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 nybooks.com/pandemic.
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 started writing this, a shelter-in-place order for six Bay Area counties, including mine, has been issued. Decency won’t save us, but it will make our altered lives more tolerable, come what may.
PARIS, FRANCE, March 17—Today was the first day of the lockdown in Paris, or as the French call it, le confinement. From today on, and until further notice, anyone outside must carry with them an official document called Attestation de Déplacement Dérogatoire, duly filled out and signed, asserting the explicit reason for any excursion. A safe conduct, like in a war zone.
The lockdown was to start at noon, and so, with a few minutes to spare, I decided to hurry out to the boulangerie across the street, one last time.
The glass door was now kept open. There were big blue crosses on the floor—made with duct tape—leading up to the counter. I walked in and stepped on my blue cross and thought that the bakery itself was a kind of theater stage, and we clients, well distanced from each other, were the actors hitting our marks.
I ordered a baguette and a pain au chocolat for my son and said to the lady that I’d miss coming there every morning for the duration of the lockdown. She scoffed loudly and said that of course they would remain open throughout, and at regular hours.
Walking out, taking care not to accidentally touch anybody still standing on their blue cross, I realized that all else in Paris could fail, all else could collapse and close, all pharmacies could run out of hand-sanitizers and masks and even medicines—but there would always be a baker making bread at four in the morning, and there would still be Parisians walking around with a fresh baguette tucked under their arm, the end chewed off, a safe conduct in their pocket.
MADRID, SPAIN, March 18—We’re now on the fifth day of our confinement. This is a watershed: five days is the average for symptoms of coronavirus to appear after an infection. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s a reassurance in an almost superstitious way, one you can cling to. Since the Spanish government ordered the whole country to lock ourselves up in our homes for—in principle—two weeks, this has been in the back of many minds, and certainly mine: What if we are already infected?
Our family is three at home: my wife, my four-year-old Martín, and me. We have enough food to go for two weeks. We’re okay.
I’ve been a war reporter, so I’m no stranger to curfews or dangers. But I had never experienced anything like this: a simultaneous curfew of a whole country—perhaps, soon the whole planet—and a danger that is minute and invisible. In war, fear is noisy. Here, it takes the shape of an eerie silence.
I’m concerned, not scared, and yet I’m being pedantically strict with my precautions for fear of being guilty of causing someone else’s infection. Epidemics are also special in this: they threaten not only your life but your conscience, too. That’s why I venture outside only to throw out the garbage.
Yesterday, on my way out, I stumbled upon a neighbor, a girl I don’t know. We both stopped at a distance to figure out how to pass each other while keeping the recommended six-foot distance, but we did it so clumsily that we actually touched one another. Would that be the contact to do it? Nonsense, I told myself later in bed, trying to sleep. I touched my wife’s body under the blanket and it felt warm. Too warm? Then I fell asleep.
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL, March 18—On Monday, the second day of a countrywide closure in Israel, I took my children to the Tel Aviv beach, thinking: “There. Not so bad.” As I opened my laptop to write, I was even a little smug, noticing the empty roads, the Yom Kippur–like stillness. Maybe it will teach us to slow down.
Then, moments ago, the Israeli Health Ministry released urgent new orders. Public parks are from now on forbidden. So are beaches and nature reserves—forget about museums or cafés, which have been closed for several days. Walks are to be limited to ten minutes at a time: one parent and one child only. There are to be no playdates. No congregations of more than ten people. No medical services except for emergencies. A world the size of our living room.
“Is there kindergarten today?” my son asked this morning, bleary-eyed, at 6:10. I told him there wasn’t. “Oh.” He thought for a moment. “We’re changing prime ministers today?” Call it the result of three election cycles in a year. What do you tell a boy who is beginning to grasp that his life is dictated by colossal failures outside of his control?
His sister, at eighteen months, has taken to scolding me (“nu, nu, nu!”) whenever I touch my face—which, I’ve come to realize, I do obscenely often. Where did she pick that up? What else is taking shape in their young consciousness? Will they be the “corona generation,” much as those who came of age during the Great Depression still stuff bills under the mattress?
News broadcasts here are filled with the schedules of people who have tested positive for the virus. It’s a surreal sight: doomsday anchors reading out the trivialities of a person’s day. 8:30 AM: ATM on Yehuda Maccabi Street. 9:50 AM: Shufersal (a popular supermarket chain) in Yahud. 12:30 PM: Zion falafel joint.
The pandemic feels both futuristic and biblical, eschatological and utterly banal. Some friends are using the time to potty-train their kid or go through the entire Netflix documentary catalog.
I saw a picture from a NASA satellite the other day. It showed an aerial view of China, without its cauliflower of pollution. The skies were blue again. Now there’s something to look forward to.
CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA, March 19—By the time our housekeeper, Daisy Nyathi (not her real name), walked into my home on Tuesday morning, she had been in close personal contact with a hundred people already. These included: the husband and toddler she shares her room with; the ten other people who are tenants in her rent-by-the-room township house; the women and kids at her daughter’s creche; the dozen people who crowded around her in the long line for a minibus taxi to town and the thirty people jammed into the taxi; the same again on a second taxi ride to my suburb. The previous night, President Cyril Ramaphosa had announced a prohibition of gatherings larger than one hundred.
There’s a notion that’s taken hold in the townships that Covid-19 is a “rich man’s disease.” This has created an odd inversion of the ideas about poverty and disease that pertained under apartheid, when the state used the canard of “slum clearance” to move black people out of the city and create the segregation that still makes it so difficult for someone like Daisy to get to work.
In China, social distancing is compulsory, but the nature of South African society is such that no one is going to be able to enforce the social distancing rules, unless we do it ourselves. And so we will need to exercise a vaunted South African value: ubuntu, “I am because you are.” Daisy will not come into work, but still get paid, until things are clearer.
SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS, March 20—Today they began checking our temperatures on the way into the hospital. Two women in scrubs and masks stand at the entrance to the skybridge that connects the employee parking garage to the hospital, brandishing forehead thermometers. “97.2,” one tells me. My temperatures have been running a little lower than average, because I’m pregnant.
It is Texas, and we’re civil, so I thank the screeners for their work and one says, “Oh my gosh, thank Y’ALL!” and the other asks if she can touch my belly before she puts the sticker on my hospital badge indicating that I’ve been screened today. I have just begun to feel my son kicking, but you can’t feel the kicks from outside. Even so, the lady smiles when she touches my body.
“Your first?” she asks. “My first,” I say. We both use hand-sanitizer before I move off down the skybridge, pulling my white coat on. At one time, I imagined that I would hate being touched like that, or stared at, but now I am glad for the moments of joy that spark off around my pregnancy. The pandemic is mounting, and we doctors who practice in the cities that have been spared so far imagine that our days of ease are numbered. San Antonio is warm and humid and sprawling, but it is not isolated; the new coronavirus will come for us, too.
Even so, it’s a relief to be inside the hospital, where everyone knows what to do with themselves. The nurses on the pediatrics ward still argue with my residents over which baby needs an IV placed; the pediatric gastroenterologist leads his gaggle of learners, reduced by two since the medical students have been sent home. Infants with jaundice lounge under blue lights, while in other rooms toddlers shiver from flu. The normality on the pediatrics ward has a summer-camp feeling, as if the sky will break open soon. Soon we may be pressed into other kinds of service—adult medicine, or ICU medicine, or whatever is most needful. I may be sent home for being pregnant; I may be called back. By most estimates, the fatalities will have peaked by July, when my son is due to be born. I will deliver at this hospital, the one that is familiar to me, and the pediatrician who cares for my son in his first days of life will be a friend.
But for all my friends in medicine, especially those in the ICU and adult medical wards, how much suffering lies between us and July? Every hospital has ghostly places, rooms where the dead kids gather to sing from empty beds. I yield little ghosts their swaths of air, but I do not want their song to swell into the hallways, to slip past the lips of my friends and fill their lungs with noise. I want us to all survive through summer, though I know that is probably a silly wish, one any child would make.
LONDON, ENGLAND, March 20—“One doesn’t normally take seriously what Boris Johnson says, but on this occasion there may be something in it,” my friend wrote earlier this week, canceling a party for his seventy-fifth birthday. Those of us above seventy are all self-isolators now. Johnson has told us we can expect to “lose loved ones,” the loved ones in question being mainly our elderly selves and people with—a now familiar phrase—“underlying health conditions.” He doesn’t say, “Some of you are going to die soon,” presumably because it sounds too frightening and medieval, like Death in The Seventh Seal. I have to admit that Johnson doesn’t look too good himself. Frankly, he looks scared and out of his depth. Being prime minister wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was meant to be a kingly occupation in which he could forever exercise his irony and good cheer and make his subjects laugh.
Inevitably, the spirit of the London Blitz has been invoked. On a recent news show, an American professor spoke generously when he said the stoicism that flourished in wartime Britain would surely see us through a pandemic. Americans, of course, were the audience for which the Blitz spirit was bottled and labeled. Humphrey Jennings’s brilliant ten-minute documentary London Can Take It! made the leading contribution, with its portrayal of ordinary people coping with terrors of aerial bombing in the autumn of 1940—old people sleeping in air-raid shelters, commuters picking their way through the rubble, scenes that were prefaced by the tell-it-like-it-is voice of the American broadcaster Quentin Reynolds: “I have watched the people of London live and die…. I can assure you, there is no panic, no fear, no despair in London town.” The US had yet to enter the war. The film was finished in ten days and swiftly dispatched across the Atlantic, where a private screening was arranged for FDR. In the estimate of Jennings’s biographer, Kevin Jackson, it remains “one of the few films that have played some small part in changing the course of history.”
London wasn’t quite as heroic as the film suggested. Londoners were scared: Why on earth wouldn’t they be during a bombing campaign that killed 20,000 of them in the space of eight months? But it isn’t hard to believe that there was then a greater sense of public order and personal restraint—behavior that seems to have receded in the eighty years since. Panic-buying over the last week has emptied the shelves of British supermarkets for no good reason (there is as much food as ever), prompting squabbles in the aisles and the introduction of special opening hours reserved for the old and less fit.
A puzzle in all this is the mania for toilet-paper rolls, purchased in bulk, not by large hotels and prisons, but by people who look as though they live like the rest of us—in one house with, at most, two lavatories. Pictures show supermarket trolleys heaped high with them; disappointed customers complained that they couldn’t be had “for love nor money.”
It may be that some folk memory of an intimate difficulty has been awoken: the great toilet-paper shortage of 1944. It was severe enough to be raised as a question in the House of Commons, and for out-of-date office files to be commandeered as a substitute. A Surrey housewife said that she “loathed the indignity of entering a public lavatory and being asked whether I needed paper. I always tried not to need it and so appear mutinous.”
Many shortages persisted, and in several cases worsened, in the years after the war, but toilet paper was not among them. I grew up in a well-provisioned household, unlike my wife, who remembers pages of the Newcastle Evening Chronicle hung from a nail. We talked about this the other night: the reveries of self-isolation.
GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA, March 21—This is the seventh day of our self-sequestering in Florida. Our antique neighborhood, normally swarmed with children on bikes and on foot, has gone eerily still. From the porch, thick with pollen, we hail our neighbors walking their dogs, and shout about catastrophe.
I find I have to run very early in the morning to avoid the crowds of blithe young people who cluster on the grass in the parks, exposing their flesh to the sun. I am not their mother, so I don’t yell at them to protect themselves the way I want to. At the same time, I find myself sympathetic; we are all dreading the heat that we can feel gathering itself, about to crash down in a week or so. Too soon we will be forced to estivate, to draw the shades against the sun searing through the windows and live our days in gloom; we will go out only when it’s cool, in the early morning or after sunset. Pandemic claustrophobia will arrive.
My normal life is the life of a shut-in, as a writer with no other job, and for me this time has been disconcertingly social. One of the concessions my husband granted in exchange for making me live in Florida is that I can go straight to my work in the morning without having to deal with, hear, or even set eyes on my children. Now that they are away from school, I find myself with company all day, scrambling to keep my boys busy. I have been leading a daily writing workshop on Google Hangouts for the neighborhood kids. I wake every morning to an e-mail by a group of beloved writers, each taking turns sending poems they have recorded in their own voices, to keep morale up. Different clusters of friends have daily cocktail hours online. I’m reading Don Quixote in a book club with two brilliant novelists. Perhaps I am over-sating myself, in fear of loss.
Some people have imaginations sparked only by what they can see; I blame this blinkered empiricism for the parks overwhelmed with people, the bars, until a few nights ago, thickly thronged. My imagination is the opposite. I fear everything invisible to me. From the enclosure of my house, I am afraid of the suffering that isn’t present before me, the people running out of money and food or drowning in the fluid in their lungs, the deaths of health care workers now growing ill while performing their duties. I fear the federal government, which the right wing has so—intentionally—weakened that not only is it insufficient to help its people, it is actively standing in help’s way. I fear we won’t sufficiently punish the right. I fear leaving the house and spreading the disease. I fear what this time of fear is doing to my children, their imaginations, and their souls.
LALIBELA, ETHIOPIA, March 21—I came to Ethiopia for book research that has to do with displacement and Eden, and tracing our beginnings as humans. How could I have known that the trip I had meticulously planned for months would be so ill-timed, that the world would be so anxious about endings? The day I landed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia confirmed its first case of coronavirus.
At a paleontological site, I stood over the place where researchers had found the fossils of a 4.2-million-year-old Australopithecus, who preceded Lucy by a million years. I moved on to the nearby fossil field of Homo sapiens remains dating back 160,000 years, where passing camel herders draped their arms over their Kalashnikovs and asked news of the coronavirus. So did the women in the nearest village, where I overnighted in a reed hut.
I drove northward, past posters warning in Amharic against the perils of illegal migration. When I stopped for the night at a roadside hotel, there was no Internet, and the bellhop explained that it had been turned off to contain coronavirus rumors.
The disease is spreading quickly; panic spreads quicker. The government has confirmed more Covid-19 cases, and the US embassy in Addis has posted a security alert: foreigners in Ethiopia have been violently attacked because they are believed to spread coronavirus. I drive through towns where health workers are demonstrating hand-washing techniques to passers-by at busy intersections. All schools have closed for fifty days.
In Lalibela, where a twelfth-century Ethiopian king hewed churches out of mountains, twelve pilgrims died this week in a bus accident, and I arrive in a town flooded by thousands of mourners in white. My worries feel petty.
I hike up to Asheten St. Mariam, a monastery carved into the face of a cliff, 13,000 feet above sea level. The monastery church is older than the Black Death, older than the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima. I think of the entire history of human strife and how we navigate the frightening and the unknown. I think of how I will get back home, but the concept of “back” feels vertiginously spectral.
DUBLIN, IRELAND, March 22—The day Donald Trump addressed the nation about Covid-19, I was in the middle of a book tour (the show must go on!) in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I’d made the decision to travel from Ireland when there were six reported cases of the illness in New York State, and the odds seemed good to me.
After my reading, I went back to the hotel and wasn’t bothered watching Trump, so it was forty long minutes before I realized that he had switched from denial to what seemed, to me, to be an arbitrary act of xenophobia: he had just banned all travel from Europe to the United States. I picked up my European passport, went down to the bar and ordered a glass of wine and looked up flights to Ireland on my laptop, with one ear on the TV screen and another on the three people sitting near me on high stools. A local couple and a lone female traveler; they had been brought together by the immediacy of the subject.
Their conversation now seems to belong not just to another time but to another model of the world—one in which, among other things, people thought their opinions mattered. I deal in words for a living, but I have had difficulty forming them, since that moment, whether to describe or analyze. I don’t really understand them anymore. I understand touch, breath, contact. I understand plane tickets—I booked one as the price rose under me, the morning after Trump’s address. I took a car toward Cambridge and turned left for Logan airport. I understand the word “home.”
I had considered the numbers, as though they were real and meant something—I forgot you have to collect them first. The US was not testing people, because America values private medicine over communal health. That is why the numbers were low, because Trump said, “I like the numbers being where they are.” I don’t even have the wherewithal to feel stupid about all this. I cannot find a tone.
ROME, ITALY, March 23—Today is Day Fourteen of the first lockdown imposed in peacetime in a Western democracy. On Day One of the lockdown, the first thing I noticed was a totally new urban soundtrack. The nearby Lungotevere Farnesina that flanks the Tiber River is normally a chaotic, screeching rumble of cars, buses, and motorcycles. It’s now on mute. From my rooftop, all I hear are chirping birds. My next-door neighbor has disappeared. I know this only because I no longer hear her dog barking. I wonder, has she fled to the countryside, perhaps to relive a contemporary version of The Decameron?
Some of the strangest sights are Rome’s great Baroque squares: Piazza Navona and Piazza del Popolo are vast expanses of emptiness. I heard Rome described this way: it’s as if a neutron bomb had exploded.
I venture out of quarantine to buy groceries. I’ve noticed I have a new way of interacting with the rare stranger walking toward me on the sidewalk. I find myself gyrating very slowly to signal my intention to cross the street to walk on the other side. My movements remind me of Tai Chi, or do I resemble an Egyptian hieroglyphic as I stick close the walls?
Homebound, Italians have found novel ways to exorcise the Corona Demon: one day, at noon, they went to their windows and broke out in nationwide cheering and clapping for medical workers who are risking their lives and dying from infection on the Covid-19 battlefield. A new ritual is the social-distanced flash mobs that occur at 6 PM, in which people go to their windows, balconies, or roofs and break out in song: opera, pop, even the national anthem. Perhaps that’s another way to drown out the other new ritual, the grimmest: the six o’clock televised press conference at which the Civil Protection Agency chief announces the latest number of Covid-19 cases and the day’s body count.
KESWICK, ENGLAND, March 23—A quick note from the fells. As I write, a camper van is grinding its gears going up the steep pass behind me. My family come from Cumbria and we have a house at the top of Borrowdale. It’s in a hamlet, with a farm, an old house that does bed and breakfast, and two rows of cottages, most of them holiday lets.
The few permanent, or semi-permanent, residents all gossip on doorsteps or over fences. Two days ago, the chat was about the quiet: we miss the children in hard hats and waterproofs going to scramble up the waterfalls in the gorge. The hotels and bed and breakfasts are closed, so one neighbor was worrying when the forms would come to ensure pay for the workers laid off. In the nursery field, the brown-and-white Jacob’s sheep already have triplets: the Swaledales are due in early April, and the black Herdwick lambs, the hardy mountain sheep, a couple of weeks later. While he waits, the young farmer opposite us was putting up yurts and mending paths in the campsite, but acknowledging that would have to close, too.
But now the quiet has gone. Far from staying at home, people are fleeing to the country. Hotels may be empty, but holiday cottages are filling up, camper vans are parking overnight down the road, and there are queues at the chip shop in Keswick. The National Trust, the biggest landowner in the valley, has closed stately homes and restaurants elsewhere, but they have left the car parks here open, and they are full.
So much for avoiding crowds and public spaces. We are not alone. In Southwold, on the Suffolk coast, the town’s population has reportedly doubled. In Cornwall, the authorities have begged people not to go to second homes as the county can’t cater for them all when coronavirus hits. In Scotland, camper vans and caravans are streaming north, as people plan to self-isolate in the Highlands, and the ferries to the Hebrides have been busy. On Sunday, March 22, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, announced that holiday lets must close, and the ferries would only carry people who actually lived on the islands, noting dryly, “You can’t outrun a virus.”
And our own fells? On the infection map of Britain, far from being a refuge, Cumbria is now marked in red, in the top twenty hot spots for infection. But hey, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, a local builder is pointing a wall, and there are primroses in the wood. I know it’s wrong, but I can understand why people want to be here. Including me.
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK, March 23—I keep a diary. Normally it’s just a quickly scrawled list of books and films and the names of people I meet. Looking back at my online activity I see that I’d been concerned enough to order a pack of N95 masks on January 24, but the first time I thought the virus worth mentioning in the diary was almost a month later, on February 22. New York University, where I teach, closed its Florence campus. I wrote “Coronavirus suddenly on everyone’s minds.” That’s it. By the following week, it had crowded out everything else.
I began writing about the strangeness of trying to prepare for something completely invisible, a threat that government officials were saying was not a threat. On March 5, I did a bookstore event with the Japanese novelist Yoko Tawada. Afterward I got talking to a young doctor, who looked casually around at the people lining up to have books signed and said (aware, I’m sure, of the effect her words were having) that she estimated at least three people in the room were carrying the virus. It seemed abstract, unreal. On March 7 my wife and I went to a dinner party, where we felt awkward for refusing to hug people. March 9 was the last time we ate dinner in a restaurant.
The rapid disintegration of all social and economic life has exposed the terrible fragility of the American system. How does a society that privatizes risk cope with a public health crisis? How can it ask for social solidarity when it demonizes every expression of it as “socialism”? Suddenly we are all socialists, even Mitt Romney, trying to reinvent community as we self-isolate in our apartments.
TOKYO, JAPAN, March 23—Spring is here in Tokyo, and so are the cherry blossoms. Yesterday, I wore a bright blue silk scarf that looked even brighter under the spring sun and took a train to Kichijoji, where my sister lives. It had been nearly four weeks since I put on makeup, dressed in nice clothes, and hopped on a train. Following the government’s instructions, like a model citizen, I had canceled my earlier piano lesson with my sister and postponed all other engagements, including doctor’s appointments. A life of semi-isolation hardly bothered me because, as an aging novelist, I had been leading such a life for years anyway—knowing that the time left for me to write is limited, with or without the deadly virus floating in the air. The train was much less crowded than usual. Yet Kichijoji Station, twenty minutes west of the city center, seemed to be overflowing with people.
All in all, life in the Tokyo suburbs goes on almost as usual, with relatively minor visible changes—something that seems uncanny given the twenty-four-hour reports of global pandemonium. Our prime minister has so far refrained from declaring a state of emergency. Only time will tell if he made the right decision or not.
After my piano lesson, I did some grocery shopping—there was no line at the register—and took the train back. I saw kids playing soccer in the athletic field of an adjacent school; people walking their tiny dogs; families and friends picnicking under cherry blossoms, some of them pleasantly drunk.
I realized what I had been experiencing the whole day: a heightened appreciation of our ordinary lives, as if they were something extraordinary—something almost like a miracle. I knew that the feeling would disappear as the virus faded away, or, in the worst-case scenario, as we resigned ourselves to living with it. And I thought about the role of literature, how it can make us appreciate our ordinary lives as if they were a miracle—even in a time of boring normality.
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK, March 24—I woke up on Saturday and realized it was March 21, the first day of spring. It didn’t matter that it was Saturday because I had to work anyway, and it didn’t matter that it was spring because I couldn’t go outside. I work as a geriatrician and palliative care doctor in the New York City jails, mostly on Rikers Island.
I spent the afternoon reviewing list after list of patients who might be released from the jail in this state of emergency, trying to figure out who is homeless, weighing who seems too fragile to release to the streets against who seems too fragile to keep in custody as the virus spreads. My colleagues and I believe the only thing we can do to mitigate the disaster that has already befallen us is to depopulate the jails. I knew these guys, I’ve talked to them, examined them, counseled them. They sleep about three or four feet apart from one another in dorms of about forty people, each barrack a sub-society with dynamics all its own. The infirmary jail where I most often work can be drafty. It often smells of wet bread. Last week, as I walked from dorm to dorm warning the guys that the virus was coming, asking them to please wash their hands, I thought not for the first time that it would be a terrible place to convalesce.
Toward the evening, I became very short of breath. My friend Justine, also a doctor, went to borrow a pulse oximeter for me from our friend Jon. I lay on my bed, watching my oxygen level and heart rate out of the corner of my eye, trying to catch myself getting sicker. I called my friend Valerie, whom I consider wise, and we decided on what hospital I’d go to if things got bad. I focused on the promise that if I was infected, at least super-human immunity might await me on the other side of this illness. My boss texted around 10 PM that my Covid-19 test had come back negative. A strange mixture of emotions washed over me: relief, that things maybe weren’t as bad as I’d imagined, and horror, realizing that the worst was yet to come.
BOGOTÁ, COLOMBIA, March 24—These are the quietest days anyone can remember in Bogotá, ever. More than Christmas or New Year’s Day, more than Easter week, when the city empties out. No car alarms, no motorcycles, no buses panting and screeching to a halt. The criers are gone, too: the one whom I hear punctually, midmorning and midafternoon, offering very sweet rice pudding, still hot; the one who comes by once or twice a week, announcing through a megaphone that he “buys literature, every type of literature.” There’s a weekly ragman who uses a recording to remind us that he will recycle anything and everything—from dead refrigerators to soaked mattresses to spent batteries—that we might care to place in his little beaten-up truck.
Our smart mayor, Claudia López, faced with a sharp escalation of confirmed patients in the city and a tardy and inadequate reaction to the coronavirus crisis by the country’s president, Iván Duque, announced last Tuesday, March 17, that a four-day trial lockdown would begin on March 20. Access roads to the city have been closed to traffic except for trucks bringing in food and other essential supplies. No one is allowed to leave their apartment or house other than to purchase food or seek medical treatment, and people over seventy are expected to stay indoors until the end of the crisis. Following in her steps, Duque declared a similar nationwide lockdown Friday evening from now through Easter, though who knows what will happen after that, or how that will be implemented in the rural districts. Colombia might not be in such straits if a cruise ship had not been allowed to dock in the seaside tourist trap of Cartagena in late February, which then disembarked its passengers, including 120 party-hungry Italians and an unknown, but significant, number of virus-carriers.
What with substantial fines for anyone caught outdoors, and the dawning realization in a sizable portion of the population that this danger is for real, Mayor López’s seclusion orders have been obeyed to a remarkable degree, at least in my neighborhood. Last week, though, I went to buy some toothpaste to add to the stock of supplies I’ve been laying in over the last three or four weeks, and stood in line for half an hour, waiting to be admitted to my local supermarket: stores were trying to avoid the overcrowding of the previous day, when the mayor’s announcement of the lockdown rules led to a surge of panic-buying and, quite possibly, contagion. But as far as Colombians were concerned, the lines were just one more opportunity to socialize.
Partly, this cheerful sociability has to do with a great capacity for self-serving denial, perfected over centuries in the face of this country’s unending violence. But partly, there is also a cultural dependence on closeness and communication. I staged a ridiculous dance with a man who lives in my building as we moved around the building’s garage, him stepping closer and me skipping backward as I tried to achieve what was (for both of us) an uncomfortable but now prescribed distance for conversation. “Oh, I see you’re taking this thing seriously,” he said, arching an eyebrow.
One indication of the impact on those living in extreme poverty or confinement came on the weekend, when prisoners in the nighmarish Modelo jail rioted, leaving at least twenty-three dead. In another incident that same day, we saw on the news a security camera video of a group of skinny young men bursting into a supermarket and grabbing what they could off the shelves. (They were Venezuelans, it turned out, who, caught by the neighbors, were subsequently deported.)
One source of comfort—and paradoxical disquiet—has been the videos showing shoals of tiny fish repopulating the Venice canals; curious foxes and peccaries trotting through empty streets in unidentified cities, dolphins patroling the docks of an Italian seaside town, trying to understand where all the traffic and people and noise went. It looks good, the world without us!
I live on the edge of a park traversed by a tiny trickle of water that turns into a proper stream when it rains, as it has been doing nearly every day for the past few weeks. Even with the windows shut tightly, I can still make out the sound of rushing water. Today, I turned the radio on—and turned it off again almost immediately, because the sound of water coursing through all that clean silence is more beautiful, even though it bodes disaster.
KERHONKSON, NEW YORK, March 24—Today we’re locked in our apartments and mad. If, like me, you have a spouse and kids and a dog, any space or time to think will be hard to come by. Still, we tell ourselves, we are lucky: our suffering so far is limited to arguing with relatives over FaceTime that they really should stay inside.
Last Wednesday night I met my friend Eddy and we sat six feet apart on the bench in the middle of Houston Street—between the two traffic lanes—and drank: him a half-bottle of Woodford Reserve bourbon, and me a children’s thermos filled with Pinot Grigio. A bearded man dressed in rags and trimmed with lit-up Christmas lights wandered the empty sidewalk, shouting at the occasional car passing, “I feel you, I feel you brother.” An upscale couple in face masks and leather gloves trailed their prim and glossy dachshund. It felt like bad sci-fi, a melodrama of dystopic inequity, of pre-apocalyptic desolation. Eddy, a builder, is renovating an apartment in Soho and trying to keep his nine employees on the site as long as he can. They have nine families to feed, he says.
I’d found flights to get back to Ireland but couldn’t persuade anyone to keep our dog, an old and rickety pug, so we stayed in our university flat in Greenwich Village until yesterday, when I rented a car and we came upstate. Upstate is very different. It’s almost possible to pretend things are okay, which is what I’m doing with the kids.
Today on a walk I was thinking of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, “Renascence”: “All I could see from where I stood/was three long mountains and a wood.” This afternoon my seven-year-old son and I caught a red-spotted newt in the pond, and then let him crawl—alternating limbs—across my hand, then watched him swim in an old tin bath we’d filled with pondwater. Those limbs, so ungainly on land, turned fleet in the water.
My wife is taking it all personally. My daughter is singing even more than usual, every few minutes. My son and I play T-ball in the grass. My daughter shouts at my son, my son shouts at my daughter, and then I shout at both of them. There is a manic quality to the time. It is like being on acid or crazed from lack of sleep. Everything is a frenzy of information.
Spain, Germany, France, and the US all have more cases than Italy when it ordered the lockdown. The federal government is bidding against Massachusetts state for medical supplies. They are building barricades in front of the posh shops in Soho, Eddy says, to stop the looting.
The prophecies arrive: hundreds of thousands of dead, trillions of dollars spent, millions and millions losing their jobs, their health care, their homes. Soldiers on the streets. Each graph, each blank statistic. Each talking head. Stick a fork in the ass of civilization, it’s done. Don’t be silly, this is a blip. I don’t think so. In the stream of news the poems sit like stones, lambent under the surface. Auden’s “Gare du Midi,” where the man with his little case alights from the train, and steps out “briskly to infect a city/Whose terrible future may have just arrived.”
EVANSTON, ILLINOIS, March 26—There aren’t many cars on the road, but the proportion of Amazon delivery vehicles feels ominous, my husband says. “If there’s going to be a junta,” he jokes, “it will probably be led by Amazon.” This is our first week under the Stay at Home order, and our second week staying at home with our son. Today he and I jog a couple of blocks to the high school to run sprints on the track, but the chain-link fence around the track is locked with a padlock, so we run sprints on the empty parking lot. My son was born in 2009, a month before the first novel H1N1 influenza infections were reported to the CDC. The possibility of hospitals becoming overwhelmed and essential medical supplies becoming scarce—the possibility that has now become a reality—is what made those early reports of a novel H1N1 virus, the subtype that caused the 1918 pandemic, so alarming to experts in infectious disease.
“Pest houses,” I thought when I read the first reports of the temporary facilities in China where people with symptoms of Covid-19 were being held. In nineteenth-century America, a pest house was where people with smallpox were forcibly isolated. The historian Michael Willrich writes in Pox: An American History of children who were dragged away from their mothers to be taken to pest houses, where they most often died.
The playground two blocks from our house is almost always full of children, even on a cold March day like today. I’ve seen them in freezing rain, in polar vortexes, and in searing heatwaves. But today it’s empty. My stepmother tells me about a summer during her childhood in the Bronx when she wasn’t allowed to play in the sprinklers in the public parks because of the polio epidemic. What polio has in common with Covid-19 is that people can carry and transmit it without showing symptoms. One in two hundred infections leads to paralysis. My stepmother knew a boy across the street who was in a wheelchair and a girl at school who walked with a limp.
Eventually, she stood in line in the gymnasium of her school, where something that looked like a gun was used to give every child a shot in the arm. That was the Salk vaccine. Later, she would line up again to receive a sugar cube on her tongue. That was the Sabin vaccine. We now use only the Salk vaccine in the US, but the Sabin vaccine, which is less expensive and easier to administer, is used in other countries. “You got both?” I ask her. “Oh yes,” she says, “I got both.”
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK, March 26—The only person I have touched in a week is my two-year-old daughter. Every selfie I take of us is a photograph of me trying to inhale her. The streets outside are empty, the ambulance sirens constant, the sunshine an insult. The city is running out of ventilators. She and I haven’t left the apartment in four days, ever since I became symptomatic.
That’s a lie. I left once, to take the trash down. I couldn’t smell it, because I can’t smell anything—the ability vanished suddenly, along with my sense of taste; the newest symptom in the news—but when the pile of banana peels and mashed zucchini pieces became impossible to push back into the bin, I knew it was time. I saw a man in the mail vestibule who’d come to pick up someone’s laundry. When he pulled the mask from his mouth to speak, I shrank away. I’m sure he thought I was afraid of what I’d get from him, when really I was afraid of what he’d get from me.
The virus. Its sinewy, intimate name. What does it feel like in my body today? Shivering under blankets. A hot itch behind the eyes. Three sweatshirts in the middle of the day. My daughter trying to pull another blanket over my body with her tiny arms. An ache in the muscles that somehow makes it hard to lie still. This loss of taste has become a kind of sensory quarantine, inching closer and closer to my insides.
The quarantine. As if it weren’t plural. As if we weren’t all living our own. Being a single parent is like being a parent except you’re always alone. Being a single parent in quarantine is like being a parent except the inside of your mind has become an insane asylum echoing with the sound of your own voice reading the same picture books over and over again: Mr. Rabbit, I want help.
When I wake with my heart pounding in the middle of the night, my sheets are soaked with sweat that must be full of virus. The virus is my new partner. There is something beautifully grotesque about that phrase, shedding virus, as if with a black light you could see the sloughed-off sickness like curling snakeskins all over my apartment, crumbling to dust.
These days I usually dream about nice dinner parties I wasn’t invited to. Romanticizing other peoples’ quarantines is just the latest update of an ancient habit. So what if I signed divorce papers a month before the city went on lockdown? Sure, I sometimes wish my quarantine was another quarantine, and I sometimes wish my marriage had been another marriage, but when have I ever lived inside my own life without that restlessness?
We spend our days spearing Internet-delivered raspberries with the baby fork. “Mama help,” she says, plaintively. She needs something but she doesn’t know exactly what it is. I know exactly what I need: another human body. I press my cheek against my daughter’s belly, just to feel something that is still there.