Camera shy

I am not a forceful conversationalist. I’ve always preferred it if other people would take the lead. Whenever many other people are talking — especially when they’re talking loudly — I’ll never raise my volume and wedge myself into the discussion. I’ll be quiet, and wait it out, on the assumption that if anybody has any interest in what I think, they’ll ask me directly. Of course they never do, because human interaction doesn’t work like that. The person who is loudest doesn’t defer to those who are quieter than he is. As he sees it, our softness signals acquiescence to his superior wisdom. He just gets louder.

This has always made me useless in meetings. It makes me extra hopeless on video chat sessions. Zoom reinforces my feeling that nobody is listening to me when I talk — and that, chances are, they can’t even hear me. My voice is soft, and my manner isn’t imposing in the slightest. The camera makes me appear smaller and more fragile than I even imagine myself to be, and I think of myself as rather mousy to begin with. Part of the reason why people like me take to the stage to make music is because we know we’ll be able to avail ourselves of spotlights and amplification systems. We’ll be able to say what we need to say in a way that we can never manage to do in daily life. We can stop the world long enough to express something complicated.

Stages, alas, are off-limits to us right now. Video chats, and other forms of camera-based expression, are proliferating. Zoom demands that I cultivate social skills that are foreign to me. This makes me no different from millions of others who are learning, on the fly, new strategies of interaction on a planet where face-to-face contact is discouraged. But I know from experience that I don’t adapt very well. If I were a biological weapon, I’d never make it out of the lab.

Yesterday I was a participant on a video conference held by a city publication that I’ve done some writing for. Only I wasn’t; not really. A lot of talking happened, but none of it was done by me. During story meetings of all kinds, I’ve always had a hard time inserting myself. Zoom reduces me to a small spectacled face, in a box, in a Siberian corner of a crowded grid. Never am I able to speak without somebody else speaking at the same time, invariably louder that I do. The terrible truth is that I had nothing much to contribute anyway. The galleries are closed. I can’t encourage people to crowd into a basement club to hear music. I’ve already done the story about how arts organizations are coping with our new realities. The answer: they’re coping badly. How could it be anything other than that? When could we possibly expect a different answer?

Last year I made a decision to pay closer attention to the public culture of the city. Things that inspire me always compel me to write, and after months of nothing but worry, I felt like I could use a few good prompts. Beyond that, I wanted to find a way to engage with my neighbors in a way that wouldn’t be misunderstood, and on terms that I might establish myself. I imagine that desire is common among writers who aspire to overcome introverted dispositions and develop some measure of public spirit. Anyway, the important part was that it was working: arts organizers were amused and maybe even entertained by my reactions. It would be a wild overstatement to say that I’d gained anybody’s trust, because that takes a long time, and rightfully so. But I’d opened a conversation, and done it in a manner that was sustainable for me. It was a step in the right direction. With public culture shut down, I’m going to need to come up with an alternate strategy for taking another step. Feels like a doozy, does it not?

Hard numbers

It’s the middle of May. By the weekend, the death toll in Hudson County is likely to break the thousand mark. We count 16,975 cases. That’s a case fatality rate of 5.8%. Put another way: those with confirmed cases of the virus had a little better than a one in twenty chance of dying. If you’ve ever played Dungeons & Dragons, or another game that uses a d20 system, you know that rolling a natural twenty isn’t all that uncommon. Critical hit, double damage.

In neighboring counties, the numbers are worse. Essex, the next county over, and the heart of African-American New Jersey, has confirmed slightly fewer cases but considerably more deaths. Their current case fatality rate is almost ten percent. Bergen County isn’t far behind. As we know, many of those deaths have happened in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. But many of them have not. Some of those who didn’t make it already had serious medical issues. But many of them did not.

Initially, I thought that those percentages would decrease as the crisis developed. More testing plus more medication plus recovery and acquisition of antibodies seemed to point toward a better ratio of survivors to non-survivors. This hasn’t happened. Instead, I’ve watched the rate triple in eight weeks. Percentages have spiked on the other side of the Hudson, too. Even as more sick (and healthy) people have been checked, the grim numerator of mortalities has kept pace with the widening denominator of case confirmations.

Life during a public health crisis accustoms us to epidemiological language, and highlights some of our misconceptions. For instance, for weeks, I’ve been confusing case fatality rate with infection fatality rate, and that misunderstanding has skewed my apprehension of the dangers we face. We know that at least some — and possibly many — of the people infected with the coronavirus will remain asymptomatic. These people may never get tested, and may never even go to a doctor for a related complaint. They aren’t counted among the cases, and given current American priorities, it’s likely that they never will be.

Because of this, it’s been very difficult to calculate the infection fatality rate. Those who’ve tried to do it have been operating from incomplete information, and they’ve based their impressions on numbers from prior pandemics. That’s not a useless thing to do: precedent is important. It becomes dangerous, though, when the people doing the educated guesswork refuse to budge from their models. We all desperately want the case fatality rate to be low. Right now, though, we’re still listening to people who are absolutely determined to show that the casualty rates for this virus are equivalent to those associated with the flu. Some of this has been politically motivated — it’s tacit support for certain (mis)leaders who’ve pushed the line that this is just another kind of flu — and some of it is plain old wishcasting.

By now, you don’t have to be from New York or New Jersey to know that this is not just the flu. No flu has case fatality rates approaching ten per cent. Every year, there are thousands of cases of mild flu, too; people so afflicted don’t go to the doctor, either. We can better model infection fatality rates for the flu because we’ve had more than a century of experience with influenza. It was always a dicy thing to do to conflate the current outbreak with influenza, and anybody who is still doing it in May — anybody mentioning flu at all — is immediately suspect to me. The coronavirus is novel. It’s acting on us in ways that we still don’t understand. We ought to take the current case fatality rate seriously. We should stop reassuring ourselves that it’s going to be more palatable once the numbers are in. I fear it’s going to be awhile before numbers are friendly again.

The West Wing and the Devil

Network news producers never learn. Or maybe they do, and the implications of the lessons they’ve learned are just hard for me to stomach. A global pandemic ought to provide editors all the trending topics they could ever ask for. Nevertheless, the story continues to be reported through the frame of the 2020 elections, as if the virus is a poll indicator or a complicating factor in a political saga rather than a threat to my health and yours. The virus will seal the fate of Donald Trump, unless his supporters rally around him and sing him through in defiance of doctor’s orders, unless the elections are scrapped altogether, unless illness rips through the West Wing and settles this before we even get to the ballot box. Frankly, it’s beyond me why we’re supposed to care about Donald Trump at all in May 2020, as he has now spent weeks demonstrating his own irrelevance to the crisis. When he does talk about the virus, he has nothing of value to contribute to the discussion. In no way is this his story.

Should the President catch the virus and require medical intervention, that would change. That’d be a major global news item, as it was when Boris Johnson needed intensive care. I am pleased to see that Boris is doing better, even as nothing else about the guy makes me pleased in the slightest. Likewise, I don’t want to see anybody carried out of the White House in an ambulance. We can catalogue their misdeeds later; right now, we’ve got a foreign invader to stop. I cringed when I saw the pictures of an unmasked Vice President — not because of any love for a politician who’d consider me a deviant, but because he’d become a danger to the people around him, and thereby pushing humanity closer to a brink that is approaching with alarming speed. You may believe that that’s all he’s ever done. It shouldn’t matter. In the showdown between a man and a virus, we cannot ever afford to be rooting for the virus. We’ve got to be on the side of the men, and yes, that includes those men who are, through their own idiotic behavior, advancing the spread of the pathogen. No matter how dumb they seem, and how hostile they are, and how vigorously they wave their Confederate flags, we have to hope that they don’t become hosts and spreaders. Otherwise we further jeopardize those of us who aren’t behaving like clowns. Every new infection in every fresh pair of lungs makes it that much harder to suppress the virus and rebuild our society.

Yet the networks are preying, and hard, on our sense of poetic justice. The crows are out on the White House lawn, and they’re hunting for any scrap of news that suggests that people close to the President are infected. The West Wing outbreak has been a lead story for days, even as its saliency to the crisis is negligible. I can feel the tug, too. It would indeed be ironic if those who minimized the risks of the coronavirus were to become seriously sick. Punishment visited on those whose inaction and denialism deepened the crisis would be a satisfying cinematic twist, even if it’s too on-the-nose to be called literary. And that is exactly how this news item has been subtly pushed: we’re shown fresh evidence of the administration’s incoherence, asked again to review the death count, reminded of the President’s habitual suppression of facts, and invited to wonder whether he’s covering up an outbreak that’s happening right under his nose. Should it come for him, he’d have nobody to blame but himself, right? There is something Biblical about that. But this story is not in the Bible. It’s written on the pages of newspapers, and its author is, undeniably, the Devil.

For those of you who are resolutely secular, “the Devil” is a shorthand term that some religious people use to describe the voice that activates the blackest parts of our hearts. You may call it something else; I’m a poetry fan and a C.S. Lewis reader, and I find that “the Devil” does the job best. The Devil finds righteous vengeance an indispensable tool. If we can all agree (and we don’t, but enough of us do) that the President is responsible for a great measure of the suffering that Americans are currently feeling, then we might believe that our desire to see the President brought low by a microbe is justifiable. You might check your newsfeed and feel, on some not-very-deep level, disappointment at your discovery that the President and his various cronies remain uninfected by a virus that has killed tens of thousands. This is the latest version of the humiliation drive that sent everybody to the social networks to cheer on Robert Mueller, or, rather, the imaginary version of Mueller the Avenger that the networks planted in the minds of the gullible. As all retribution fantasies do, that ended badly. The difference now is that we’re not dealing with a metaphorical virus of criminal behavior. We’re dealing with an actual virus. And the more we cheer for it to afflict our enemies, whether perceived or actual, the harder it is going to be for us to act with the unity that is our only way out of the miasmal swamp.

You may see Donald Trump as the main propagator of the divisions that stand in the way of a national plan. Certainly he has been handy with the kerosene, and he’s thrown it around liberally. But with apologies to Billy Joel, he didn’t start the fire. If I have beef, it’s got to be with the sixty three million Americans who handed the President the power to do the things that he does, and who will almost certainly move in November to keep that power in his hands. I’m under no illusions about how those people would treat me if they could. But as a human being with a respiratory system, it gets me worse than nowhere to wish that the virus would mess up their towns, and their lives, instead of mine. Infectious disease doesn’t work like that. Right now, the species is facing a common threat, and in a way, that’s been clarifying — it’s made our moral choices a little starker, and a little easier to read. For years, we haven’t wanted to reduce our differences. A pathogenic exigency has done that social work for us. We just need to wake up and recognize: if you get it, that means it’s more likely that I get it, no matter who you are. Even if you’re a militiaman. Even if you’re the President of the United States.

Somewhere in the swamps of Jersey

Close to home.

The head of the Mill Creek Marsh Trail is in a Kohl’s parking lot. I’d call that peak Jersey, if everything else about Jersey wasn’t also peak Jersey; we sustain long peaks here. It’s also telling that no matter how far you press into the swamp, you’ll never lose sight of the Turnpike or the Secaucus utilities complex. This is the back half of Hudson County: the part with the brackish water and the flat big-box stores, the plumbing, the power-generation, and the transport. I’ve always found it a rewarding place to explore.

Although I knew it was there for many years, I’d never been to the Mill Creek complex of footpaths. That’s mostly because the Marsh Trail is difficult to reach by bicycle. To get to the Kohl’s and the Marsh Trail, you’ve got to contrive a way of crossing Route 3 and Route 495, which is a dicy thing to do even if you’re in a car. Technically, Secaucus shares a border with Jersey City, but it’s a doozy, a boundary reinforced by the swamps, the gooey Penhorn Creek, the great industrial car-parks and repositories of truckloads of stuff, the Fedex and Goya complexes, and the infamous Highway 1-9, the most unforgiving stretch of road in the galaxy. If I were a marsh bird, I imagine it would be a snap to get from the reedy banks of the Hudson to the mud flats on the Hackensack. Traveling to Secaucus reminds me that I don’t have wings.

It also reinforces my feelings of vulnerability. Over the past few months, busy as it’s been with talk of quarantines and border-crossings, and aspersions cast in our direction by loudmouth governors who don’t want Jersey people infecting their states, it’s occurred to me, many times, that it would be a simple thing to isolate Jersey City. All the authorities would have to do is close a couple of bridges and barricade a couple of roads. We’d never get out.

Secaucus seemed like a smart answer to the questions posed by the day yesterday: sun out and sixty degrees, some restrictions relaxed, Jersey City parks likely jammed, Hilary’s little green car waiting on the street, undriven and unloved for two long weeks. We didn’t want to travel too far; Mill Creek, at fifteen minutes away, felt reasonable. George had sent a good article by a Massachusetts doctor that broadly reinforced many of the points made by Jonathan Kay and Muge Cevik, and further suggested that our chances of catching the coronavirus from a passerby on a trail was low. A brush up against a stranger on a path through the reeds might not necessarily be the end of us.

As it turned out, there was no reason to worry. Besides the birds and the bugs, most of the trails through the marshes were blissfully empty. We passed a few other people on the red gravel pathways, many of whom were walking dogs or watching birds or just stretching their legs after long weeks indoors, but nearly everybody was masked, and absolutely everybody took the distancing suggestions seriously. One of the things that has infuriated me about the discourse I’ve heard from distant quarters is the implication that Hudson County is under a fascist lockdown — that we’ve had masks put on our unwilling faces by government fiat, and robots are prying us apart. This couldn’t be more wrong. We are voluntarily taking steps to avoid hurting our neighbors. For us, it’s never been a question of individual liberties. Nobody has had to twist our arms. We’ve just needed to be properly informed. We’ve taken the initiative to protect what we’ve got, and we’ll continue to do so, even if the authorities attempt to reopen prematurely. We would like to get back to the life we knew as soon as we can, because it was one well worth living. Even as my embarrassment about being an American has grown, I feel a great upwelling of New Jersey pride. I didn’t think we’d show as much dignity and restraint as we have. I was wrong to doubt my neighbors. Mill Creek Marsh Trail was not policed, but we all knew what to do, and what not to do.

We were there to take in the scenery, and nobody was going to be the ruin of anybody else’s day. Imagine a latticework of narrow, tree-lined paths through mud flats dotted with dried tree stumps; then, imagine the New Jersey Turnpike right over the barrier of reeds. Parts of the landscape were flat and greasy as a cookie sheet, while other parts were undulations of grass and moss. The trails and footbridges aren’t the maze that they seem to be at first, so even if a visitor couldn’t orient herself by the highway, she’d never get lost. Birds were general. I saw, among other little fellows, a finch so yellow I thought it had been spray-painted, a few egrets with their webbed feet in the shallows, and a mother duck leading a line of ducklings from the mud to a brackish rivulet. They all looked happier in the water.

On the way back, signs on 1-9 continued to warn us off the road. Flatten the curve, not your tire, we were told, and that seemed like a bit more of a threat than I wanted to encounter. We get the picture. We’ll take our excursions sparingly, and maybe even responsibly. At the big box restaurants, patrons queued up in the parking lots, six feet apart, to pick up Mother’s Day dinner. Scores of masked people waited in their cars in front of the Olive Garden for their names to be called; they’d go and get what they came for, as gingerly as they could, and return home to their families. Everybody still needs to celebrate. We’re doing it as cautiously as we can. But we’re doing it.

Inches

The last time I pressed the flesh, it was March 6. That was a Jersey City Friday, there was fear in the air, and arts events happening all over town. It was a cold and rainy night, but we went out anyway: we’d arrive at a gallery, greet the artist and the owner, shake hands, and apply sanitizer liberally afterward. We were still acting on the popular assumption that the main form of transmission was unwashed hands. It occurred to me that what we were doing was a risk, but I couldn’t see the full measure of what was coming. I figured if I smeared us both in Purell, we’d be able to continue going to shows all spring.

By March 10, that assumption looked dubious. A week later, the doors to the galleries and clubs were closed, and reality began to bite. It occurred to all of us that that Jersey City Friday might be the last of its kind for a long time. I’ve tried to hang on to the memory of that night, and given the circumstances, it’s remained sharp in my mind — like my recollection of the contours of the calm on the morning before the planes hit the towers. I can pinpoint the exact locations of each painting on the wall at the Hamlet Manzueta retrospective show at the Art House; I remember the specific hors d’oeuvres they were serving in the atrium of the Majestic Condominiums; I can reconstitute my footwork as I tried to squeeze into a crowded Village West Gallery for a poetry reading. I remember the streetlight streaks in the puddles of rain on the Newark Avenue sidewalks. I remember the unmasked faces of my neighbors.

Mostly, though, I remember a show at the SMUSH Gallery in McGinley Square. “īîìïíinches” felt like it was primarily motivated by a desire to express an idiosyncratic personality — in this case, the personality of a woman named Myssi Robinson, who is a dancer as well as a painter and a weird-object-designer. Robinson struck me as quintessential Hudson County artist working in the local post-industrial style, gluing together paper and rope and painted what-is-its at funny, aesthetically-pleasing angles, sprinkling glitter liberally, but leaving plenty of serrated edges. SMUSH gave her the entire space to decorate, and she made the most of that latitude. She covered one wall with black-and-white triangles as ready for business as any saw-teeth; on another, she draped bunting made of yellow plastic sheets. Right in the middle of the room, Robinson hung a portal (her word) to another dimension, or at least an experience uncommon on a wet, cold Jersey City night. This was a circle of floor to ceiling plastic tubes with a mirror on top. We were invited to walk in to the ring of darkness, look up, and allow the artist to take our picture.

Estranged by distance, distorted by the quick change in perception, the occupant of the portal was confronted by an image of herself. Like so much of “īîìïíinches”, it seemed to be a playful comment on vanity — one made by a person accustomed to being watched. Many of the objects in the show, on closer inspection, evoked women’s fashion: a polka-dot pattern with a loop in the shape of a handbag handle, waves of plastic suggestive of a party dress, smeared smiley-faces, some scribbled over with nail polish, beaming back like girls’ reflections in the too-bright circles at the cosmetics counter. Myssi Robinson wrought a hat from photocopies and braided industrial rope, and cupped plastic mirrored squares in red netting. These all felt like shards of feminine experience, strips torn from Glamour and reassembled, the residue of the immense energy that self-presentation requires. Everything in the show was pretty but barbed, lively, smart, exciting and impertinent, like an outfit held together by the confidence of its wearer.

The immersive quality of the “īîìïíinches” show can’t be translated to the Internet. But Myssi Robinson, and Katelyn Halpern, the curator and owner of SMUSH, want you to see the artworks anyway. Halpern, who is always very theorized about everything she does, was skeptical of online presentation at first; she felt that the whole point of a space like SMUSH is in-person interaction. Necessity has forced her to adjust. “īîìïíinches” is, I think, the first online exhibit she’s ever put together, and I’m glad she’s done it. Taken one at a time in a slideshow, Myssi Robinson’s objects still have plenty of stories to tell. The voice may not be as loud as it would have been if you’d encountered it on the first of March, but you can still hear the artist talking, and I’m grateful to Katelyn Halpern for putting aside her reservations and giving Myssi Robinson the amplification.

Protocols, revisited

This page has been pretty grim. I understand why a few people who check it every day were surprised by yesterday’s post. One very good friend of mine even accused me of optimism. I told him that he knew me better than that. Nothing fundamental has changed: I still believe that American authorities have been unwise and inattentive. Sending people back to work feels greedy and premature to me. There are many scary miles to travel.

Yet the optimism is real, and it’s been growing ever since the calendar turned to May. My brightened outlook doesn’t have much to do with what’s happening in America: it’s based on the qualified success of other countries that have managed to slow the advance of the coronavirus. The equilibrium they’ve reached in Brisbane and Taipei might fall apart, but the mere fact that they’ve been able to hold the monster at bay suggests to me that the fight can be won. We don’t need to put our entire population at risk in a chase for herd immunity that might be a fantasy anyway. We can figure out how the pathogen spreads, and proceed accordingly; we can discover what not to do, and we can try not to do those things.

To achieve that sort of operational clarity, we need to work with a real transmission model. For eight frustrating weeks of shutdown, we haven’t had one. This has forced every individual to cobble together a private model based on anecdotes, prejudices, common sense, and superstition. Should I go to a show? Can I sit in the park? Do I need to disinfect my mail? Could I get it from my neighbor’s children? When they cough upstairs, will the virus work its way down through the vents? Is it so pervasive that there’s no way to stop it; should we resign ourselves to the inevitability of infection? In the absence of guidance, we fended for ourselves. Public decisionmakers did too. Their initial containment strategies were motivated by panic, precedent, and guesswork. Lockdowns were a crude means of coping with our mass ignorance: we don’t know how this is getting around, but it certainly is, so we’d better prohibit as much as possible.

Part of the reason why we haven’t been able to get a reliable transmission model together was our uncertainly about the size and concentration of the infectious dose. This remains true: we still don’t know how much coronavirus we’d need to be exposed to in order to become carriers. Scare articles about virus particles found tucked away in corners, or persisting on cardboard boxes, or hanging in the air after a jogger runs by are stupendously unhelpful. What we really need to know is whether those stray particles are present in sufficient quantities to infect us; if they aren’t, they’re just part of the microbial background noise that our systems encounter daily. There’s been reason to suspect that higher concentrations of virus — like those that healthcare workers have been coping with — prompt a more severe version of the sickness. Some people have guessed that chance encounters with low levels of virus lead to asymptomatic cases. Without contact tracing, there’s no way to know.

Our uncertainty has led directly to the circulation of shaky models. Among the most popular — and I know you’ve seen them — are the great animated, colored billows of cloud-particles from the lungs of passersby in stores, on bicycles, at parties, in offices. Because these images conflate the dynamics of respiration with the trajectory of infection, they’re misleading. We can’t be afraid of sharing air with other beings, because it’s all one planet, and no private supply is possible. We need to know how to exist in the biosphere, and how to interact with our fellow creatures, without worrying about getting them sick.

After too long in the dark, a preliminary transmission model is beginning to coalesce. We’re starting to get a picture of how this pathogen gets around, and how we might reorganize our activities to lessen a lethal threat that we’re going to be living with for a long time. The twenty-two threaded tweets by Dr. Cevik contain links to studies that all point in the same direction: in order to thrive, this virus requires close and prolonged contact between humans. This research reinforces the hypothetical models put together by some amateurs, including Quillette editor Jonathan Kay. We’re getting a profile of a serious and highly infectious respiratory illness, that, despite its ferocity, can be slowed down if we wear masks in public to block large droplets, maintain social distance, ventilate indoor spaces, reimagine workplaces before reopening them, get out in the sunshine when we can, and behave responsibly while we’re there.

No contact tracing strategy can ever be complete, and no model of transmission can account for every vector. The best we can do is get a sense of probabilities, and behave accordingly. My protocol isn’t changing: I’m less worried about runners than I was a week ago, and that’s a relief, but I’m still going to cross the street when I see one coming. I won’t be going anywhere without a mask and a plan to dodge crowds and close contact. Basically, I’ll pretend that I’m Taiwanese, and I encourage all Americans, and particularly American leaders, to do likewise. In Taiwan, they’ve taken the pathogen for what it is, rather than fear it for what it isn’t, and their application of prudent science to a biological problem has led to dramatically better outcomes than what we’ve been getting in the States. What prudent science tells us is that we aren’t helpless. We don’t have to build our policy around the lethal misconception that the virus will get us and there’s nothing to be done, so we may as well send everybody back to the meat-packing plant. There are ameliorative options for us, and those remain on the table, no matter how many Americans have been infected. The more tracing we do, the clearer those options become. And that is, I fear, why certain foolish Americans don’t want us to do the tracing.

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.

A civics lesson

Absolution is a powerful intoxicant. Those addicted to its thrills will go to great lengths to get it. In America, where absolution has been made artificially cheap and plentiful, we’ve lately been forgiving ourselves for our role in the global health crisis, and sometimes pretending that we didn’t have one at all. In this view, the virus was like a great ship, unmarked and untraceable, which arrived on the shores and unloaded its cargo before we knew what was happening. We were the passive recipients of a deadly gift from overseas. Like so many other recently minted myths, this is a dangerous one. In order to prevent the next crisis, and mitigate the one we’re still very much in the midst of, it’s important for us to reverse our thinking about this, and understand and accept exactly what America is, and what our global responsibilities are.

America is unlike any other country in the world. Every country is exceptional, but the ways in which America is different far outpace the ways in which it is an average citizen of the community of nations. The main reason that America can’t be treated like other countries is an economic one: the dollar is the world’s reserve currency. This wasn’t always the case. Before World War II, the world economic system was largely backed by the British sterling. In the second half of the twentieth century, the international order was reshuffled, and American money was made the anchor of global commerce. To some degree, this revaluation was an acknowledgement of a shift in power that had already happened. The strength of American industry and ingenuity had been made visible to the entire globe. But countries were also willing to fall into the new order because they believed that America would be a capable steward. The eagle looked like a bird to follow.

Sometimes we’ve justified that faith, but lately, we haven’t. Our government has often taken advantage of our reserve position in the world economy by borrowing trillions and running enormous deficits — debts that no other country could sustain without jeopardizing its citizens’ way of life. Our leaders have been able to do this because belief in American industry and ingenuity remains strong worldwide. Creditors continue to buy our bonds, and maintain their trust that we’ll make good on our gigantic promissory notes. Among those paying customers are the treasuries of foreign countries, including ostensible competitors like China. Our debts tether us to those countries more securely than any military treaty ever could. American politicians may jump up and down and shake their fists at the Chinese authorities for sending pathogens our way, but they do it with fingers crossed behind their backs. They know that if investors stop purchasing our debts, the system that provides us our great economic advantage will dissolve like a sandcastle under a great wave.

This might sound ugly, or even unpatriotic to you, but it’s undeniable: the economic well-being of the United States is based on a kind of confidence game. Investors simply must continue to see our treasury bonds as a safe asset pool. The moment that stops, the jig is up. Markers will be called in, and we’ll find ourselves trillions of dollars in the hole and without ready means to fund public services. This does not mean that our leaders have no latitude to project moral authority. On the contrary, confidence in America requires that we act the part of the leader. We don’t have the option to become a pariah nation. There is simply no way for America to step back from its position of international stewardship without jeopardizing everything that we have come to count on.

For many reasons, almost all of which have been bad, recent American governments have been reluctant to acknowledge this. Some of them have worked hard to obscure it. The current administration may indeed be the fullest expression of a national hunger for a fantastic self-sufficiency, but this snow job has been going on for years. The groundwork for disengagement was laid in the 1980s, and all of our popular politicians have furthered it in one way or another. Consider, for instance, another global responsibility that most Americans don’t like to think about: control of the commons. The waterways and airways by which all of the products we need come to these and other shores are, technically, international. But the moment they’re threatened by pirates, or bomb-throwers, or unscrupulous regimes looking to set up a shipping chokehold, the entire planet expects Uncle Sam to swing around the big stick. You might find this unfair, or just unfortunate; I sure do, and I’ve been loud about that in the past. I don’t think it’s healthy for America to be the global heavy. Nevertheless, that’s the role we’ve taken on, and it’s one of the cornerstones of our hegemony. If an American commander in chief ever said you know what?, we’re not going to do this anymore, you people do it instead, that would absolutely recalibrate the world order.

During the twenty-first century, our international authority has steadily dwindled. That has happened with the consent of the public, which has clearly grown weary of shouldering an international burden. The rest of the globe has been slow to catch on to our loss of confidence, and that’s been good thing for us, since we’ve continued to reap the residual rewards of the arrangements that were made seventy years ago. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if a radical global reordering was right around the corner, and if, during that reordering, America was treated with rudeness that we’ve never experienced. That relegation hasn’t happened yet, and people around the world continue to look to America to project strength in difficult times.

What this means is that we still have a moral responsibility to stay steady at the tiller — even if the ship is going down. We can’t pretend to be geopolitical newbies, or behave like our concerns stop at our borders. If something strange is going on in China, we’re supposed to be on top of it; we’re not allowed to behave like innocents who just happened to be standing downwind of international affairs. We’re not allowed to pull out of global agreements or yank the plug from oversight organizations, even if we don’t like how they’re staffed or who their investors are. If the first third of 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that there’s no taking our ball and going home. American inattention has dreadful global consequences. That’s the way the modern world is built, and there’s no getting around it. There may be a day in the not-so-distant future when another nation takes on the mantle of world stewardship. In the meantime, the planet can’t float on rudderless. We shouldn’t hasten the start of that new day. Believe me, fellow American, you’re not going to like it one bit when it dawns.

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.

Into the rapids

Hilary notes a change in the tone and content of the mainstream news. No longer do the networks foreground warnings about behavior that might accelerate the transmission of the coronavirus, or stories about exhausted medical workers, or supply shortages. Instead, the emphasis has shifted to costs of reopening — and reopening is now treated as an inevitability. This has been coupled with stories about the restlessness of the American worker, who, we’re assured, simply cannot cope with any more time spent indoors, but must instead risk his life on the assembly line.

Meanwhile, the White House finally concedes what we already knew: the body count continues to climb, and that climb will be further hastened by the easement of social-distancing restrictions. Whether ordinary people can stomach two to three thousand deaths per day (their numbers) through June is irrelevant. What matters is that the authorities are determined to crack the whip and drive people back to work.

It is worth remembering that other countries are taking a different approach. Taiwan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand are neither isolated nor uninterested in global commerce. They’ve managed to reduce their cases by emphasizing everything that we aren’t: testing, contact tracing, comprehensive and honest counting, biology, intelligence, caution. In the past, I’d have assumed that those governments would eventually follow the behavioral lead of the United States, as we’ve got the bombs and the Chicken McNuggets, and those have always tended to carry the day. Today I expect those foreign governments to reject our model with some emphasis. We’re not the world leader anymore. It turns out we’re the rogue state. You might cheer our recalcitrance as a deserved nose-thumbing to the global elites; you might be inclined to dust off your passport. Regardless, the time to learn Norwegian and move to the fjords has passed us by. Singapore doesn’t want us. We’re stuck here — and regardless of our political affiliations, we’re going over the falls in the same canoe.

Nobody knows what awaits us at the bottom. A few weeks ago, those who pressed for a return to business as usual were arguing that warm weather and vigorous activity would hold the virus at bay, and hey, maybe those social distancing guidelines are ineffective anyway? Now, no one is even bothering to make lame excuses. Thousands will die, and many more will become critically ill, and under the red, white, and blue, that’s just the way it goes. Those wheels of capital aren’t going to grease themselves, therefore, it’s time for the American proletariat to get busy.

Yet two things never seem to occur to the cheerleaders: 1.) there’s no returning to economic normalcy in the middle of a global pandemic, and 2.) infectious diseases can come for anybody, anywhere, and the more people who have it, the more likely it is that you’re going to get it. That’s true for you even if you’re a master of the universe — even if you’re toting heavy weaponry on a militia compound. An infernal-red light blinked on over the heads of the worst among us when we learned the coronavirus was disproportionately killing African Americans. White supremacists everywhere must be tickled by the stories coming out of Detroit, Newark, and New Orleans. But I don’t want to put too fine a point on that. On a deep-psychological level, I don’t think it matters too much who gets chucked into the volcano. America demands a horror story. We’re getting one.

You don’t have to be part of that story. Circumstances outside your control may pull you under — and some of your neighbors might make it harder for you to protect yourself — but you aren’t powerless. What we’ve learned from other countries is that protective measures work, and that a successful response to an infectious disease involves millions of small individual actions. It would help if American authorities weren’t actively undermining those actions, and would instead cultivate the humility that the moment demands. Today, we seem farther away from our ideal than we ever have been, which is astonishing, given what we’ve all been through together. Some moral problems are truly confounding. This isn’t one of them. The right thing to do is coming through, loud and clear, on the wavelength of your conscience. All you’ve got to do is cut out the noise, and listen.