of dust rising from the spot where two buildings used to be.

If you want to compare the economic impact of this crisis to the events of the Great Recession, you need to put yourself around the moment Lehman Brothers collapsed, not the passage of the American Recovery Act a year later.

But having lived through past disasters gives us some idea of what’s going to happen.

Some people are going to die, many others will suffer deeply and almost everyone will have their lives disrupted in some meaningful way.

It’s impossible to see from where we are standing now what will come back as before and what is gone for good. We don’t even know how long our world will keep shaking.

For starters, we don’t know how many people will die, but what we can see from other countries where the virus started first is not encouraging. Even with the social distancing measures that we are taking, we are weeks away from the expected peak in new cases. The rate of increase in the United States is on pace with the rate seen in Italy, where it started spreading earlier.

Italy is now leading the world in COVID-19 deaths, which has been attributed to its slow response and its status as the country with the oldest population in Europe. That should be chilling for people who live in Maine, where we have the oldest population in the country.

According to a chart by the website Vox that uses Johns Hopkins data and tracks the growth of the outbreak after the 100th case – a milestone in community spread – the U.S. outbreak has tracked the rate seen in Italy for the first 14 days. There is no reason to believe that we won’t keep following the same trajectory.

And even if the social distancing efforts underway succeed in managing the growth of new cases to prevent the hospitals from being overwhelmed, as they were in Italy, we won’t be able to stop the damage to the economy.

As we saw from the Great Recession – the only financial catastrophe that most people now living can remember – the economy doesn’t just spring back. Some people will be out of work for months, and some jobs will never return.

After months of ordering takeout and buying online, it’s reasonable to assume that some customers won’t go back to restaurants and retail stores, especially if they too have lost their jobs or part of their income. Will students and office workers find that they can be more productive working from home? What will happen to stock prices and home values? When will we see the bottom?

And we can expect our lives to change in ways big and small. Handshaking may look like risky behavior from here on out. Voting by mail is a good alternative to making people stand in long lines close together where they can breathe on election clerks, who tend to be retirees and particularly vulnerable to viral infection. But that would mean the end of Election Day and a delay in knowing the results of close races.

It has been a remarkable two weeks in America. Coronavirus is shaking our world, and all we really know is that it won’t stop shaking very soon.


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