In the air

We wake up to a grocery delivery. Greens, beans in cans, a pineapple, some berries, toilet paper, a block of unsalted Kerrygold butter, other stuff. Our order includes a big bag of masa for tamales, but we haven’t been able to find corn husks. Getting it all upstairs is tricky. The bags are heavy and a little slick from the rain. The brown paper has been folded tight across the top; this ought to be reassuring, but the practical downside is that it’s hard to grab them from the top without tearing them. Inside the apartment, Hilary disinfects everything, item by item. From the upstairs window, she calls to the deliveryman and tells him to stay safe.

I wonder if he can. Every revision in the transmission model makes the virus seem scarier than we originally thought it was. At first we were told that masks weren’t going to be necessary. Now it seems like scientists have changed their minds. There’s no consensus about the the concentration of virus that would have to be present for airborne infection, or whether the virus can exist in aerosols at all. Nevertheless, I think we can conclude that if you’re in close contact with somebody who’s got it — even someone asymptomatic — all the hand-washing in the world isn’t going to help. You won’t need to get coughed or sneezed on. A regular friendly conversation might be enough to turn you into a new host.

We weren’t talking to each other in 2019. By necessity, in 2020, we’ve turned further inward. We cross the street when somebody else is coming. Some of you have been dismayed by the party-hearty who aren’t taking social distancing recommendations seriously. I haven’t really seen that; not much of it, anyway. In my town, we’ve slipped into a new model of sociability. The virus is accelerating a transition that was already happening: more indoor living, less physical contact with our neighbors, habitual hiding behind masks of different kinds, a sharper wedge driven between those who deliver the packages and those who receive them.

I’m not sure there’s any going back. Those of us who make it through this storm may find ourselves permanently disinclined to interact with strangers. Videoconferencing is not going to save the body politic, which needs vigorous, physical, in-person exercise. Part of the reason that we’ve been unable to respond to this challenge with the unity that the moment demands is that we were already dangerously fragmented. We’d already decided that our neighbors were our enemies, and that listening to them wasn’t important. We’ve replaced human relationships with digital simulations of them. Even as those simulations reveal their insufficiency, we keep getting angrier, and drifting farther apart. It may not be just the widespread use of masks that has helped South Korea flatten its curve. It might also be that they lack the American affliction — one that predates the coronavirus by many years, and shows no sign of dissipating on the breeze.