Bradley Mattes, associate nurse leader at Central Maine Medical Center, questions patients at the emergency entrance to the hospital, Friday, March 13, 2020, in Lewiston, Maine. "I refer to myself as the Walmart greeter of nurses," said Mattes, who questions patients to determine if their symptoms indicate the need for testing for the coronavirus or other medical attention. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

I had planned to write about Woody Allen.

Hachette Book Group had agreed to publish the renowned filmmaker’s memoir but changed its mind after dozens of employees walked out in a protest based on the allegation that Allen molested his 7-year-old stepdaughter in 1992.

This seemed interesting and important because it involves fundamental issues such as freedom of expression and the basic assumption of innocence that lies at the heart of our justice system.

It seemed important until last Wednesday, that is, when our nation experienced a rapid psychological shift in its attitude toward the coronavirus. President Donald Trump made a nine-minute speech to the nation admitting at last the seriousness of the pandemic and announcing stunningly drastic measures in response: All travel and trade with Europe would end by Friday at midnight. As it turned out, the president’s statements were inaccurate, and the next day his aides had to correct them.

But the point was clear: Suddenly, the pandemic became very serious; everything else, including Woody Allen, pales in comparison. If we needed more convincing, it came as commentators were just beginning their analysis of the president’s speech: The National Basketball Association postponed its season, and Tom Hanks and his wife both tested positive for the coronavirus.

And the nation suddenly began to respond seriously, as well. School districts and universities were closed. Events large and small were postponed or canceled. People stopped shaking hands and began to buy up hand sanitizer.

Of course, all this could be an overreaction. The virus may fizzle, and by fall we could be back to playing football as usual. By October the most popular Halloween costume could be the coronavirus.

On the other hand, in our good fortune, we may have lost touch with just how wrong the world can go. It’s easy to forget that most of human history has been characterized more by hunger, disease, privation, suffering and war than by our comparative comfort.

My mother was born in 1912 and thus was old enough to have vague childhood memories of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which killed up to 50 million people. Her immediate family escaped infection, but she remembers her parents going to the assistance of other relatives and members of their small east Texas community.

But I don’t think my mother’s generation was particularly impressed by the Spanish flu. They were already used to members of their community dying prematurely from typhoid, diphtheria, polio, yellow fever and other infections that are easily treatable today. They had just finished a world war. In a few years they would experience the Great Depression and another world war.

This familiarity with catastrophe and near-catastrophe may have engendered a healthy stoicism in that generation, as well as a realistic understanding of what it has meant to be a human being for most of our history. We could learn from them.

On the evening of Trump’s declaration of a national emergency, I relaxed in a lawn chair on my driveway with the help of an adult beverage. A neighbor wandered over in the gathering dusk. I warned her to keep her distance, and she took it with good humor.

She expressed concern for her army physician husband, who cannot work from home. In a few minutes another neighbor strolled over, and then another. A couple stopped their dog-walk long enough to join in. Some had been to the local grocery store and reported that the aisles were jammed and the shelves were empty. But it appears that among us we have plenty of toilet paper, and I sensed a willingness to share.

I suspect that similar scenes are occurring across the nation, six or seven neighbors, standing five or six feet apart, no shaking hands, no touching.

But also no panic. And I sensed a calm resignation and resolve to face whatever comes. Since Trump’s election, our country has been trying to figure out exactly who we are. How we react to the coronavirus will provide significant insight into that question.

John M. Crisp is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service who lives in Georgetown, Texas.