Pandemic Journal

Drawing of woman with face mask by Tom Bachtell
Drawing by Tom Bachtell

The New York Review is publishing dispatches from around the world documenting the coronavirus outbreak. Read the full series, and listen to writers reading their contributions, at
—The Editors


OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA, March 17—By Thursday afternoon, downtown San Francisco, already void of tourists, had turned ghostlier still.

From behind the glass door of a shuttered Illy café on Battery Street, the Italian manager waved at me, his hand in a blue disposable glove, with an apologetic smile. For days, his parents, quarantined in Florence over the coronavirus epidemic, had been imploring him to stay away from people. It seemed as if they got their wish granted.

I boarded a bus east in the strangely empty Salesforce Transbay Terminal, carrying a couple of hand-sanitizers as a parting gift from my colleagues at the bank where I work—or worked?—as a contract writer, and took the first row of seats, to the right of the driver. I didn’t know when I’d be riding home from work again, and I wanted to get an unobstructed view of San Francisco Bay, obliviously magnificent on this spring day.

The bridge traffic was light. It took us less than ten minutes to get down to the lower span, from where I could see the white Grand Princess cruise ship docked at an Oakland pier, a lonely helicopter hovering above it. “Princess death,” the driver muttered as we pulled off the bridge and began weaving our way toward the Oakland maze. My neighbor’s parents had been on that ship; they were now at Travis military base, awaiting the results of their testing.

I spent the weekend oscillating between “this can’t be real” and asking myself myriad odd questions, such as whether to explain to the kids, at least to the sixteen-year-old one, how to claim our life insurance. I raided the rapidly depleting grocery aisles, picking up things I never thought I’d need, like pinto beans or soap in a twelve pack, all the while feeling the futility of the effort. If growing up in the shortage-ridden Soviet economy taught me anything, it’s that you can’t outsmart malfunctioning lines of supply and demand: you never knew what would disappear next, and even with things you guessed right, you’d eke out your supply as you might, but eventually run out.

The one thing that’s worth stockpiling is decency, that silver lining of our lives back in the USSR, with its near-permanent state of national emergency. Today, in America, where decency has taken a beating over the past four years, it might mean something as straightforward as not buying both of the last two loaves of bread, not forwarding that doomsday chain e-mail, and not going out even if you are healthy.

Tomorrow, our challenges might not be so simple. Since I…

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