The New York Review of Books - 24.04.2020

(Axel Boer) #1

4 The New York Review

Pandemic Journal

The New York Review is publish-
ing dispatches from around the
world documenting the coronavi-
rus outbreak. Read the full series,
and listen to writers reading their
contributions, at
—The Editors

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 par-
ents, quarantined in Florence over
the coronavirus epidemic, had been
imploring him to stay away from peo-
ple. It seemed as if they got their wish
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. “Prin-
cess death,” the driver muttered as we
pulled off the bridge and began weav-
ing 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 be-
tween “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, pick-
ing up things I never thought I’d need,
like pinto beans or soap in a twelve
pack, all the while feeling the futil-
ity 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 de-
mand: you never knew what would dis-
appear 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 stockpil-
ing 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 straightfor-
ward 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 writ-
ing 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 tol-
erable, come what may.
—Anastasia Edel

PA R I S, FRANCE, March 17—Today
was the first day of the lockdown in
Paris, or as the French call it, le confine-
ment. From today on, and until further
notice, anyone outside must carry with
them an official document called At-
testation 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—lead-
ing 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 dis-
tanced 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 lock-
down. She scoffed loudly and said that
of course they would remain open
throughout, and at regular hours.
Walking out, taking care not to ac-
cidentally 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.
—Eduardo Halfon

MADRID, SPAIN, March 18—We’re
now on the fifth day of our confine-
ment. This is a watershed: five days is
the average for symptoms of corona-
virus 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 gov-
ernment 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
a nd i nv isible. I n wa r, fea r 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. Ep-
idemics 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 keep-
ing the recommended six- foot distance,
but we did it so clumsily that we actu-

ally 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 blan-
ket and it felt warm. Too warm? Then
I fell asleep.
—Miguel- Anxo Murado

Monday, the second day of a country-
wide closure in Israel, I took my chil-
dren 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 sev-
eral days. Walks are to be limited to
ten minutes at a time: one parent and
one child only. There are to be no play-
dates. 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 chang-
ing prime ministers today?” Call it the
result of three election cycles in a year.
What do you tell a boy who is begin-
ning 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 con-
sciousness? 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 sur-
real 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:
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 pol-
lution. The skies were blue again. Now
there’s something to look forward to.
—Ruth Margalit

March 19—By the time our house-
keeper, Daisy Nyathi (not her real
name), walked into my home on Tues-
day morning, she had been in close per-
sonal 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 mini-
bus 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 Rama-
phosa 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 com-
pulsory, but the nature of South Afri-
can society is such that no one is going
to be able to enforce the social distanc-
ing 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.
—Mark Gevisser

Today they began checking our tem-
peratures 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
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 hos-
pital 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 imag-
ined 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 iso-
lated; 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 fa-
talities will have peaked by July, when
my son is due to be born. I will deliver
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