The cruelest month

Last night, via videoconference, we played Castles Of Burgundy. This was done at Michael’s insistence — he felt we all needed a game. He rigged up his iPad as a monitor and aimed his laptop at himself so we could see what he was doing. We made our moves virtually, according to the honor system, and followed along on our own boards at home. So it went for more than three hours: Michael and Katherine, under the amber light of their kitchen in Atlantic Highlands, their dog in the corner, affixing little hexagons to the bigger hexagons on their player mat. We did the same. It wasn’t always easy to get a sense of the game-state, or plan moves. But it was fun, and I thank Michael and Katherine for throwing dice with us. It was nice to escape into a cardboard principality.

Those departures into fantasy haven’t been so easy to find. Most of the world wants to remind me of the crisis. Even my innocuous weather application insists on providing me with the latest coronavirus statistics for my region whenever I check to see if we’re going to get a little sunshine. The count is right there, in red numbers, right under the radar map and next to the daily low. Today, I’m told that there are just under ten thousand reported cases in Hudson County, with four hundred and twenty associated deaths. Each day, I’ve watched those numbers rise — not merely the aggregate count, but the mortality rate, which has crept from two percent to something closer to five. A one in twenty chance, a natural twenty on the twenty-sided die, enough, as any Dungeons and Dragons player can tell you, to score a critical hit.

These scary indices are going to keep climbing. We now recognize that serious symptoms of the disease associated with the virus often don’t manifest until the second week of illness. Some of those stricken will be placed on ventilators, where they may stay for another week, or maybe more. Many of those who’ve caused the death rate to inflate in April must have contracted the coronavirus in March. Those who feel their first symptoms today may not appear in the grimmest column of my weather application until May. This is why the discussion of peaks feels woefully premature to me. We’re still dealing with the terrible consequences of last month’s ill-fortune. We haven’t even gotten around to the consequences of our decisions today.

Models remain shaky. That’s an understatement, really: we continue to work with models that aren’t tethered to solid ground. Because antibody testing has been inadequate, we’ve got no clear idea how many asymptomatic cases of the virus there are. I imagine that many people secretly hope they might be one of those cases — perhaps they brushed up against the pathogen in mid-March, or even earlier, developed adequate antibodies while in state-suggested quarantine, and will emerge from isolation virtually bulletproof. This strikes me as a secular version of the Rapture fantasy that has poisoned Christianity for self-righteous dispensationalists. According to this faith, the elect will ascend to the Kingdom of Immunity without tasting the sting of coronavirus. This is nothing for anybody to count on or even to wish for. We don’t even know whether antibodies confer absolute resistance to the virus for those who’ve had the disease; there are disturbing indications from overseas that they may not. Our best bet is still not to get it.

I believe that’s possible. Evasive action remains available to us, and I trust that some uninfected people can still dodge the pathogen. Unfortunately, in the New York metro, that’s getting harder to do. We may not have a comprehensive picture of where the virus is, but we’re beginning to piece together the puzzle from the testing we’ve done. What we’re learning isn’t pretty, and doesn’t augur well for the immediate future. On Wednesday, The Atlantic reported that the test-positivity rate in New Jersey has been a terrifying one in two. On the other side of the Hudson, it’s even higher. To put that in context, the test-positivity rate in Italy, which we think of as a country rife with coronavirus, is only fifteen per cent. This suggests that America has many miles to go before the pandemic begins to burn out, and hints that the only reason we think we’ve hit a plateau is because testing has been so patchy.

People have been reading this page. I’ve been writing these daily dispatches in order to ground my own thinking and stay sane, and I intend to continue posting them for as long as I can. If they’ve been helpful for you, or if they just provide a momentary diversion, that makes me happy. I do think it’s possible, though, that I’m bringing my readers down. If I am, I apologize — this is intrinsically depressing stuff, and it would be dishonest for me to pretend otherwise. The moment I feel hopeful, I promise I’ll register my optimism here.