Notes on a Nightmare #1: The Virus and Us

Trying to get to grips with what has happened.

I don’t quite know how to write about the thing that has happened. My last article was published on March 7, less than two weeks ago. Since then, it feels as if the entire world has unraveled. New unemployment claims in the U.S. have jumped from 281,000 to 2.25 million in a single week, the highest on record, with perhaps 9 percent of workers laid off in a matter of days, and 25 percent having had their hours cut. (If those numbers are correct, we may face “the most savage shock in economic history.”) Public schools are being closed until fall, university commencements canceled. Disneyland is closed, the NBA season is canceled, all the Broadway shows are off—every musician and stage performer in the country has seen their work dry up. You can’t go inside a Starbucks or a Burger King, and restaurants that employed hundreds of people now employ dozens, or none. The country is facing the kind of toilet paper shortages previously used to depict Venezuela as a failed society. The entire state of California is on lockdown, with 40 million residents instructed not to leave their homes. All forms of mass demonstration have become impossible, with gatherings of over 10 people treated as a threat to public safety. 

One of the main lessons of history should be that stability is an illusion. Not only can “all that is solid melt into air,” but it can do so faster than anyone ever expected. Overnight, your prosperous city can be turned to ash; a civilian population can instantly be incinerated. What has happened here and now has not yet been so destructive as the elimination of Pompeii or Hiroshima, but it has been an alarming reminder that there was never any guarantee “ordinary life” would go on indefinitely. Many civilizations before ours have been caught unaware by a sudden war, tsunami, depression, or plague—often on a far greater scale than what we currently appear to be facing ourselves. We were probably foolish to be surprised.

One reason I have had trouble writing about it, though, is that it has still not quite felt real. I have a job that requires me to sit indoors at a computer a lot of the day, and so my immediate world didn’t look much different on day 2 to how it looked on day 1. New Orleans is a city that does not heed warnings, so there were few obvious preparations made. On Saturday, Bourbon Street was packed as usual. Virus, schmirus, said the St. Patrick’s weekend revelers:

“Throughout Saturday, groups of people roamed the sidewalks, filled restaurants and popped into bars and shops. People dressed in Kelly green drank on porches along the street, hollering “Happy St. Patrick’s Day” to those who passed by… Syd Knight, 86, said she had heard public health warnings and knew that at her age, she was in a high-risk category. But all three of her children had come to visit for the holiday… So Knight was determined, despite the risks, to celebrate, complete with a three-shamrock headband and a green-horseshoe temporary tattoo on her cheek. She also felt buoyed by a green jello shot, administered to her by a nice young man who had hinted that its vodka and green food coloring might steel her against the virus.”

I tried to pretend things were normal myself for as long as I could. I mostly stayed away from people, but I kept going to the coffee shop around the corner for my morning latte. “As long as we’re still here, civilization is hanging on,” the barista told me jokingly on Sunday. By Monday, they were closed indefinitely. 

I knew it would get bad in New Orleans quickly: The city economy is tourism and shipping based—people and things coming from all over the place. The tourists are there to be social: to go to bars, restaurants, shows—a.k.a. breeding grounds for infection. Add to that the fact that we have a huge homeless population, problems with sanitation, a lack of quality medical care, and all the ingredients for a bad outbreak were there. Sure enough: New Orleans is now the U.S. capital of the disease, with twice as many cases per capita as the next-highest centers of the epidemic, New York City and Seattle.

Marcello’s, a wonderful Italian restaurant next to my office, now shuttered

So first the coffee shop closed. Then the Italian restaurant next to my office—which has sustained me with eggplant parm and cappuccino on many a late night of work—boarded up like it was preparing for an apocalypse. And as the statistics started getting worse—two dead, now five, now 10—it became impossible to keep up the illusion. I hadn’t wanted to write about the disease, or think about the disease, but the news was filled with nothing but the disease. Several phone calls from my mother finally convinced me that I should not stay in the French Quarter and should return to my Florida hometown to be near my parents. I did not want to infect my family—I have no symptoms but could still bring the disease into the house, should I have it. So they found me accommodation in an empty vacation home owned by some friends. I rented a car, an absurd yellow Corvette that was inexplicably only $20 more than an ordinary compact (I think they needed to get rid of it). And on Tuesday morning, I fled New Orleans, the city I love. At 3:30am, I arrived in Sarasota, where I am now comfortably quarantined in a strange empty retirement villa, along with as many books as I could cram into the Corvette’s tiny trunk. I do not know when I will go back.

I am lucky. I am in comfortable surroundings, and my job is not under threat—people need magazines to read in quarantine, after all. I am alone, but so are we all, and once a day I drive round to my parents’ house to say hello from an appropriate distance:

Myself in car, Robinson parents on lawn

I have no complaints. Solitude suits me, and I lived on cans of beans already before all of this happened. I’ve got my tea while the world goes to hell, and that’s enough for me. But millions upon millions of people are losing their jobs. They are faced with becoming homeless at a time when being on the streets is deadly. Children who depended on school to get a hot meal during the day now have nowhere to go. Immigrants and prisoners are crowded into jails where the disease will spread rapidly. People are getting sick. They are dying alone in hospitals, the people who love them most unable to come near them as their lungs are slowly destroyed. All over this cruel country, preexisting injustices are being amplified a thousandfold. 

It is so much to take in. It’s hard to accept. Things were bad enough for people before, and now this? It truly does feel like a nightmare. My body has been unusually lethargic for the last couple of weeks, drifting off to sleep for inconveniently long periods of time, and I’m convinced some part of me is hoping that if I am unconscious for long enough, when I wake up it will all have gone away. 

I had a terrible dream. There was a global pandemic and everyone had to stay indoors and you couldn’t touch anyone you loved. But the crazy part was that we had inexplicably made Donald Trump the president of the United States, and he was supposed to handle the crisis.

Lol that dream is nuts.

Yeah, I mean the image of Trump trying to respond to a pandemic was kind of funny at first. But then people started dying and it just became really, really sad.

When will it stop? Nobody knows: You have probably heard reports that we may be in this new reality “until a vaccine is found,” which could be 18 months. The recent report from Imperial College London scientists will make anyone who reads it shit themselves in terror, finding that “2.2 million Americans and more than half a million Brits would be killed by the COVID-19 disease unless drastic steps were taken to halt the spread of the virus.” (The study’s lead author soon after started exhibiting symptoms of the disease.) We seem to face a horrible choice: either destroy the entire economy for a very long time through extreme “social distancing” measures or let the disease rip through the population, killing millions of people, who will almost certainly disproportionately be old, poor, non-white, and disabled. How long can we all huddle in our homes, jobless and dependent on whatever means-tested pittance Washington is willing to throw at us to keep us from rising up? Even a few days of lost revenue can be enough to put a small business in jeopardy—are we truly talking about months on end of mass unemployment? What would that mean?

And good lord, we’re facing this in a total leadership vacuum: Donald Trump is the President of the United States, and Trump’s approach to solving problems is to just either (1) insist the problems are not real or (2) insist that he has already solved them even if he has not. He tried (1) for a while with the pandemic, but once corpses started piling up by the thousands it became difficult to sustain the idea that the severity of the virus was a myth (Ron Paul is still valiantly trying to insist it’s all a hoax.) So he has resorted to insisting that everything is under control and that he’s doing a great job, even when it’s quite clear that he’s doing almost nothing. You would think that an emergency like this would be when the Trump schtick finally fails—at last, reality departs so far from his rhetoric that people will see the truth. But it doesn’t quite work like that, and if people only hear the president, in the absence of an effective opposition (don’t get me started on how useless the Democrats have been so far), people might see Trump as a man trying his best and failing. Thus far, his approval rating hasn’t been hurt that much, and anyone who concludes Trump will “inevitably” lose in November should be careful. The incompetence of George W. Bush’s administration, which ignored multiple warnings, was in many ways responsible for 9/11, and he responded with a catastrophic aggressive foreign policy that exacerbated global terrorism. He still thrashed John Kerry in 2004, thanks to the spirit of post-crisis National Unity. (And thanks to effectively directing people’s rage toward foreigners, as Trump is attempting to do with his references to the “Chinese Virus.”)  

One thing we should be extremely concerned about is the shock doctrine: During crises, those in power seize upon people’s confusion and terror to ram through policies they have long wanted but have been kept from implementing due to political constraints. Already, we are seeing right-wingers demand that the minimum wage be eliminated and regulations be slashed in the name of “solving” the problem. We should worry less about individual crooks enriching themselves and more about the possibility that martial law, once implemented, will never be revoked, and public schools, once closed, will never be reopened. This is not an overblown threat: New Orleans today does not have a public school system, because the post-Katrina moment was seized upon to privatize the whole system. Betsy DeVos is seeking sweeping new powers over the education system—the ability to personally waive existing laws, which would almost certainly be used to push privatization—and at a time when so much is going on all at once and we are all concerned with our immediate survival, it will be difficult to organize effective opposition. Can you imagine Trump calling off November’s elections in the name of protecting public health and safety? I certainly can; there’s even a good argument that holding elections can create dangerous risk of disease transmission. But once something is taken away, it can be hard to get it back, and we must fight to preserve our civil liberties and what is left of our public institutions. 

On the other hand, crises also open up the possibility of more positive new kinds of radicalism. The Great Depression made the unprecedented social programs of the New Deal possible. The idea of struggling people being granted a complete moratorium on rent, utility, and mortgage payments seemed politically impossible until a few days ago: Now it’s a matter for serious discussion. With large industries potentially needing bailouts in order to survive, even Trump has said he would consider partially nationalizing them. The problems of having a for-profit private health insurance system are being vividly exposed—people are not going to be able to afford to get treatment, and are thus going to infect others and worsen the spread of the disease. Evictions begin to look absurd and unjust in a crisis like this: How can we turn people out of their homes to face the disease—and to further spread it? But of course, the worry is that if we stop evictions now, when the crisis is gone it will feel strange to start them up again. The principle that “what is done now may be permanent” goes both ways. If we demand free testing and treatment for this disease, and get it, it will set a precedent. If the need to keep the disease off the streets forces us to build public housing for the homeless, that housing will outlast the crisis. What we do now will last, and that is something that should both scare and encourage us. The post-9/11 surveillance regime, once built, never went away. Authoritarianism now will last, but socialism now might last also. 

There is some reason to believe that the crisis itself can be resolved: China has apparently successfully gotten the disease under control, albeit using a series of centralized measures the U.S. has absolutely no hope of implementing. (Donald Trump won’t even use the government to distribute critical medical supplies, saying that the executive branch is not a “shipping clerk.”) Two medical professors wrote an encouraging article in the Atlantic today, saying that if we can “socially distance” for a month or so to get us through the summer, we can ease restrictions for a bit, and hopefully have bought ourselves enough time to manufacture critical equipment and organize an actual nationwide testing, isolation, and treatment regime for when the disease comes back with a vengeance in the fall. If we are ready for the second wave, we will limit damage until a vaccine can finally be produced. The shutdown envisaged is still economically disruptive on an unprecedented scale, and many people will still suffer and die, but it is the first description I have seen of a path that sounds as if it would eventually lead us back to a situation resembling normalcy. 

But good lord, how difficult it is even to think. We are so alone right now, so impotent. I scroll through the news feed all day, deluged with endless disease news, having no idea what to make of it all. Ted Cruz is in quarantine! Tom Hanks has the virus! Idris Elba has the virus! Bolsonaro has the virus! No he doesn’t! Trump touched Bolsonaro—maybe he has the virus! Ted Cruz is now out of quarantine but touched someone with the virus again so may have to go back into it! Italy is closed! Asshole profiteers are hoarding hand sanitizer! The stores are empty! Chaos galore! What do we do with all this? How do we get a grip? I can give you the usual encouraging bromides: Stay strong, we are all in this together, you are not alone, solidarity forever, this too shall pass. They are true, which is good, but how much can they do when we’re so afraid and uncertain and haven’t a clue what to do or say? I have put off writing about this thing in part because I write in order to be useful, and I have no idea how to be useful right now. I can tell you that I am thinking of you, that so long as there is energy in my body I will be here alongside you. And I mean that. But in my writing I try to project a voice of confidence, and I haven’t felt confident at all, so I could not write. I did not want to lie to you, but if I told you how I really felt, I would make you feel worse than you probably already did. 

I imagine you have the same vacillations I do, between the old cheerful “we’ll see this thing through, damn it!” spirit and a chilling apprehension of what it really would mean if the body count was in the millions. When I was driving down here in that ridiculous convertible, blasting the stereo, I tried to pretend I was having fun and everything was normal and this was just an adventure. But as I drove, a terrifying vision kept entering my mind: everyone I loved, intubated, slowly losing their breath, dying in pain, the disease everywhere, everything we had worked for having fallen apart. That won’t happen to everyone, but it’s already happened to some people—one New Jersey family just lost four members. It won’t be all of us, but who will it be? 

I suppose we should try to keep the nightmares at bay, and focus on what we need to do: How do we get this evil and incompetent government to act? How do we push Democrats into actually legislating effectively? How do we support one another? What is needed and how do we get it? To think too much about what could happen will paralyze us with fear, so we must set it aside for the moment and think of the more immediate and granular questions: how can the mask shortage be fixed? How can we get sanctions against Iran lifted? How are we going to help an already-socially isolated country deal with extreme new “social distancing” measures? How do we prevent military rule from emerging out of this? How will we ensure children are taken care of? How will we protect the most vulnerable?

What I Am Going To Do Now

I am still working out my own strategy for how to be useful. Everything I had been planning before has suddenly gone up in a poof of smoke all at once. I had spent four years trying to push forward the Sanders presidential campaign, which I still believe is exactly what we need at this moment, and it went from looking like a lock for the nomination to collapsing very quickly, at the exact same time as the pandemic emerged. (Was not great for my mental health, losing the thing I was most invested in and felt was necessary for the future of the planet at the same time as all this other chaos emerged. I confess I spent several days on my office floor under a blanket moaning “Nooooooo.”) A few weeks ago, I started planning what I believe to be an extremely important media venture: a left alternative to the awful cable news networks, a powerful independent TV news channel. I feel the time is exactly right for this sort of thing, and I know precisely how to put it together and who can run it, if we can get the money for it. But now I’m faced with the prospect of trying to raise millions of dollars in donations during a global financial crisis, and I have a feeling the whole task suddenly just got much more difficult, even though the need for quality dissenting media just got many times more urgent, since in a time of chaos and misinformation we need strong and reliable news sources that people can turn to for reassurance—I believe our TV channel will help people feel less hopeless and alone. I am not sure quite how I am going to approach this project now, but I know I must steam forward with it.

As for Current Affairs, I do not want us to do what many other media outlets have done, and pivot fully to pandemic-based content. I think people will grow weary of this quickly, and that it is not healthy to read about nothing but the disease all the time. Though the pandemic touches everything, I would like to make sure it doesn’t cause us to forget that there was ever a world outside this disease, and while you will see a reasonable quantity of “why the virus shows the need for socialism” articles in Current Affairs, I will try to keep our print edition something of an oasis, a place where we can step back from the immediate crisis and not simply further paralyze ourselves thinking about whatever the latest terrifying development of the last 24 hours is. 

I have decided that my own approach to writing about the crisis will be in the form of something like a diary. Each day some substantial new change occurs, and I think it will be worthwhile to try to jot down some thoughts as regularly as I can, that sum up where we are, what has changed, and what might happen next. In part, I think this will help readers who are, just like me, trying to process their thoughts, but I also want to make sure we keep a record of how things are at any given time, because the “frog in boiling water” effect means that after a few weeks of step-by-step changes, we may find ourselves forgetting how things used to be. Already, Fox News conservatives and the president are trying very hard to make us forget that they were downplaying the seriousness of the virus up until five minutes ago. We must document things as they unfold, so that we do not find ourselves believing lies once they have been repeated a sufficient number of times.

I am not sure how effective I will prove as a commentator on the pandemic. This is not my area of expertise, and mostly what I hope to offer is the perspective of an ordinary person who is, just like you, trying to figure out what to think and what to do in a very confusing and frightening moment. But I hope it will help to have a regular voice in the darkness, any voice, even if all it knows how to say is “Yes, I’m afraid too.”

Consider this my first entry. 

Stay safe. 

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