The New York Review of Books - 24.04.2020

(Axel Boer) #1

8 The New York Review

of interacting with the rare stranger
walking toward me on the sidewalk. I
find myself gyrating very slowly to sig-
nal my intention to cross the street to
walk on the other side. My movements
remind me of Tai Chi, or do I resem-
ble 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 na-
tionwide 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 na-
tional 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.
—Sylvia Poggioli

quick note from the fells. As I write, a
camper van is grinding its gears going
up the steep pass behind me. My fam-
ily 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 door-
steps 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 break-
fasts 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 oppo-
site us was putting up yurts and mending
paths in the campsite, but acknowledg-
ing 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.
S o m u c h f o r av o i d i n g c r o w d s a n d p u b -
lic spaces. We are not alone. In South-
wold, 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 stream-
ing 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 ref-

uge, 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 un-
derstand why people want to be here.
Including me.
—Jenny Uglow

23—I keep a diary. Normally it’s just a
quickly scrawled list of books and films
and the names of people I meet. Look-
ing 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 “Corona-
virus suddenly on everyone’s minds.”
That’s it. By the following week, it had
crowded out everything else.
I began writing about the strange-
ness of trying to prepare for something
completely invisible, a threat that gov-
ernment 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 ter-
rible 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 so-
cialists, even Mitt Romney, trying to
reinvent community as we self- isolate
in our apartments.
—Hari Kunzru

TOKYO, JA PA N, March 23—Spring is
here in Tokyo, and so are the cherry
blossoms. Yesterday, I wore a bright
blue si l k scar f that looked even br ighter
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 gov-
ernment’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 ath-
letic field of an adjacent school; people
walking their tiny dogs; families and
friends picnicking under cherry blos-
soms, some of them pleasantly drunk.
I realized what I had been experienc-
ing the whole day: a heightened appre-
ciation of our ordinary lives, as if they
were something extraordinary—some-
thing 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 bor-
ing normality.
—Minae Mizumura

24—I woke up on Saturday and real-
ized it was March 21, the first day of
spring. It didn’t matter that it was Sat-
urday 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 re-
leased 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 cus-
tody as the virus spreads. My col-
leagues 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 ter-
rible place to convalesce.
Toward the evening, I became very
short of breath. My friend Justine, also
a doctor, went to borrow a pulse oxime-
ter 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 con-
sider wise, and we decided on what
hospital I’d go to if things got bad. I
focused on the promise that if I was in-
fected, 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 emo-
tions 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.
—Rachael Bedard

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
mid afternoon, 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 re-
cycle 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 con-
firmed patients in the city and a tardy
and inadequate reaction to the corona-
virus crisis by the country’s president,
Iván Duque, announced last Tuesday,
March 17, that a four- day trial lock-
down would begin on March 20. Ac-
cess 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 peo-
ple over seventy are expected to stay
indoors until the end of the crisis. Fol-
lowing 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 imple-
mented 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 any-
one 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, con-
tagion. 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 vio-
lence. But partly, there is also a cultural
dependence on closeness and commu-
nication. 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 con-
versation. “Oh, I see you’re taking this
thing seriously,” he said, arching an
One indication of the impact on
those living in extreme poverty or con-
finement 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 secu-
rity 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
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