Gripped by a universal anxiety of a sort unknown since the capitulation of France and the specter of a fully Nazified United States of Europe, citizens will be told that they will have to stay home, that anyone is a potential vector, that they should prepare to "shelter in place" as if what is coming is not an invisible microbe but a hurricane, or the fallout from a nuclear blast.
And, oh, add the authorities, almost as an afterthought: you should probably have enough groceries to last for at least a couple of weeks.
Confronted by the stark reality of their powerlessness to do anything else and primed by a lifetime of consumerism into thinking the answer to the existential dread at the core of their being is to buy more stuff, Americans, along with everyone else on Earth with the means to do so, will go shopping.
They will buy things that make sense, like pasta, and things that do not, like adult onesies. Millions will read and for the first time take the advice of preppers, a subculture of survivalists whose well-stocked underground bunkers, remote "bug-out" cabins, and belief in the imminent collapse of civilization bring their paranoia into vogue every time it seems the thin veneer of civilization will crack open to reveal the Hobbesian reality coursing just beneath its surface.
There will be a run on beans and eggs and milk. Hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes will become so valuable that black markets for them arise overnight, penetrating the national consciousness as pandemic profiteers gouge the quavering masses on Amazon, only to be shut down by a strongly worded edict from its jacked and newly divorced CEO, Jeff Bezos. Later, there will be runs on other items, like desks and web cameras and laptops, as members of the professional-managerial class are forced to work from home while their children, whose heretofore overstuffed lives mean they cannot possibly be left to their own devices, learn from teachers on the other side of Google Classroom conferences and Zoom calls.
As the first week of quarantine gives way to the second and third, diapers, tampons, flour, bread yeast, and any number of other items people either need or think they do will run out. In mid-March, Amazon will announce it will stop accepting all "nonessential" items from third-party sellers in its warehouses and focus solely on acquiring and distributing the items most essential to everyday life, like food and personal-health products. Within a year, the company will have increased its frontline workforce by half, pushing it past the million-employee mark.
Amazon's vaunted promise to consumers, made only the summer before, that something like 10 million different items would be at their doorstep within one day will break down completely. The moment when an email or push alert from the company cheerfully announcing an order is "Arriving Today" begins to slip further into the future. Delivery dates for Prime-eligible items push out to a week, then a month, then snap back to as few as two days for items deemed essential, as the colossal supply chains of the world's biggest e-commerce company stretch, convulse, and are re-formed by drastic and emergency measures.
Then things get worse.
The same supply chains that could not provide everyday consumer goods will prove equally incapable of delivering enough medical supplies to protect the frontline health-care workers who are now tasked with attending to a tidal wave of Covid-19 patients, their numbers eclipsing all efforts to test, trace, and lock down what is by now a pandemic beyond all means of conventional public health response. Some patients, it will later be revealed, are shedding virus at a rate far higher than those infected with comparable pathogens, their every breath a fountain of aerosolized infectious agents. Every one of them is both a biohazard in need of complete isolation, and all the tools and material that requires, and a human being in a state of wide-eyed, animal panic who might need sedation, intubation, and life-saving care.
In the country that invented the N95 mask, the only way to get them will be from shady third parties who bid their price to the highest possible level, in a system set up by a president who spends months downplaying the potential impact of the virus and then leaves all fifty states to battle one another for critical supplies.
In what will be compared, over and over again, with previous wartime mobilizations, American automobile manufacturers who once built 4-million-square-foot factories to churn out bombers to level the cities of the Axis powers remember their old reflexes. Partnering with health-care companies, Ford and GM will shift their factories to the construction of ventilators. Meanwhile, shoe manufacturers will pivot to making masks. Then everyone will pivot to making masks, first in America's factories and then in their own homes, from patterns downloaded from the internet and YouTube videos and tutorials in the editorial pages of the country's most read newspapers.
Still, it will not be enough to stop the virus.
As nonessential businesses remain shuttered and those that remain open begin limiting how many people can enter at any one time, long lines will form outside America's big-box meccas, turning trips to the grocery store into masked, socially distanced processions in which everyone eyes one another solemnly, knowing that nothing will ever be quite the same again.