Reflections on life under lockdown from the world’s COVID-19 capital

Photograph: Richard Drury — Getty Images

rooklyn, NY — A few days back I caught myself feeling and behaving as though I’d just stepped off the set of The Walking Dead. A necessary but potentially lethal grocery run. Stealth mode. Backpack tightly on my back, hyperaware of my surroundings, baseball cap on; taking cautious (not paranoid) inventory of every sneeze, every cough not ejected into a folded arm, every potential respiratory droplet that self-righteously and of course by media mandate, we have the right to inspect, recoil from, and generously, promptly and in unison shoot a lasering death glare. Slithering around the frenzied fluorescent air of the aisles in the Bushwick Key Food, I kept my shopping cart handle bar sanitized with the homemade alcohol and aloe gel spray (so resourceful) that has become a mainstay in any outerwear pocket I seldom leave my four walls with.

Apocalyptic essentials for one? Check. Clorox wipes? 12PM is too late in the day; not available. Come back tomorrow. Kimchi as probiotic to compensate for the good bacteria I am constantly depleting? Check. Sanity? Status unknown.

After an emotionally tumultuous 2018, (2019 was only in few ways redemptive), I never would have thought that my self-imposed incubation period, for healing and thinking and all the identity work that comes at the end of a significant chapter in one’s life and the start of a new, would be joined by all the rest of humanity in global quarantine. Practices of comfort would be exchanged by way of film and book recommendations, endless TikTok scroll material, footage from Milanese balconies reminding us all in case we had forgotten, that even in the bleakest times, Italians know how to live; injecting the anxious with a necessary dose of joy. Trevor Noah attempting to follow suit in New York City, only for his serenade to receive an emphatic and true to character ‘shut the fuck up!’ in response. Rita Wilson, after testing positive, nailing every word of Naughty by Nature’s Hip Hop Hooray. The content we need.

Coronavirus, as Gal Gadot philosophically points out to us, infects without prejudice: racial, socioeconomic or by any other measure — but the ways in which society, for better or worse, has responded, exposes a palpable reality. Despite celebrity contributions — to food banks, grassroots organizations and small businesses, what does it say about our society, that the Kris Jenners of the world upon sneeze or first tickle in the throat; are instantly able to test and receive reassurance in a clean negative result — while countless others with less resources but obvious symptoms are not? Nothing we were oblivious to pre-pandemic, though slightly more nauseating in current circumstances.

In crisis, it seems as though all the true dynamics of society rise to the surface; all of our animalistic instincts driven by a scarcity mindset feed into real life shortages and deprive the people who need them most. Food and toilet paper wars; masks and medical supplies; the black market bottle of alcohol and Lysol spray I bought at my local dollar store last week upon running out. In our age of anxiety, it is a truly challenging task to mentally distance from the relentless news ticker. At best, it reminds us of life before lockdown and imposed isolation, of the warmth and kindness we are fully capable of circulating; at worst, makes us want to shelter in place under blankets and ponder why, in the most envious and second class way possible, we aren’t all billionaires waiting this out in our underground heated pools in hydroponic garden-outfitted bunkers. But when we manage to catch our breath that is the physiological overload of the panic scroll, it would do us well to take heed of moments throughout history that may be telling in present times.

Today we are head-on with a pandemic of apparently 1918 Spanish flu proportions; one we were perplexingly not prepared to contain despite warnings over the years from experts in the circles of politics, epidemiology and biotechnology. A century later, it’s safe to speculate that perhaps we are better off now, medically, and in mask knowledge. To an extent. COVID-19 has not (yet) kicked off a ban on being in public without a mask as the 1918 flu pandemic did in American cities then, arresting and five dollar-fining people not wearing them under the charge of “disturbing the peace”. But we have our own brand of misinformation running rampant, and its contagion only grows with self-isolation.

What seems to be hurting us on a daily basis is the intense fear-mongering and lack of coverage on cases in recovery, on methods of containment in China, Denmark, South Korea; countries that reacted early on, that we can learn from in developing our own strategies. Aside from “died of coronavirus complications”, we don’t get much insight into what that means, or the medical contexts that may have played a role in the declining health of those who passed away. At the time of writing, over one million cases have been confirmed worldwide, with 245,573 in the US; 115,242 in Italy; and 117,710 in Spain. These numbers went up from 164,200 in the US; 101,700 in Italy; and 87,900 in Spain over the course of a couple of days while I wrote this piece.

On a more optimistic note, Johns Hopkins’ coronavirus data map suggests that of those cases, while there have been 13,915 deaths in Italy — we see 18,278 recoveries. In Spain, there have been 10,935 deaths, compared to 30,513 recoveries, and of the 82,465 total cases in China, 76,741 have recovered. Numbers in the US are regionalized by state and densely populated cities expecting to hit their apex soon, so the data is not yet available for some of the most impacted areas. What is still difficult to quantify is the number of total recoveries because of the sometimes-asymptomatic nature of the virus, and that infected cases are not accounted for until confirmed positive. With these figures fluctuating every day, it helps to remember the bigger picture — that as bad as we’re led to believe things seem, most infected cases do recover from the disease. Doing this while we honor those we’ve lost will help keep things in perspective, and also ease our nerves.

We are right now, in this moment that no one could have predicted, being presented an opportunity to address the very issues that plague us. Coronavirus is cracking us open and forcing us to confront the questions that need the right answers, or we risk social and economic collapse. Australia, just reeling back from twenty seven million acres of fire damage, could use a break. Egypt’s just gotten through its seasonal sandstorms and flooding it has not seen in over 25 years. East Africa, Yemen, and the Arabian Gulf currently have skies of hundreds of billions of desert locusts, layered above their respective flu outbreaks. Imagine Syria and all the countries affected by the refugee crisis over the last few years, now having to deal with an added healthcare crisis. Without going so far, we can act on an overdue domestic deep self-reflection. If this nightmarish virus has taught us anything, it is that our old ways are unsustainable and in need of serious transformation.

In the midst of all the chaos and virtual noise from around the globe, I take what I can get as far as silver linings go. One I have found is that while we live confined under enforced isolation, we seem to forge connection across communities as we reach out to one another from a distance. The beauty in humanity breaks up the wave of mass hysteria as a sort of balm to our individual stresses by engaging in the collective experience, and solution — and then multiplies its ripple effect by those it reaches out to; those who witness it; those it inspires.

We have the option to either succumb to the panic or to remain alert. To take all the necessary precautions, while keeping our eyes open to the world around us, noting just how quickly it is changing — and who the makers of that change are. It’s not just an option, it’s our social obligation.

We are living in a surreal in-between. One foot in a world ablaze, of our own making. The other, with a bit of focused intention, may be a more thoughtful, compassionate one — one that leaves behind dogma and hyper-competition, and unites us against the omnipresent threat that is this pandemic, in the most primary thing that makes us human: the ability to breathe. A single precious life per person, linked inextricably with our own mortality.

Can this virus serve as a necessary reset for a world built on a skeleton of conflict and aggression? If we focus our attention on what’s happening here and now, what do we stand to gain when we come out of this on the other end?

At what could be the dawn of a new era, the Trump administration’s largest contributions are working to bail out the industries that have been expediting the deterioration of our planet, and vowed to work with the cruise and airline industries to recover ongoing losses. The recently approved stimulus bill grants $500 billion to corporations; just about the same amount to individuals all over the country; $377 billion to small businesses; and $100 billion to hospitals. The rest is being funneled towards state and local governments and a social safety net, and though I’m no financier, this seems absurdly mismanaged if not sloppy and callous.

As New York City rides out its peak, the richest country in the world is struggling with a dubious shortage of respirators, masks, and medical gloves. Already short-staffed, hospitals have threatened to fire healthcare workers who speak to the media about equipment deficits, as they fear for their own health under the depleting supply of protective gear. Why were we so ill-prepared for an outbreak of this magnitude, when the warnings have been sounded off for years now? A missed opportunity, considering the government exercises conducted last year, informed by reports by the Obama administration on Ebola findings. COVID-19 has exposed the United States’ vulnerability — the old adage “this is America” has long given way to something else.

What’s to come next? We are in an election year, no? Who’s to say what will transpire in November, even if we reach significant levels of containment by autumn?

In her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein walks the reader through the lifecycle of disaster capitalism in recent history. Her definition of the term is “the orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities.”

Take a moment. Digest. Klein delves into the free-market economist Milton Friedman’s philosophy. Friedman was a sort of ghostwriter in national politics in the aftermath of disaster; an ardent advocate in less government while the economy does its work. What we need to be wary of, is sitting back and let the current administration do their work with this in mind —

Only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function. To develop alternatives to existing policies. To keep them alive and available, until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.

He’s absolutely right — the previously impossible is being actualized before our eyes, and perhaps America is more ripe for progressive ideas than it thought just a few weeks ago. Rent and mortgage moratoriums; invoking the Defense Production Act; economic relief checks; the New England Patriots’ plane flying in a million N95s from China. It’s all unfolding at rapid speed, and it is so important that we pay attention.

The temptation may currently be to do nothing; to idle in complacency until the uncertainty of the present is a distant recollection of the past, and maybe this is exactly what we need, as Americans and as a global community. A break from having places to be, things to do, people to see. A stunning moment of recalibration: to live only in the present moment as the manic influx of news renders the headlines of ten minutes ago no longer relevant. To just be, and for some lucky few, to be bored, and figure out what to do with that boredom. To reconnect with what makes us these resilient, empathetic, brilliant beings — and forge a new enlightened path onward.

We are living through a profound moment in history, and what happens when we emerge from the other end is entirely up to us. This can certainly be a moment of collective and individual rebirth, if we let it. We can choose to reflect on our ways which have proven to be unsustainable, to now assess the gaps in the status quo and decide for ourselves whether it still has our consent.

Global politicians who represent the needs of their nations, and place genuine concern in their responsibility towards the lives they are entrusted with by ballot. Corporate executives who give up their salaries to ensure their workers are paid — and maybe do so as more than just a PR opportunity. Teachers, who parents seem to have a newfound appreciation for in their current trials of homeschooling, to be paid more. A lot more. Humanity before profit. Value on essential work(ers) before corner offices.

Do we come out of this with spiritual and connective learnings that we can give back to our communities to start something new? Do we continue as consumers of excess; frantically, continuously chasing the next? Do we read? Do we sit in stillness and just be, without obsessing over productivity, and give a single thing our attention for longer than six seconds? Can we be mindful of the way we move in the world; the kind of footprint that trails behind us? Of our neighbors, of the immunocompromised, of those just outside our periphery — who definitely matter?

Anxiety has been rushing in in waves over the last few weeks. To soothe me, a girlfriend on the west coast sends photos of her pup exploring an eerily quiet Seattle, a ruby King Charles Cavalier, shaggy and shimmering in the sun. Her dog smile makes me happy, if even for a brief moment. It works. Another friend in our chat chimes in with a necessary reminder: let’s try to stay calm, or we’ll be worrying twice.

Worrying twice; anxious about what the future may hold, and the cycle of fear in the moment it takes place, if it ever does.

So my naive plea to Trump and heads of state everywhere: Do the right thing.

My plea to the rest of us: Hang in there. Keep the exuberant videos flowing, of celebrating and applauding each other and banging on pots and pans from your rooftops and windows and balconies; they are a breath of fresh air as we endure this period.

Remember that this is a moment of history we are living, and the future belongs to those who dare to take the pen. Use your platforms for positivity and empathy and laughs, we all need it. In the darkest times, find the punchline. Stay safe, wash your hands, look out for one another as we are literally all in this together, whether we like it or not. And try not to touch your face.

Writer based in Brooklyn. Many things in past lives; always came back to words.

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