Reflections on a grey day

At the tail end of March, George called. He told me that he felt his life had been reduced to a frustrating Commodore-64 style text adventure in which he was limited to simple commands: get groceries, use sanitizer, check inventory, sleep. He is riding it out in Western Brooklyn, on the banks of the Gowanus, in the very eye of the storm. The peak would come soon, he’d heard on the news — April 8 or 9.

Those days have come and gone. Have we peaked? Is the worst of it behind New York City, and will the crisis wane from here? All of the language seems to come from mountain climbing: peaks, plateaus, slopes, ascents, crests, spikes. It’s appropriate for an illness that causes oxygen deprivation, but I’m not sure it models our daily reality. From street level, it’s impossible to see the topography of the pandemic. It all looks suspiciously flat. The only thing we have to go on is the numbers, and those numbers have been skewed by inadequate testing.

Nevertheless, we are all anxious to get on with it. We demand a narrative trajectory — not only public officials who’d like to restart the economy, but ordinary people weary of staying inside. By now, we ought to have arrived at a plot point. A peak, if we could find one, would qualify. Communication from authorities have lately been heavy on discussions of peaks: New York has either passed its peak and is on a plateau, or the peak will soon arrive, or the peak is here, but clouds conceal a higher peak somewhere out on the horizon. New Jersey trails New York by a week, unless it’s by more than that, unless you’re in a region of New Jersey that isn’t dominated by commuters. For some of the more anxious among the authorities, talk of a peak is shorthand for the desired quickening of the day when we all return to work. For others, it’s just an expression of good old American impatience.

We feel it. Hilary couldn’t make her annual Easter basket yesterday, which briefly saddened her on a day when we were determined to celebrate. She made do with what we had around the house, decorating the table with paper grass and egg-shaped candles, and surprised me with chocolates that she’d managed to get through the mail. (She also gave me a box of bamboo toothbrushes in various pastel colors.) Over dinner, we talked about walks we’d like to take, and people we’d like to see, and museums we’d like to visit, as if the world we will return to after the storm breaks will be a continuation of the one we knew and loved, rather than a radical break.

Perhaps it will be. Our immense desire to make it so may spur us to make it so. Everybody we know expresses a desire to pick up right where they left off. The trouble is that we left it off in a very dangerous place. The single-minded, self-oriented way we were living made us susceptible to crises like this one. If we want to reclaim any part of what we’ve lost, we’re going to have to be sure that we’ve learned and grown from what we’ve been through. Right now, I’m not too hopeful. We’ve been unable to put together a coordinated national response to the pandemic. Actually, that’s an understatement: we’ve seen states, and cities, and individual households all pulling in different directions, slapping together different remedies, and openly entertaining suspicions about the loyalties and intellectual capabilities of their neighbors. The great swelling of national empathy that happened in the wake of 9/11 hasn’t manifested. There’s been no sign that any of our political wounds have been healed, or even cauterized by the intensity of the crisis.

As some parts of America are shutting down, others are rushing to open back up. Some of these back-to-work plans have been drafted by scientists who’ve turned their trained diagnostic eyes on the peaks and crests. But some of them are, plainly, based on the gut feelings and blind wishcasting of political leaders who are neither doctors nor epidemiologists. We should have been taught a terrible lesson about this. Honestly, we haven’t even had the time to forget the painful lessons we’ve learned, because we’re still learning them, on a daily basis, and not merely in New York and New Jersey. What we don’t know about the coronavirus still towers over what we do know. We’re not sure if people can be reinfected, or if there are long-term consequences to getting sick that will complicate recovery. We don’t know if there are multiple strains of the virus at large, and we don’t know how many people are asymptomatic carriers. Our transmission model is incomplete at best: we can’t even agree if it’s safe to take a walk around the block. In the absence of answers — even provisional ones — reopening anything would be a crazy risk.

Alas, it’s exactly the sort of risk we were taking before the pandemic struck. In order for us to be safe, we need more than an elimination of pathogens and a fresh can of Lysol for our shoes. We need to know that our leaders and our fellow citizens can learn from their mistakes. Otherwise, I fear we’re going to be lost in the mountains for a very long time.