Thank you, Dr. Cevik

I hate to encourage anybody to visit a social media site. But unless you’ve completely given up on Twitter, I believe you ought to unroll a thread posted there on May 4 by a virologist working in Scotland. Dr. Muge Cevik’s twenty-two tweets apply preliminary contact tracing results to the dynamics of transmission in an effort to answer the biggest question of all: how do people catch the virus? What can we do to slow down the spread? So far, most recommendations by authorities — even medical authorities — have been either been based on common sense, viral precedent, or superstition. These have been helpful (even superstition has, because superstition tends to lean toward caution) but woefully incomplete. The doctor tries to fill in some yawning blanks with charts and graphs and hard counts, and even a little advice of her own.

Her tweets broadly reinforce the conclusions drawn by Quillette editor and non-scientist Jonathan Kay in his self-researched piece on coronavirus superspreader events. Before anybody else in the media, Kay went out on a limb and argued that transmission of this pathogen was, primarily, an indoor phenomenon. You might well catch the virus at choir practice, or at a bar, or a crowded club where people had to shout in order to be heard; unless you were unbelievably unlucky, you weren’t going to get it from a runner on the street. To spread, this pathogen needed ballistic droplet flight: ejected from the mouth of an infected person by a cough or a sneeze, or singing, or loud and protracted conversation. Given the virus-dispersing effects of sunlight and air currents, it’s not at all likely that it will happen outside.

Dr. Cevik goes farther, and unlike Kay, who drew his conclusions from anecdotal evidence reported in the press, she’s got medical studies to back her up. In tweet number fifteen, she spells out the implications of her research in language so bold that I’ve read it twenty times just to be sure it says what it says: close and prolonged contact is required for transmission. Not a breath taken in the wake of a passerby, not a brief exchange of pleasantries on the street, not an accidental stroll through an airborne toxic event, but genuine interaction with an infected person, most likely in a cramped quarters where the ventilation isn’t what it ought to be. Her list of places where you’re more likely to get it is remarkably similar to Kay’s, and she also agrees with him about where, and how, you probably won’t get it — all of which feels like a vindication of citizen epidemiology. Dr. Cevik also suggests that your chances of getting it from a chance encounter with a child are slim, which may be a relief for those of us (me) who see children as mobile germ containers.

The thread from Dr. Cevik is, I think, the best news I’ve gotten in eight weeks — news so good that it’s actually taken a few days for its implications to sink in. Her findings are the loudest rattle yet from the hinges of the cage door we’ve been banging on for weeks. If we keep our masks on, and steer clear of protracted interactions with strangers, we ought to be able to get out to parks, and pedal our bicycles, and roll around in the grass without worrying that we’re going to kill our neighbors. For a few weeks, it looked like the summer would be canceled outright; now, I believe that we’re going to have one after all. It’ll be shaky, and awkward, and weird, but it’ll happen. Meanwhile, we can follow the prescription that some other incisive Scots gave us two decades ago: get out of the office and into the springtime.

We may be able to take some action on behalf of those required to remain inside. Workplaces can be reimagined, airflow can be improved, class can be held outdoors. Someone can open up a window. None of that is going to stop the pandemic, but I’ve become convinced that it’ll slow its acceleration. A real model of transmission is finally beginning to take shape, and, with it, we’re finding that we’re not quite as stuck in the murk as we worried we were. This is why contact tracing is so critical for public mental health: darkness makes us feel powerless, and illumination allows us to recognize the chinks in the armor of the horseman of the apocalypse we’re facing. Fears tend to proliferate, imaginations take us on long and tortured detours, and platitudes and folk wisdom can only reverse so much of the damage we’re doing to our own minds. Science is our only reassurance. Thank you, Dr. Cevik, for providing some.

Vitamin D

Hilary thinks I’ve been misleading about the size and poshness of our flat. It’s neither big nor posh. In these dispatches, I’ve referred to our “deck” a few times, but we don’t really have a deck. We’ve got a fire escape attached to a kitchen door and ten feet of metal runway before the steps begin. Hilary has done so much to make those ten feet a pleasant place for her to be that I’ve come to see it as a balcony lovely enough for any Rapunzel. She’s floored it with mats and ringed it with flowering plants and herbs, and set up a beach chair in the direct sunlight. I always encourage her to sit there. I do that because she’s cute as a button in the sunshine. I also do it because I know that it’s a good way for her to get Vitamin D.

When my sister was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, doctors suggested that she begin taking supplemental D in high doses. I was encouraged to take it, too. Even our physician uncle, who is medicine-averse in the way that only certain doctors seem to be, recommended Vitamin D. Sloan-Kettering doesn’t like to assume too much about supplements, but the prevailing attitude we’ve found there about Vitamin D hasn’t been discouraging. Dr. John Campbell, the nurse and teacher whose measured but compassionate videos have been a lifeline for me through this crisis, strongly recommends taking Vitamin D as a preventative measure against the effects of the coronavirus.

It’s hard to get a sufficient amount of Vitamin D from food. Ninety per cent of Vitamin D comes directly from the sun. During the winter, we’re inside, and we’re shielded from rays by thick walls and heavy clothes. Consequently, we who live at northern latitudes are likely to be deficient. Human immune systems, beleaguered by stress and sugars and various pathogens, are strongly supported by Vitamin D. I’ve been taking two thousand international units of the vitamin every day, which is quite a bit, but it still isn’t as much as some enthusiasts are recommending. My hope is that it’ll reverse any deficiency I’ve acquired over the winter, and put me on firmer footing during my next encounter with a pathogen. Besides the social-distancing and hygiene techniques that we all know well by now, this is the only prophylactic measure I’m taking against the coronavirus. It also helps that it comes in gummy form. The strawberry ones are my favorite.

Do I believe that, by this act alone, I will ward off the virus? Ha, no. I often wonder whether it has any benefit at all. I’m the guy who won’t take an aspirin when I have a headache; I don’t drink or smoke, and I distrust all drugs. But I’ve got to acknowledge that some of the early reports have been encouraging. Campbell points to a recent large-sample study done in Indonesia that found that coronavirus patients with Vitamin D deficiency were ten times more likely to die than those whose vitamin levels were within a healthy range. That paper hasn’t been peer reviewed. But if it’s even partially true, that’s a remarkable discovery, and one that we might even call a breakthrough. It means that hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved by a reasonably priced supplement. Hydroxychlorine is generic and unreliable at best, remdesivir is expensive to manufacture; Vitamin D, by contrast, is there on the shelves of the Duane Reade. Authorities ought to be encouraging us to take it.

Yesterday morning, Politico reported that fifty-eight per cent of those who’ve died from the coronavirus deaths in the United States are African-American. This might be the saddest statistic in the whole two-month landslide of regrettable numbers. This is more than just a powerful indictment of social inequality. It’s a grim reinforcement of the foundational cruelty that is America’s original sin. We know that African-Americans are, on the whole, more likely to be working jobs that require them to come into contact with pathogens, and less likely to be able to afford quality healthcare. We know about risk factors and underlying conditions common among African-Americans. We also know that it’s harder for people with dark skin to manufacture a sufficient amount of Vitamin D than it is for those of us with lighter skin. The Cooper Institute, for instance, reports that seventy-six per cent of African-Americans fall short of the recommended amount of the vitamin. A sane and competent government would be rushing supplements to African-American neighborhoods. If the Indonesian study is right, an act like that could save many lives. Even if it’s wrong, we’d still be providing people with a vitamin, which is a healthy thing to do — morally as well as physically.

The show that never ends

If we ever had to subsist on the money I’ve made as a musician, we wouldn’t be living in a pretty little jewel box of an apartment in Downtown Jersey City. We wouldn’t be in an apartment at all. We’d be dodging raindrops in an alley behind the Pathmark. This does not distinguish me. Musicians with a far higher profile than mine don’t manage to make money from it, either. Music is a delightful pursuit but a brutal business. Technically, I have been professional since the nineties: you’ve often had to pay some money if you want to see me play. But if you really want a song from me, all you have to do is tap me on the shoulder.

Not so long ago, we were planning to make my shoulders available for those taps. We had an album ready, and we were talking about all the topics and logistics that accompany the release of new music: tours, practices, videos, umbrella concepts that might make songs that aren’t, to be frank, earmarked for the Top of the Pops a little more accessible for listeners. Mostly, we imagined concerts. How we could make them a thrilling experience for those ensnared in my web of words and sound? Over the years, I’ve recorded quite a lot of songs. Some of them came out on my own albums, some of them are preserved on projects helmed by my friends, and some of them I thought twice about, and will never release. Every one of them was meant for the stage. No matter how silly a song of mine is, you can be certain that I fantasized about singing it to a crowded house. In the fantasy, that house was always Maxwell’s, and, sadly, and unimaginatively, that’s remained true, even as Maxwell’s is no longer around to rock.

Lately, I’ve begun to wonder if the long period of my life organized around applause is over, too. It’s hard to imagine standing on the floor of a packed club in the future; honestly, it’s hard to imagine returning to a club at all. I have no interest in performing on the Internet — to me, that’s as empty as being on TV. Social-media likes and digital hearts and virtual hugs leave me cold. Only a real connection with a real audience will do.

This summer, creative people are going to attempt solutions. They’ll launch drive-in festivals, and social-distanced concerts on rooftops, and Zoomapaloozas. Bless them: they’ll be doing what they can to keep a flame burning that has kept us warm for all the decades of our lives. I’ve written many times that I believe that music is what human beings do best, and I’ve always tried to make my small daily contribution to the ongoing story that justifies the existence of our species better than anything else does. I will always love music, and live music in particular. I just don’t see myself as a participant, or even an observer, any time in the foreseeable future.

This is hard for me to write. Many of the greatest thrills I’ve ever experienced have come from making music with my friends. Sometimes, that’s happened onstage in front of an appreciative audience, and sometimes, it’s happened in living rooms and stuffy rehearsal spaces and cramped Williamsburg basements. Playing music is an intimate act: you’re sharing waves, and ideas, and melodies and rhythms, and you’re most certainly sharing air. Models of coronavirus transmission weigh risks differently, but they’re unanimous in their condemnation of the sort of behavior that happens in the concert hall, or at band practice. Everybody heard the terrible story about the collective infection of the Mount Vernon church choir. Whatever they did, I’m sure it was nothing compared to the microbe-swapping stuff that we normally get up to at a pop concert.

Most of the people we know are, in one way or another, show people. Steven manages bands and runs festivals, and he’s been booking a new room on the Lower East Side. Early in 2020, that was all going nicely. Today it’s on ice. Brad was forced to scrap the summertime activities at the theater he runs in Upstate New York; he was pretty blue about that. With theaters closed in the city, neither he nor Megan have been performing or directing. I haven’t been able to sing, or slam a piano, or do goofy Cars covers with George, or Sarah, or Matt, in months. We could record at home, and post the mixes to a website, or make remixes, or scrap together a music video from old footage and share it with friends. But without the promise of a show, and the specific interaction with a live audience that music occasions, it’s tough to find the motivation.

It’s likely that this post is premature. We aren’t even through the worst of the crisis yet. I should be thinking about the welfare of my family, not the next time I’m going to express myself with my organ. Yet I know that show business in New York and New Jersey will be altered by the crisis, maybe irrevocably, and I can’t help but wonder if there’ll be a place for me, or any of the people whose projects are important to me, once the ground has stopped shaking. I know: get there first, and then worry about the specifics later. I could always turn on the electric piano and run some scales. That might even soothe my nerves, and ready me for re-entry, in whatever shape it takes.

Roll the bones

Yesterday the lockdown lifted. The state government helped. But even if they had chosen not to reopen the parks, that decision would’ve been overridden by the authority of the spring sun. If local greenspaces had been barricaded, people would have been out on sidewalks, in intersections, in vacant lots. Some traditions go too deep to be disrupted, even by a global crisis, and the first seventy degree day of the year is never ignored in New Jersey. Six days from now, the weather is supposed to be much worse. By then, the whole town may have developed a cough. We’ll know why: Liberty State Park was hopping.

We went by bicycle, which felt safer than walking. We could swerve away from clusters of people, we figured, and speed from crowded parts of the park to emptier ones. I’ve always felt bulletproof on a bicycle, which is probably why I write about bike rides as often as I do. All of the insecurity and vulnerability that I feel while doing every other activity?, it all falls away the moment I begin pedaling. There is no pathogen I cannot outpace, and no particle I can’t swerve around. On my bicycle I reach a clear and intoxicating strata of air, inaccessible to those with no wheels, or with (God help them) four. Usually these are productive illusions: they help me exercise, and they give me an artificial boost of physical confidence. During a pandemic, these beliefs are dangerous. I became scared of my own courage. I put on my mask, packed sanitizer, tied a string around my finger, told myself to stay vigilant. There’d be daylight, and people, and velocity; it’ll feel wonderful. Don’t get carried away.

Visitors to the park were encouraged, but not required, to mask themselves. Not everybody did. I was encouraged to see that most of the cyclists were masked. Many of the joggers weren’t. I’ve never been a runner, but I imagine that it makes very different respiratory demands of its practitioners than bicycling does. It may be difficult to run while masked. Joggers have taken a lot of abuse over the past few weeks: there’s a widespread belief that they’re generating and spewing the sort of large particles that could contain the virus. Pass a jogger who is breathing heavily, and you might just be courting infection. But there’s been no support yet for the theory that joggers are vectors for the coronavirus, and plenty of evidence that what the joggers are doing — exercising in the sun — is a public health good. My sense is that we’re throwing stones at an easy target, focusing our fears of asymptomatic spread on a class of people who the sedentary have always found suspicious.

We’ll know in a few days. We certainly shared the air with more than a few unmasked runners who, if infected, had to have been shedding virus. Everybody in the park did. But a particle-dispersing wind was blowing, and a UV-zapping sun was out, and, at least at 11 a.m., Jersey City people were doing their best to comply with social distancing suggestions. The park was busy, but people refrained from congregating in clusters. It’s scary to acknowledge that we’re the guinea pigs in our own experiments, but the awful truth is that the state of New Jersey has been a great petri dish for the better part of 2020. Without a definitive transmission model from scientists, we’ve had to draw our own conclusions, and we’ve decided that if we keep our distance, catching the virus outside is unlikely. That’s just a theory, but it’s one that’s backed up by eight weeks of lived experience at the epicenter of the global pandemic. The rat, if he could talk, may well have more to say about the maze than the observer does. It may well turn out that the reason that the virus hasn’t transferred all that successfully outdoors is because we’ve all been indoors. That’d be logical, and disappointing. But eventually, we’ve got to put our guesses to the test; otherwise, we’re never going to re-learn how to live.

Once off my bicycle and back at home, paranoia descended: did I touch anything?, were my airlock procedures before entering the basement sufficient?, was my little blue mask with the pink flowers saturated with viral particles from somebody’s slipstream? We left the masks on the fire escape to roast in the midday sun, and I retreated to the computer to catalog my regrets and brace myself for the coming symptoms. After awhile, I recognized that it was pointless. We need exercise. It isn’t healthy for either one of us to remain in the house for weeks. We court a risk by going out; we also court a risk by staying home. Either way, I’m going to be agitated. When we were out on our bikes on the verge of the park, Hilary asked me if I could stop looking back at her every second. Perhaps I could do it every five seconds instead. She was teasing me: she knows that years of worry have made me a head case. I tried; really I did. But I kept on looking back.

Gates of delirium

Modern life makes skeptics out of us all. No doubt you were skeptical about a hundred things before breakfast, and a hundred more since; if you put on the news, you can double that count. So many official stories feel inadequate, or messily manipulated for popular consumption, or just downright implausible. When you hear them, you cross your arms, angle your head, and give a suspicious look. This is the stance you’ve been forced to adopt as you’re saturated with sales messages of different sorts. If we all followed along everywhere we were pushed, we’d all be victims of overconsumption. Incredulity is the only way to make it through the day.

Yet this crisis is different. It has demanded compliance with strict recommendations passed down by medical experts who we don’t know, and who, on a sunnier day, we’d probably tune out. Given the way that infectious diseases spread, general adherence to these rules is mandatory: if fifty per cent of the country opts out of what the other fifty per cent is doing, it doesn’t matter how well the cooperative half sticks to the rules. The whole thing will fall apart — and people will die — unless we all listen.

This is exactly the sort of thing that we’ve gotten very bad at. Before we follow the suggestion of an expert, we want to know who he worked for, and voted for, and which side he’s on in the great game that has absorbed our national attention since the turn of the millennium. Should that expert be aligned, in any way, with a political figure we distrust, we simply tune him out. This has made it virtually impossible for our society to take action against a common inhuman adversary, and it goes a long way toward explaining why America leads the world in cases, and hospitalizations, and fatalities. The coronavirus found us fighting, quite desperately, with each other, and it’s exploited that division.

In order to stop the global pandemic, humanity must achieve herd immunity. There’s an ugly means to this end: everybody on the planet can get infected. Our best, and likely only, means of avoiding this awful outcome is a vaccine. Yet a substantial percentage of Americans — way bigger than you think — will not touch the vaccine if Bill Gates’s name is on it, or anywhere near it. They’ve convinced themselves that Gates is engaged in a global depopulation effort, or he’s angling to inject microchips into our bloodstreams, or he’s teamed up with China, and the W.H.O., and the 5G industry to weaken and sicken Americans, or he’s cruelly hoarding patents and wants to soak us all. Should we be lucky enough to develop a vaccine, these people are absolutely going to refuse to get the shot. Since the success of an inoculation program is dependent upon widespread compliance, this presents an enormous problem, and it’s one that we’re not taking seriously enough. We’re underestimating the ferocity of the resistance that’s bound to come if the state mandates vaccination. This is going to undermine our containment efforts. It might undo them altogether.

The theories about Bill Gates are negative ones, and therefore impossible to dispel. Just as there’s no way for us to disprove the belief that Hillary Clinton is sacrificing babies to feed her adrenochrome addiction, we’ll never be able to say for sure that Gates’s intentions aren’t diabolical. He might be concerned about the welfare of the planet, or he might be an evil orchestrator bent on population control; we’re not inside Bill Gates’s psyche, so his motivations will always be opaque to us. It is natural to harbor suspicions about rich and powerful people, and wonder about how they accumulated that power, and whether it’s wise for humanity to devise systems that allow so much influence to come into the hands of so few.

But rather than dismiss the medicine because we don’t like the messenger, it’s worth remembering a few things about Bill Gates. Gates is not an immunologist, or a virologist, or a physician. It’s arguable whether he’s even a scientist. He’s associated with vaccination because of his foundation, which has been supplying shots to poor people all over the world for many years. Those shots did not come directly from Bill Gates. They came from the laboratories of infectious disease experts whose work Gates has facilitated. The coronavirus vaccine, if and when it arrives, won’t have been whipped up by Gates in a Wuhan clinic; he won’t be wringing his hands, cackling over the brew, and salt-and-peppering it with silicon tracking devices. He’d have no idea how to do that even if he wanted to. In order for him to accomplish the heinous things that he’s been accused of desiring, he’d have to corrupt the entire medical system, and turn doctors who’ve devoted their lives to stopping the spread of disease into idiotic stooges. Out of necessity, I’ve become acquainted with some of these doctors, and I feel their bewilderment at widespread American recalcitrance, and our inaction in the face of a lethal threat. They’re not dupes. They know what they’re up against. We ought to listen to them.

That’s not always easy. One of the major drawbacks of capitalism is that it wrests the podium from scientists and hands it to their financiers. I’m not particularly interested in what Bill Gates, or Elon Musk, or Mark Cuban, or any other wealthy figurehead has to say about the coronavirus. Yet we’ve built a communications system that amplifies rich people and other celebrities, rewards them for adopting dramatic language, and drowns out more rational and measured actors. This has placed us at a terrible disadvantage, and it has also distorted our perception of medicine and how it works. That millions of Americans see vaccines as an expression of Bill Gates’s desires — whether altruistic or pernicious — demonstrates how far gone we are, and how detached from reality we’ve become. Gates isn’t going to pipe down, because billionaires never do. It’s up to the rest of us to listen carefully, apply some common sense, and understand that our collective problem can only be solved through collective action. A skeptical nation must develop a little faith in science. Our survival depends upon it.

The fog and the sunshine

Yesterday began our seventh week of isolation. This I know because we’ve been keeping a record of the days on the back of the door, and for no other reason. March moved deliberately, with each moment loaded with significance, and slow-burning questions: how am I feeling?, where am I standing?, am I a transmitter or a receiver, a fighter or a bystander? April was a smear. Bad news was constant and signposts were few. Eventually we will come out of this, we kept telling ourselves. But no one knew when.

Some scientists suggest that the virus will linger until July. Others, more cautious, remind us that the virus won’t go anywhere — it may be suppressed for awhile, but it’s likely to return in the autumn, hand in hand with the flu and therefore deadlier than ever. No one seriously thinks it’ll be gone by the end of this month. Nevertheless, the restlessness is widespread and palpable. We all want a summer, or, at the very least, a summer break. We’re ready for the sun to chase the pathogens away.

Maybe it will. I find it encouraging that there haven’t been many reports of outdoor transmission. If the coronavirus turns out to be a homebody, that wouldn’t be unprecedented, or even unusual: tuberculosis, for instance, is another disease that passes readily in enclosed spaces, but doesn’t often survive direct contact with the elements. It would be a tremendous relief to stop worrying about the air. A late spring and early summer of open windows would be healthy for everybody. Then again, it strikes me as possible that the reason that the virus doesn’t seem to be claiming victims on the street is because we’ve all been stuck inside. We don’t have any idea about what’s going to happen when restrictions lift.

This weekend ought to be a dry run for the summer to come. After days of rain and fog, it’s supposed to reach seventy degrees. The re-emergence of the sun will coincide with an easement of restrictions on state parks — here in Jersey City, that means LSP will finally be open. Will it be mobbed? Will everybody in town descend on the waterfront in a collective expression of our pent-up hedonism? Or have we learned new habits? Once we’re there (if we’re there), will we be able to maintain social distance, or were those who insisted on barricading the parks correct in their assumption that we couldn’t temper our enthusiasm for each other?

We’re not prepared to join the lines at Great Adventure. We’d be very reluctant to sit on a beach. But we’re eager to get on our bicycles and push the pedals with some vigor. In my dreams, I’m heading up a high hill; maybe it’s San Francisco, and maybe it’s the far side of the Golden Gate. I can feel that familiar tension in my legs, the resistance of the road, a little breeze in my face, some fog in the distance, and a thrill of acceleration as I lean forward over the handlebars and push harder. Tomorrow, I intend to make a local version of those dreams come true. We’ll see how many of my neighbors have the same idea.

Staggering to the wire

Like you, I have made it to the last day of a difficult month. Seven hundred and fifty eight of my Hudson County neighbors did not. Unlike more than a hundred thousand fellow Jerseyans, I am not an active case. I may be infected, or I may be virus-free; I may have developed antibodies, I may be defenseless against the next pathogen I encounter. Regardless, I haven’t developed any symptoms. My temperature and respiration are normal. I ought to be grateful.

On the other hand, I’m a nervous wreck reduced to brushing my teeth with a cup of boiled water. I look like I’ve been run over by two trucks and a hay wagon. Six weeks in the epicenter have made me jumpy and anti-social. Even if I wanted to go out tonight, there’s nowhere in town to go. The city is operational, in a way; in another, it’s been put into suspension on the assumption that we’ll be able to revive it later on. When we do, it’s unclear what it’ll be like, or where any of us will fit in.

The liquid coming from our taps remains a marvelous shade of beige. We’re the lucky ones: last night, elsewhere in Jersey City, people had no water at all and couldn’t even wash their hands. Communications from the municipal government were neither clear nor comprehensive. Chances are, they were every bit as blindsided by the main break as we were.

As citizens, we’re asked to evaluate our state and municipal governments on the basis of their foresight and their risk management skills. This morning, proof of their lousy job pours out of our faucets. During a pandemic, there is simply no way that construction should have been allowed to happen in proximity to a water main. Nothing that jeopardizes a vital utility should ever have been okayed. This seems elementary to me. Nevertheless, the state proceeded with this project, and the city didn’t stand in the way. I call this inexcusable carelessness — carelessness that should make us all wonder what other foolish things they’ve gotten up to while the rest of us are staying inside.

Here in New Jersey, we shake our heads at Southern states that refuse to shut down in the face of a public health crisis that requires radical action and brakes on transmission. We won’t admit that we’ve done a similar thing. Our version of negligence looks different from theirs. We’ll encourage the churches to close, which we’re right to do, but we keep on practicing our own state religion: runaway construction. We keep building, and overbuilding, on every available lot, and no matter what we imperil, we can’t stop ourselves. Our state government tells us that the projects that continue are the essential ones, which is just about the slipperiest slope imaginable, since construction has been essential to the tax base and economic life in New Jersey for decades. Elected officials have lacked the political courage to put a halt to this activity, and now, we’re literally bathing in the consequences.

I come out of April with renewed respect for my neighbors and a dimmer view of our local and state authorities. I didn’t think that people would take the pandemic seriously; I thought they’d be partying in spite of the warnings, angling to reopen bars and restaurants, and congregating wherever they could. I was wrong. And in spite of the occasional Confederate flag-waving rally, people all over the country have used their heads, made sacrifices, and treated the crisis with gravity that the moment demands. It’s mainly our elected officials who’ve been behaving irresponsibly — pushing cities and states to return to business prematurely, selectively enforcing shutdowns, compounding messes with more messes, and looking out for themselves. Once this is over, we need to examine the system we’ve put in place to select leaders, and ask ourselves why it reliably returns people to office who are only up to the job when the sun is shining. What we’re working with is no longer worthy of America.

Mixed messages

As it was.

Yesterday we walked to Berry Lane Park. I’d been looking forward to a little time on the grass, or just a seat on a park bench. But familiar comforts were tough to find at Berry Lane. We took a tour of the perimeter and, without stopping, walked home.

Berry Lane is a park with a visual signature. Its most famous feature is the line of yellow-gray silos in the midst of a wide lawn — a tip of the cap to the neighborhood’s industrial past, and an acknowledgement that this used to be a brownfield property. Those silos are still standing, but visitors can’t get to them anymore. Most of the lawn, too, is off-limits, ringed by a cyclone fence. Yesterday, only the hill in front of the silos was open for visitors. Hoops have been taken away from the basketball courts. The gates to the kids’ playgrounds were closed, and the baseball field was locked. The most vigorous activity in the park, and the loudest, too, came from the construction workers who’ve turned the green square at the foot of Bramhall Avenue into a building site.

I later learned that they were putting in a skatepark. That strikes me as a bizarre thing to do in the middle of a pandemic. The state government ordered a halt on all inessential construction projects on April 8. Some residential projects have paused, but the frantic building and overbuilding that has been the most reliable characteristic of life in Jersey City for two decades hasn’t exactly tapered off. As we in Hudson County are now painfully aware, construction continues on Duffield Avenue at the eastern edge of the Hackensack River. There, a crew drove a sheet piling into a thirty-six inch main, causing a massive spill that has denied clean water to Hoboken and Jersey City for the last eighteen hours. As I type, people in Journal Square and Marion are still reporting outages. It is hard to keep hands and surfaces clean during an outbreak when there’s no running water. It’s worth asking whether the state and the city have their priorities straight; it’s also worth asking whether they’re backing up their stated priorities with consequential action.

On our way back from Berry Lane, we passed Ercel Webb Park, set like a little emerald in the bezel of the neighborhood. Barricades were still up, but at least a few people ignored them; they’d either moved them aside or hopped the fence. It was easy to see why people in the neighborhood were so tempted. Webb Park was as inviting as Berry Lane, just two blocks to the south, was off-putting. Why had the city chosen to open a park under construction instead of the one that’s ready to receive visitors? It made no sense to us. Like so many of the decisions, large and small, that have been made by authorities over the past months, it seemed arbitrary, ill-considered, and destined to be sporadically enforced.

Elsewhere, people were out, and masked, and gathering supplies. The line at our local butcher’s shop stretched from the middle of the block to the corner. It is always nice to see an independent local business doing well during a crisis, and the people who run that butcher’s shop are good neighbors in every sense of the word. That said, the frantic collection of meat continues to be a deep-psychological response to the virus that I neither understand nor condone. Stories of threats to the national meat supply are reported daily: outbreaks in packing plants, words of despair from heads of the chicken industry, runs on the meat counters of area groceries. Two days ago, we learned that millions of pigs in Iowa would soon be euthanized. I doubt it matters all that much to the pigs, who were going to be slaughtered anyway, but it’s still gruesome to contemplate. Always attuned to symbolism, if little else, the White House announced an executive order designed to keep the meat industry operating. Here, in an echo of Herbert Hoover’s reputed promise of a chicken in every pot, was the chief figuratively throwing red meat to the tribe. How the federal government intends to keep sick people, and sick businesses, on their feet and on the job wasn’t explained.

Meat is not a necessity. Water is. Long after the break, a boiling order is still in effect for Jersey City, and we haven’t been told when it’s going to be lifted. For a city already suffering, the threat of a contaminated water supply is almost too much to bear. Suez, the company in charge of the utility has dispatched tankers to the hospitals, and I pray that these are sufficient. We’ve got another mess on our hands, and it’s probably not going to be an easy fix.

If I sound a little more irritated this morning than I have in recent days, I want to make it clear that it’s not Suez I’m mad at, or even the clumsy contractors who ruptured one of the city’s vital arteries. I’m annoyed at a state government that makes a great noise about tough construction restrictions, but allows construction projects to continue that further jeopardize the health of a sick city. I’m annoyed with a municipal government that should have put an end to this project, or at least forced a postponement until the worst of the pandemic had passed. I’m annoyed with City Hall for making a self-congratulatory park reopening announcement before the park was ready to be visited. I’m annoyed with the White House for prying an industry open, from afar, and without a real plan to safeguard the people working in that industry, and I’m annoyed at state houses who are forcing people back to business on the basis of nothing more scientific than their desire to avoid cutting unemployment checks. I’m mad at leaders more concerned about the optics of an economic downturn than they are with the public health that any economic progress depends on. I’m annoyed with the system we’ve created — one that makes leaders out of camera-friendly public-relations people, loud-talking executives who never seem to think about what they can do without worrying first about how they’re going to look.

We ought to be well beyond this now. Hard reality should have splashed the cold water on our faces. But I sense that this terrible April hasn’t taught the authorities any lessons that will help us cope with what will be an equally difficult May. Next month, we’re assured, America plans to reopen after a long and restless sleep, and yesterday was my indication of what that’s going to look like: a lot of crashing into pipes, and clashing objectives, and public-services inefficiently distributed, partial access, underwhelming returns, mandated labor, unsafe conditions, no big relief, no tickertape. We’ll cross our fingers, and hold our breaths, and wait for the word from the authorities that we can drink from the taps again. When you get it, will you trust it?

The exit door

On a day of dispiriting news, the most unwelcome came from Northern China. The city of Harbin is locking down again after an outbreak in Heilongjiang Province. Heilongjiang is right on the border, so it’s likely that China will blame the spike on returning nationals; a story in Shanghaist points the finger at a young asymptomatic super-spreader who’d been studying in New York. Regardless of the source, the new surge in cases demonstrates that containment in China is far from total. They’re conceding an unpleasant truth that we don’t like to think about: until there’s a vaccine, there’s not going to be any grand reopening. This pandemic is going to come at us in waves.

The head of the CDC reminded us of this, too. Even after he was contradicted by the President, he stuck to his original statement: fall 2020 is going to be a challenge. Spikes in coronavirus will coincide with the arrival of seasonal flu. Some of the things we’ve learned during the past two months may help us ride the coming waves a little better than we’ve managed so far. But we’re going to face the autumn unarmed. Hydroxychloroquine has not turned out to be a magic bullet. Inoculation is still, at best, months away. As this epidemiologist makes brutally plain, we need to prepare ourselves for additional rounds of social and physical distancing. He doesn’t like it any better than you do.

What this means for the global economy is unclear, but it certainly isn’t hopeful. Efforts to force a hard restart in places where the virus is still spreading will almost certainly fail; efforts to restart in areas that have shakily recovered will probably fail, too. In China, people didn’t flood back to the stores and restaurants when restrictions lifted. Now that there’s a fresh outbreak in Harbin, Chinese consumer confidence will need to absorb another blow. Something similar, I am afraid, is bound to happen when the doors in New York City swing back open for business. Regardless of the prevalence and efficacy of contact tracing, our re-engagement with the world of commerce will be tentative. We’ll hear about a spike in cases in South Carolina, or New Mexico, and we’ll retreat even further into our protective crouches.

Alas, the only way out of the crisis is herd immunity: either occasioned by widespread vaccination (preferable) or by humans in terrifying numbers catching the coronavirus and developing antibodies. I’ve resisted this because a one-percent mortality rate applied to a global population of eight billion is… well, for the sake of my stomach, I’m not going to do that math. But mostly, and quite selfishly, I’ve resisted it because I don’t care for our household odds. If sixty to seventy per cent of humanity must contract the pathogen before the pandemic can burn out, that means I’m more likely than not to get it, which further means that I’m more likely than not to pass it on to Hilary.

She doesn’t like it when I think like this. She doesn’t like to be treated like a hothouse flower; she’s used to being independent. Even during the hardest days of her treatments and recovery from surgery, she was determined to stand on her own. Nevertheless, in our quieter moments, we acknowledge that our physical circumstances have changed, and our outlook needs to change with them. If I’m more protective now than I was when we were running around like lunatics in the ’00s, it’s not (just) because I’m paranoid. I take some grim comfort in the emerging consensus that suggests that coronavirus illness hits men harder than it hits women — though I am sure that doesn’t comfort her at all. I will keep gathering information, and I will keep on doing everything I can to make sure that Hilary is in the thirty per cent of humanity that never needs to get acquainted with the pathogen.



Storytelling

Brad and Megan stopped by. They were on their way from Brooklyn to Brad’s parents’ house in Somerset County. They stood on one side of the fence in our small front yard, and we stood on the other. Hilary gave them two avocados and a bottle of hand sanitizer. I tried to give them a copy of a CD that we’d accidentally double-ordered from Saddle Creek, but they don’t have a CD player. Gift-giving is a vexed and complicated act in 2020. No hugs or handshakes were exchanged. Still, it was nice to see them. It was the first real social interaction we’ve had with anybody since March.

Brad expressed his frustration with the mainstream newspapers. Why were they so fascinated by Confederate battle flag-wavers protesting stay-at-home orders? He’d marched for peace with thousands, and their movement had barely ever gotten above the fold. Editorial priorities seemed scrambled. As a newsroom veteran I could only nod. The long answer to his question is in this piece, which I wrote at the end of 2017, and which I strongly encourage you to read if you haven’t. The short answer is that these ugly stories receive saturation coverage because they sell. They provide editors with a developing angle. The protests are irresistible to mainstream news outlets because they’re the latest leading edge of the larger strategy that has been keeping the news business afloat for the past four years: the one that makes Donald Trump the embattled protagonist-villain of every story.

I can feel sympathy for those editors and publishers. They’re in a tighter spot than it probably seems like they are. There’s a lot of demand for news, but telling this story in a way consistent with the expectations of the news audience is tricky. You can’t interview a virus. This adversary cannot be psychologically modeled. Human-interest stories of perseverance in the face of illness and hardship are inspiring, but they soon become redundant; more importantly, they don’t compel a reader to click on the next article to soothe or exacerbate his outrage. Mainstream news requires a heavy, and for four years, the current President has been reliable in that regard, if in few others.

The trouble is that Donald Trump is not the protagonist of this story. The coronavirus has exposed him as a marginal player with very little understanding of risk or crisis management. Even his press conferences are providing declining news value. In some desperation, editors have decided to make heavies out of some of those making apologies for the President. An angry white man in militia gear screaming at a nurse — that’s ideal, and probably irresistible. In an unguarded moment, the publisher would concede that he understands that running that picture amplifies the rage of the militiaman and gives it a much wider platform than it deserves. But who has an unguarded moment anymore?

Brad has responded by taking the mainstream news and social-media applications off of his phone. That seems reasonable to me. The best sources of information about the pandemic have been local journalists and science writers, who are findable and followable for those who want to put in the extra effort needed to dodge the news algorithms. I would also like to acknowledge the efforts of Stephen Stirling, who has been supplying New York and New Jersey with a well-researched and sober newsletter. Erin Brodwin and Sharon Begley at Stat, a medical spinoff of the Boston Globe, have been tigers on testing. I feel like I owe these people a personal note of thanks, and maybe a box of cookies.

The real revelation, at least for me, has been Dr. John Campbell, a nurse and teacher from the UK who has been posting lengthy, well-sourced videos to YouTube every day, and sometimes several times a day. If you’ve ever had a good nurse explain a medical procedure to you, you know how thorough they can be, and Dr. Campbell is very thorough and very clear. He goes through the numbers, country by country, slowly and evenly, and refrains from making speculative claims; often he’ll say something is “concerning”, and raise an eyebrow, but he’s plainly not doing this to advance an agenda. There are things he believes: he thinks that widespread Vitamin D deficiency has contributed to the spread of the virus and spikes in mortality rates. But he gives the impression that he’d revise his opinion at once if he felt that there was contradictory evidence. He’s been letting the science lead him, rather than pushing the science into the shape of his beliefs. That, alone, has been refreshing.

Campbell is one of an increasing number of people who have studied the limited numbers we’ve got, and hazarded the guess that the infection rate is far higher than what has been reported. In a way, that’s comforting: if there are more asymptomatic people out in the street, that means that the case fatality rate is lower than we’ve assumed it is. But it’s also stupefying. There are already more than ten thousand confirmed cases in Hudson County. That’s at least one for every Jersey City block. Last night the ambulances were back on this block. I’ll keep trying, as hard as I can, to duck the sirens.