Scary hours

I have lived a long time. I would like to live longer, but I don’t want to be greedy about it. If a meteor was approaching the planet, zeroing in on New Jersey from some precinct of space, and there was no way to avoid it, I don’t think I’d panic. I’d have Hilary with me. Because of her, my life has been a rich and beautiful thing. We’d face the catastrophe together.

No, what I fear is separation: being unable to help her when she needs me, or comfort her when she’s frightened. When I’m shook up, my anxiety drives a wedge between us. Neither of us wants to worry the other.

My cousin has been taken to the hospital. She is 70 years old. She had run a fever for many days — she was up to 102 degrees on Friday. She didn’t want to go. Her children, one of whom is in recovery from the virus and another who hasn’t yet been tested, had been taking good care of her. Once she experienced chest pains and difficulty breathing, they sent for the ambulance. No one was allowed to go with her. She’s on her own in a battlezone.

Reports have been sketchy. We know she spent the night in the ER. An x-ray of her chest suggested pneumonia. The hospital is looking for a bed for her. They’ve treated her with plaquenil, which is one of the two quinoline drugs given to malaria patients. Her daughter, who caught the virus on a business trip, told me she feels helpless. I’m sure it goes well beyond that. We’ve been checking our phones for updates. But for those on the other side of the glass doors, the world of the hospital is a silent one. We hope to hear something more clarifying than a howl. We hope for a sunnier day.

Opening day

In January, which feels like oh so long ago, our plane home from Miami was delayed for four hours. Surface winds in Newark, we were told. The literature at the airport gift shops concerned true crime or fake crime or in between crime, Girl Chopped Up or Girl Flung From The Train, or Pieces Of Her by Karen Slaughter (this last one is an actual title that I won’t forget soon). None of that was for me. Instead, I bought us a baseball season preview. Then I spent the balance of the wait time, and most of the flight, circling desirable players. After the mess that was 2019, I knew I needed to find some good Cauliflowers for Hilary.

The Cauliflowers are Hilary’s ballplayers. They constitute the roster of her beloved rotisserie league baseball team. The fate of The Cauliflowers is not of small significance to her. A few years ago, her squad took the top prize, and I made her a poster of her sixteen best point-producers — Francisco Lindor was on there, as was Jose Altuve. It still hangs on the wall of her office at the University, alongside the history books and the 18th C. British literature.

There’s not going to be any rotisserie league season in 2020. We’ll be lucky if there’s any season at all. Until there’s a vaccine, it’s hard to imagine MLB encouraging thirty-five thousand sweaty customers to jam themselves into stadiums. Because baseball is as synonymous with spring for us as Belle & Sebastian and Camera Obscura, it feels like the calendar has failed to turn. Our team, as you surely know, is the San Francisco Giants, and we’ve had meaningful times in the house by McCovey Cove, singing along to “Lights” by Journey and cheering on Buster Posey. No high-fives for us, for awhile — in San Francisco, or anywhere else.

And while I am the notorious baseball fanatic around here, this has hit Hilary harder than it has hit me. She likes to watch the game every night. Part of that is her Ruthian emotional investment in her favorites, and her Cauliflowers, and the rhythm and regularity of the baseball season as it unfolds. But she’s also comforted by the sound of the crowd, and the feel of the blanket of summer as it hangs over the stadium, and the talented Mets and Giants broadcasters. She’ll watch spring training games from beginning to end; she’ll even cultivate a rooting interest in the outcome of exhibitions. We don’t follow any other sports — baseball is it, and our sudden deprivation has unnerved us both. During the worst days of chemotherapy, we always had baseball games to distract us from what was happening, even if they were just buzzing and cracking in the background.

As a salve in desperate times, MLB now allows fans to watch old games over their network. All fans were offered a guaranteed opening-day win: a famous victory drawn from the archive. Giants fans have been spoiled ever since Hilary took up the cause in 2009: she’s watched the team win three World Championships, each one more improbable than the last. That gave MLB a few famous options, and they offered us a rerun of the final game of the 2014 World Series — the game, as you may know, where Madison Bumgarner came out of the bullpen on short rest and carried the Giants across the wire. I don’t have the same recall for baseball that I do for popular music, but I remember everything that transpired that night. Hilary surely does, too. A game like that held no mystery for us.

So instead, we watched Game 7 of the 1952 World Series: Yanks vs. Dodgers, Mickey against the Duke. While I knew all of the names, I’d never seen any of those players in action. At one point in an early inning, I realized that everybody hugging a base was a Hall of Famer: Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Gil Hodges, who’d go on to win the Series as the manager of the Miracle Mets, in the batter’s box, facing down the great Allie Reynolds. (He was limited to a sacrifice fly, alas.) I’d never seen Ebbets Field, or Casey Stengel pacing the dugout, and I’d never heard Mel Allen or Red Barber call a game from beginning to end. The experience felt like something out of a dream: a step back in time at a moment when we’re all held in stasis. Baseball, for me, has always been a reason to live — if only to satisfy my ferocious curiosity about how Kluber will fare in Texas, how the Mets will cope with the absence of Thor, whether Bregman’s great year was a can-battering illusion, which version of Johnny Cueto we’re going to get on any given night, who’s on first. Whenever and wherever they say “play ball” again, we’re going to do our damnedest to be there.

Nobody in charge

By executive order, the governor of Mississippi overrides decisions made by Mississippi municipalities and orders people back to work. Later he amends this decision, and then amends his amendment. Rhode Island announces its intention to enforce the mandatory quarantine of New York visitors by going door to door and screening for Empire State license plates. Closer to home, a friend of a friend complains that New Yorkers have spread viral pollution on the otherwise pristine beaches of Cape Cod. The beleaguered governor of Michigan demands assistance from the federal government. The President belittles her; denunciations and reinforcement come from the usual quarters, signifying nothing but show.

Friends, we’re falling apart. Less than two weeks after the first municipal shutdowns and enforced isolation, the bonds that hold together the states, regions, and cities are fraying. Maybe they were never really there, and it’s taken a global crisis and an ineffectual federal government to make us realize that the union is, in 2020, anthem performances and guesswork, and that’s about it. The network executives who once happily aired every red-hat rally Trump held, squeezing every rating point they could out of the outrage and controversy that ensued, now weigh whether the daily Presidential press conferences are worth coverage. A little too little, and far too late, if you ask me, but nobody’s asking me, and that’s probably because they know what I’d say.

As has been the case since the beginning of this regime, it’s impossible for outsiders to tell who is in charge of what — and that’s likely because nobody is in charge of anything much. The Vice President is supposed to be handling pandemic response, unless the President contradicts him while he’s standing there red-faced, unless Dr. Fauci is on hand to throw cold water on the rosy projections and self-congratulation, unless Dr. Fauci has been sent to the cornfield for displeasing Anthony Fremont. There’s a suggestion that Jared Kushner is doing something, which will surely come to the same sorry end as it generally does whenever Jared Kushner is given a portfolio. Is it any wonder that people are prescribing themselves fish-tank cleaner and crossing their fingers?

Yesterday, Politico ran a story that referred to the President as an “authoritarian weakman.” That’s cute, and I get it, and I think we’ve all become painfully familiar with the vacillation they’re talking about. But a funny thing I’ve noticed about authoritarians is that when push comes to shove, they’re all weak men. They’re always happy to boss you around and consolidate power on a sunny day, but the moment they have to make a real, consequential decision, they never know what to do. Authoritarianism is an expression of deep insecurity; it’s the jealous, desperate accrual of power for its own sake, and an absence of true leadership and selfless action in the face of real challenges. There are still leaders in America — people who might actually be able to salvage a union that’s falling to pieces before our eyes — but they’ve been marginalized and made unwelcome by people in power who recoil at any sign of moral legitimacy. That citizens cannot, or will not, elevate these people to positions of consequence suggests to me that America no longer means all that much to Americans.

Noah Zark

In The Beginning Of Desire, a close reading of the Book of Genesis, Rabbi Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg interprets the Flood story as a metaphor for pregnancy and birth. Noah floats, silent and surrounded by symbols of generative potential, in an amniotic sea inside the womb of the ark. After a period of labor — forty days and forty nights, which is scriptural code for a very long time — he emerges through the breach into a world wiped clean as a dish. Rabbi Zornberg, who is a wonderful teacher, hears the psychological resonances in every verse. She points out (as many scholars have) that Noah is effectively mute; God talks to him, but he doesn’t talk back, choosing instead to carry out his duties. Genesis never gives us the name of his wife. During his time on the page, which isn’t long, he remains embryonic.

I think the Book of Exodus is the most powerful work of literature ever composed. But these days, it isn’t the Passover story that is resonating with me. Instead, I’ve been feeling like Noah adrift on the sea; a sea that was once the world he knew, but which was now inaccessible to him. We’ve retreated to our arks, sealed the doors with pitch, and we’re waiting out our forty days and forty nights. The air outside, we’ve been warned, may be flooded with vaporized pathogens — we imagine the virus hanging in droplets, sneezed out by a jogger, or just blown in on an ill wind. A hard and violent rain keeps falling.

We’re encouraged to be productive during this period of gestation. I keep on working. Hilary keeps improving her online teaching skills. I am always comforted to hear my next door neighbor making beats. Today, for the first day in weeks, I barely read or listened to any news. I checked Twitter for personal messages, but refused to scroll. In the unlikely event that good tidings come, I’ll be told about them. The break from news inundation helped me balance myself. I feel powerfully for all those who can’t unplug, and must face this head on — the grocers and pharmacists, the people running the power grid, the sanitation workers, the doctors who treated Hilary, everybody out there in the storm tonight.

In Genesis, Noah does nothing but put his head down and listen to God, and God, in Genesis, is a talkative character. He makes it clear that the flood is a punishment: a hard reset on a planet that had become, in his view, misaligned with divine provenance. Only through sacrifice can the anger be eased. Once the rains stop, God swears not to do it again, but I’m sure Rabbi Zornberg would agree that there’s a strong implication in Genesis that he’s got his fingers crossed behind his back. Reality, the Old Testament teaches us, is capricious. God is mercurial, prone to tantrums, easily put off, and always tempted to chuck the whole creation into the furnace and begin again. Like Noah, we do what we’re told, eyes on the horizon, waiting for the olive leaf and a sign that we might be reborn.

I can’t feel my face

Hand sanitizer reminds me of the worst days of chemotherapy. We’d never used it before. But we were taking the train back and forth to Sloan Kettering, and standing in crowds, trying our best to stay upright. We didn’t want to pick up any opportunistic infections. At the hospital, dispensers of Purell foam were everywhere. I got in the habit of slathering it on my hands whenever we entered or exited any room, anywhere in the building. The smell of sanitizer is a powerful trigger: instantly I am back on that train, hoping there’d be no delays, hoping no one was sick, hoping that the fearsome after-effects of a chemotherapy session wouldn’t begin until Hilary was home in bed.

Damn it, I swore I’d never write about those months. I never wanted anybody else to read about them and get upset. But I’m back to the constant worry that at any moment, something terrible might begin. Symptoms would begin; a trap door would open, and she’d drop, and I’d never be able to recover her. For twenty-eight years, all I have ever wanted to be was the one who would catch her if she fell. So my fear that I could get her sick — that I could be the one who pulls that lever, however inadvertently, and let the trap doors swing — has been overwhelming. I’ll touch my face and I’ll feel like I’ve condemned us both. An act as innocuous as an eye scratch has begun to feel as threatening as a live mine. Step on a crack, break your mother’s back, I was told when I was a child. I never stepped on a crack, because unlikely as it seemed, what if it was true?

I was ten years old when I first heard about AIDS. It was then called GRID: gay-related immune deficiency. A year later we learned that it could be spread through heterosexual contact, too. Great, I remember thinking, that’s everything out. As a young teenager I thought about sex constantly — how to get it, how many different ways I wanted to try it, what sort of adventures I might have while pursuing it, the ups and downs, the seeker and the sought, the whole shebang. The hunger never eased. At the same time, I read the public-service announcements and Village Voice articles that testified to the awful reality: a single errant contact could spell doom. Nothing was foolproof but abstinence, and abstinence seemed quite out of the question for me. Once I became sexually active, I was terrified that I had it — that I’d made a mistake that would not only be my undoing, but the undoing of the people I found exciting and lovely. My deepest fear was not that I would die horribly, but that I would be a transmitter, a vector, a ruiner of the lives of others.

I’ve spent the last few days having intense flashbacks to the ’80s and early ’90s. I’ve been remembering the mood on the street in Manhattan — the OutWeek and Enjoy AZT posters, the elegiac Pet Shop Boys songs, the looming dread and suspicion in the clubs, the feeling that a playground we’d been promised was falling apart. Our ungovernable desires, we were told, were the corrosive forces that made that collapse inevitable. In the midst of this catastrophe, not only is casual sex an affront to the public health, but so is a handshake. We’re not even supposed to touch ourselves: we’ve got to keep all surfaces scrubbed and squeaky clean. By government order, we are alienated from our experiences and exiled from our senses. And because the alternative is unspeakable, I’m going along with it.

The crack-up

Overlooked amidst the noise, but still significant: New Jersey and New York visitors to Florida must now go through a fourteen-day quarantine before entering the state. This decision was made by the governor of Florida, who has been criticized for his refusal to close the beaches. Yesterday’s order felt like a compensatory move — a restriction on free travel that is probably going to require a state border control to enforce.

Closing the barn door once the horse is long gone seems like a very Trumpy thing to do, and Ron DeSantis is indeed among the Trumpiest of governors. So it’s noteworthy that DeSantis’s suspension of Schengen Americana came after the federal government opted not to put limitations on domestic travel. DeSantis did not take his cue from the White House. He acted on his own.

As the crisis worsens, governors and mayors have grabbed for the yoke. They’ve finally decided to drop the charade and treat the President like the bystander he is. This adjustment was a long time coming, and it took a worldwide lockdown to make it crystal clear. Now that it is, it’s hard to see how the White House will ever reclaim any of the authority or credibility it has thrown away. Every time Trump takes the podium and gives another one of his rambling press conferences, he delights his fans but digs himself, and the office of the Presidency, a deeper hole.

Much has been made of his regrettable suggestion that we reopen businesses, return to work, and throw the weakest among us into the volcano for the sake of the stock market. That is just the sort of attitude we’ve come to expect of him, and the outrage he’s engendered among those of us who aren’t greedy psychopaths is well-earned. But the open secret is that Trump isn’t going to re-launch anything — and that’s because Trump didn’t close anything. The governors of the states made those decisions. In the absence of intelligent national leadership, each state is going its own way.

Federal inaction may yet be the end of me. Governor Cuomo has made it clear that New York (and by extension New Jersey) needs tens of thousands of ventilators. The White House is either unable or unwilling to make a forceful move on behalf of Americans who need help. This, to me, is not just another expression of Trumpian cruelty. It’s also a tacit admission that the President has no idea how to put an idea into practice, and he’s exiled from his immediate circle anybody who does. He doesn’t know how to use the powers of his office. Governors have stepped into the leadership vacuum because they’ve been given no choice: either act with as much autonomy as possible, or suffer the brutal consequences of federal incompetence.

Americans tend to rally around the chief during times of crisis. In the middle of a disaster, it takes a special sort of leader to squander public goodwill. Unfortunately, we’ve got that sort of leader right now, and the public is adjusting accordingly. One of the astonishing things about the past few weeks is how quickly Cuomo, Newsom, Inslee, et. al. have been accepted by millions as de facto chief executives, and the President has been relegated to the role of a cranky, parsimonious uncle, without expertise or compassion, or statesmaship, nothing to recommend him other than control over a big fat wallet. Sentiment changes and the public is fickle, and it’s not hard to imagine Andrew Cuomo’s face dripping with egg in a week. For now, he appears to be acting — and in a crisis, action is everything.

Some version of America is going to struggle through this crisis. The country that emerges might not be the United States we recognize. Regardless of the outcome of the November elections, the virus has weakened the office of the Presidency, and made it clear to states and cities that when the sirens go off, they’ve got to take care of themselves. Revisionist history teaches us that there’s never a proper accounting of anything; I expect those with an interest in the maintenance of the regime to do whatever they can to make us forget about the weeks of inaction, and all the misinformation that came from the White House in February and early March. Somehow, I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as they expect it will be. The dust is going to settle on a looser confederacy.

Pharmacy

I’m afraid to go to the pharmacy. But we knew we had to do it: we had to get medicine for Hilary. She’d tried to get the doctor to mail it to us, but his office called in the prescription instead. I suppose if we’d really been paranoid, we could have asked the pharmacy to post it to us from a few blocks away. But who knows how long that would have taken?

Even in the early days of the epidemic when the emphasis was on panicked hand-sanitizer collection, I never wanted to go to the pharmacy — I felt like it was a great germ-amplification box. We braved it a few days before the curfews were announced, and did our business as quickly as we could. The energy on the floor was crazed, desperate, especially in the paper-products aisle. The line stretched from the registers to the middle of the store. Everybody, from the customers to the cashiers to the security guards, looked ready to snap.

Today’s mood was different. I found it far scarier. Only ten people were allowed in the store at the same time, which meant that the pharmacy had only a fraction of the clientele it usually does. There was an eerie, half-awake feel to the place: you could, theoretically, still buy chocolates and cereal and batteries, but nobody was doing any of the sort. The only line was the one leading to the prescription desk. They’d taped standing stations to the floor, six feet apart, to accommodate customers.

Out on the avenue, nobody had a mask on, not even the grocery shoppers; in the pharmacy, all the visitors did. The pharmacists kept their faces uncovered — perhaps to avoid frightening the customers? I was happy to see that they were wearing gloves. Interns had been thrown to the wolves at the cash registers. All the pharmacists I recognized from those agonizing months of cancer treatment were clustered in the back, keeping a strategic distance from those of us there to pick up drugs. The line moved slowly. Through a face mask, his voice muffled, a man ahead of me argued with the register-runner about insurance; this went on for many painful minutes. I didn’t see whether he got what he came for. I hope he did.

I don’t have a mask. Instead, I tried, with only occasional success, to keep a purple and red bandana over my face. (Hilary felt that I looked a bit like a crossdresser, which raised my spirits, although she wouldn’t say whether I was passable.) The intern running the checkout counter thrust a credit card reader at me across a makeshift divider that had been set up, but when I tried to use it, it wouldn’t work. He voided the transaction and tried again. When it became clear that the problem was with the credit card machine, a team of store managers descended on the register. Their social distancing was iffy. I tried to hand them the co-pay in cash, but they couldn’t accept it: the transaction needed to be digitally logged in a system that could only be accessed by credit card. Finally, after switching to a different register, the purchase went through. I applied sanitizer liberally and bicycled home through the rain.

It’s four hours later, and I am still shook. My hope is that I won’t be going back to the pharmacy anytime soon. My fear is that circumstances will make a return visit mandatory. Those interns deserve combat pay that I know damn well they aren’t getting. They’re probably just relieved to have jobs. I need to clear my head, assure myself I’m okay, and call it a successful procurement of essentials in what has become a strange, defamiliarized, hostile zone. I got the goods for my girl. I’m back.

Uneasy Sunday

A guy, outside the liquor store at the intersection of 4th Street and Newark Ave.: “they’re not going to put you in jail for being outside.” Policemen would have their hands full. Lots of foot traffic on Jersey and Newark yesterday — people getting provisions, walking dogs, talking to friends from the safety of the tops of stoops. Downtowners have learned the steps to the social distancing dance quickly: pedestrians cross the street or stand aside as others approach. Blind corners with high hedges cause anxiety. You can find yourself on top of a neighbor in a hurry. Such encounters prompt embarrassment, flinches, looks of guilt, brief exchanges of cordialities before doing the dash. We’re all shy and awkward tweepop caricatures now.

New sign in the window of the laundromat: NO FOLDING, in black marker on fuschia paper. You’ve got to get your clothes and run. I’ve seen anecdotal reports of big weekend gatherings in Williamsburg and Bushwick, all in defiance of the government proscriptions. Maybe those are accurate. I can say there wasn’t anything happening in our part of Downtown Jersey City. It was darker and quieter than it’s been on any night since we moved to 4th street in 2007. No roof parties, no house parties, no loud conversations at 3 a.m., no car alarms, no cars, really.

My father reminds me that I once wrote a play set during a pandemic. He wonders if this is the right time to revive it. That doesn’t seem like a good idea at all, but I do notice that many of popular movies on streaming services are all about contagions, diseases, doctors, heroic medicine, etcetera. I’d have guessed that we’d all be immersed in space operas and other pure escapist fluff, but perhaps the collective imagination doesn’t move that way. Maybe it only leaps to the nearest narrative footstone. In the play, the pandemic was a metaphor for fears about immigration and the terrible damage that AIDS had done to interpersonal intimacy and sexual expression. This virus is a figure for all kinds of things, and as non-scientists, we can’t talk about it without using metaphor. But in an all-too-real sense, it’s no metaphor at all. It’s an actual pathogen, one that will mess you up if it crosses your path. I don’t want to distract people from that.

With everything closed and pertinent warnings given, the podium space that has been hogged by elected officials can, in theory, now be given to doctors and scientists. I know I have very little interest in hearing a press conference from anybody who doesn’t have a Ph.D. or M.D. In late March, addresses from politicians feel like posturing at best. At worst, they’re more misinformation. The President has been playing amateur physician, prescribing a miracle drug that his own medical advisers are visibly skeptical about. It’s possible that he really believes he knows better, and even more possible that he just wants to be on TV as much as he can. Meanwhile, Politico reports that the executive branch is pressing for new emergency powers that would allow judges to detain the arrested indefinitely. These threats to habeas corpus are as scary as the virus. The consensus on the Internet is that Congress will never let this happen, but I’m not so certain. Two weeks ago, nobody thought they’d close the parks. Events move fast. The guy on the corner by the liquor store should get his sunshine while he can.

Spring forward, lock down

At 1 p.m. the Governor delivers the order we all knew was coming. All businesses defined by the state as nonessential must close for the duration at 9 p.m. tonight. How many of those businesses will reopen is anybody’s guess. Sit-down restaurants will still be allowed to do takeout and delivery, but realistically, that’s no business model: unless they can come up with money and a sturdy supply chain, they’ll join the nonessentials on the sidelines until the curfews are lifted. Liquor stores may remain open. Local mechanics are allowed to stay open, but ours has been shut, gone from the neighborhood for days with no note on the door. It’s been awhile since anybody on the block has moved a car.

Even indoors, I am struck by the forceful arrival of spring. Mid-march used to mean blizzards and fog. This year, it’s been positively balmy. Temperatures reached 75 degrees in Jersey City yesterday. If it wasn’t for the virus, I think we’d all be wondering what’s going on. We took advantage of the weather and walked up to the Heights yesterday. Laundromats, we noticed, were still open, but they were limiting the number of people who could be in the store at the same time. The pizza spot on Baldwin still seemed to be doing a decent business. Shut us down, superstorm us, cut the lights and stuff the sewers, but as long as there’s pizza, it’s still Jersey.

The warmth makes me worry about the summer. Many people are proceeding on the assumption that hotter weather will slow the virus; that could be true, but there’s no way to know for sure. The Governor has discouraged people from fleeing to the shore, which is probably wise — they don’t have the capacity to care for a wave of sick people. But the warmer it gets, the harder it’ll be to resist the urge to go outside. Summers have gotten increasingly hotter, and harder, in the city. Not everybody here has air conditioning.

With most of us looking, longingly, at the trees from behind plate glass, it’s not surprising that impossible stories about nature have spread on the social networks. You may have heard about the returns of the swans of Venice, or the rogue elephants drinking corn wine and passing out in the fields. National Geographic threw cold water on all of that. Those, it turns out, are just fantasies. As usual, confined people (we’re the confined people) are imaginatively inhabiting the forms of animals, who, we’re assured, are immune to the virus and running free. The world of “Nothing But Flowers” may still come to pass: nature may mobilize to reclaim what we aren’t using. But for now, the world outside is the same as it was when we left it, a few very long days ago.

Rights and wrongs

By now, you’ve probably seen the interactive world map through which Johns Hopkins is charting the spread of COVID-19. It’s part video game UI, part stock report, and all alarming. The Hopkins tally reinforces something that’s been widely reported: the number of deaths in Italy now exceeds those in China, even though twice as many Chinese have caught the virus. While the European curve continues to spike upward, the Chinese curve has flattened out. This has been offered as evidence that the draconian approach of the Chinese authorities works, and the laxer attitudes in Bergamo are dangerous.

But wait a second: why would we believe that numbers provided by the Chinese Communist Party are accurate? We’re justifiably skeptical of our own officeholders. Why trust theirs? Even before the CCP pitched Western journalists out of the country, it was hard to know what was happening in China. In the closed-door days of mid-March ’20, it feels like it’s impossible.

And because it is, rates of mortality and serious illness can’t be properly calculated. The denominator keeps shifting around on us, and now we’ve been told that China may have underreported the number of young people who needed to be hospitalized after contracting the virus. Our most fundamental supposition about COVID-19 — that it affects old people disproportionately, and the young and hale are relatively safe — might be faulty. We’ve all watched the clip, one near-Soviet in its tone, of attractive young female nurses in Wuhan shedding their protective masks, one at a time. This is textbook propaganda, designed to speak to our wildest desires. It’s aimed straight at the global unconscious.

Did it strike the mark? I think it did. There’s a loud chorus singing denunciations of China to the applause of nationalists looking for an external enemy. That’s an ugly tune, and one we ought to ignore. But there’s a powerful counternarrative circulating, too — one that says that China did everything right and the West has done everything wrong. Given that we now know that the CCP stalled, obfuscated, and prioritized appearances over public health, just as our own government did, it’s probably wisest to abandon any faith that China knows best. We don’t want to do this; we hope that the Chinese have established a precedent for social distancing measures that will halt the pathogen in its tracks. I’m afraid we’re wishcasting.

I do it all the time. The more stressed out I am, the more enthusiastically I sign on to anything that dovetails with my own prejudices. For instance, I find myself nodding along with those who blame excessive meat-eating and habitat destruction for the spread of pathogens from animals to humans. Is that logical, or is it just convenient for me? I’m no epidemiologist; I’m a person eager to adopt explanations that ratify my worldview. That’s not unlike those who believe that Bill Gates created and spread the virus and who won’t be budged from that position, only (hopefully) a little more scientific and sane. Just like you, I want to be proven right.

It’s worth interrogating that desire. Why is it important to me to know things that others don’t? Is it because I’m neither swift nor strong, nor virtuous, nor particularly enchanting, and I need to press whatever comparative advantage over others I think I might have? Perhaps it’s our very ordinariness that makes it so hard for us to admit it when we’re wrong. Maybe the problem isn’t economic insecurity. Maybe the problem is intellectual insecurity.

Demagogues have figured out that the desire to be proven right has made us all credulous and ripe for manipulation. If we’ve cast our lot with them once, they figure that means they’ve got us for good. Otherwise, we risk admitting that we made a mistake. We’ve seen this dynamic in action all too often in the past few years — a political leader says that the sky is green, and his followers, refusing to accept the possibility that their faith was misplaced, contort themselves into pretzels in an effort to rationalize his ignorance. This is not a good psychological state for the nation to be in during a major crisis, and if we’re going to get through this, we’re going to have to unlearn some bad habits of mind that we’ve adopted during the dangerous days of the 21st Century.

Mind you, I am not encouraging radical skepticism. We don’t have that luxury. You’re going to have to pick somebody and something to believe in. But I think it would be salutary for all of us to cultivate some ambivalence, and entertain the notion that we could be wrong, very wrong, very often. If, in the back of your mind, you suspect there’s a five per cent chance that that thing that you’re sure of might not be true, double or triple that chance and proceed accordingly. We would have been better off if those who made jokes about the virus and waved it away had instead shown some humility. They might have apprehended the possible consequences of getting this one wrong. Intellectual flexibility is hard, especially these days: it’s hard to attain, and it’s even harder to keep. But we’re all going to need it.