The New York Review of Books - 24.04.2020

(Axel Boer) #1

6 The New York Review

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.
—Rachel Pearson

“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 sto-
icism that flourished in wartime Britain
would surely see us through a pan-
demic. Americans, of course, were the
audience for which the Blitz spirit was
bottled and labeled. Humphrey Jen-
nings’s brilliant ten- minute documen-
tary 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 de-
spair in London town.” The US had
yet to enter the war. The film was fin-
ished 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,
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 Brit-
ish supermarkets for no good reason
(there is as much food as ever), prompt-
ing squabbles in the aisles and the in-

troduction 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 com-
plained 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 Sur-
rey housewife said that she “loathed
the indignity of entering a public lava-
tory and being asked whether I needed
paper. I always tried not to need it and
so appear mutinous.”
Many shortages persisted, and in sev-
eral 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 re-
members pages of the Newcastle Eve-
ning Chronicle hung from a nail. We
talked about this the other night: the
reveries of self- isolation.
—Ian Jack

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 it-
self, about to crash down in a week or
so. Too soon we will be forced to esti-
vate, 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 hus-
band granted in exchange for mak-
ing 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 my-
self with company all day, scrambling
to keep my boys busy. I have been lead-
ing 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 tak-
ing 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 op-
posite. 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.
—Lauren Groff

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 demon-
strating 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 mourn-
ers 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 mon-
astery 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 un-
known. I think of how I will get back
home, but the concept of “back” feels
vertiginously spectral.
—Anna Badkhen

day Donald Trump addressed the na-
tion about Covid- 19, I was in the mid-
dle 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 watch-
ing 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 Eu-
ropean 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 fe-
male traveler; they had been brought to-
gether 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 mo-
ment, 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 some-
thing—I forgot you have to collect
them first. The US was not testing peo-
ple, 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.
—Anne Enright

ROME, ITALY, March 23—Today is
Day Fourteen of the first lockdown
imposed in peacetime in a Western de-
mocracy. 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 dis-
appeared. I know this only because I
no longer hear her dog barking. I won-
der, has she fled to the countryside, per-
haps 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
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