LAGOS, NIGERIA—Because of my work in digital communications (social media, less fancifully) for the federal government, I have in the last four years divided my time between Lagos, which I consider home, and Abuja, the federal capital. It’s now clear, however, that I will spend the next few weeks in Lagos—my longest stretch here in years—obeying the #StayAtHome message that now seems to encapsulate the fastest and surest way to defeat this stubborn virus.
That message has been the eureka! for me in Lagos in the last couple of days. It’s where all the public information energy should go, for a viral disease for which there is really no treatment, only the management of symptoms. As a poster I came across online put it: “For the first time in history you can save humanity by sitting at home and doing nothing!”
Sitting at home doing nothing means I have all the time in the world to imagine phantom symptoms of the coronavirus infection—and then I realize, to my great relief, that I’m not alone; social media appears to be full of people stuck at home assuming the worst.
I drove out to buy grilled fish on Friday night. A typical Friday night finds Admiralty Way on Lagos’s Lekki Peninsula jammed with cars, parked and moving. This night was very different. It felt like the evening of an election day, when the mandatory curfew has finally ended, but not the inertia it brought along. The typically crowded restaurant was empty; the colored lights were on display, but there was no music: takeouts and deliveries only. A swanky new restaurant directly opposite had only its drive-through section open. Down the road, the tables in the KFC were missing their chairs. The message was clear: no sitting, no congregating.
But there is no restriction of movement in this mega-city just yet; simply an admonition to stay at home as much as possible. That’s different from the city of Kaduna, five hundred miles the north, where there’s a twenty-four-hour curfew “until further notice.”
As of Saturday, Nigeria has only ninety-seven confirmed Covid-19 infections. Most of our cases have been from Nigerians returning home from abroad. Accordingly, the testing is reserved mainly for those who meet certain conditions—that is, people who have recently returned from a high-risk country, and are showing symptoms; or have had contact with a confirmed case, and are showing symptoms.
Today, though, one high-profile Nigerian musician tweeted about getting himself, his fiancée, and thirty “close associates” tested, despite none of them showing symptoms (though the fiancée came back positive, sadly). Most of the responses have been kind and supportive, but there are also those asking questions similar to those I saw on British Twitter as news emerged that Prince Charles was able to get the sort of expedited testing denied to multitudes of National Health Service workers who need it. How melancholy that it is taking the coronavirus to show us the world is actually a single country?
A century ago, the Spanish Flu came to Lagos, arriving by ship. At first, the city authorities were able to isolate all infected persons aboard these ships, but before long, they lost control. As the infections spread across the city, claiming lives on a huge scale, panicked Lagosians began to flee to the hinterlands, taking the disease along with them, to places even less prepared to deal with it. By the time the 1918 pandemic was done with Nigeria, more than 2 percent of the population lay dead.
To avoid a repeat, we must learn from the distant past and resist the urge to move. Stuck at home, however, most of us are not really coping well—even if we’re far less likely than Americans or Canadians, it seems, to defy “Stay Home” orders. As a Nigerian-American friend of mine living in the US told me recently, “You know, you can’t tell Americans what to do.” From Canada, another friend, Canadian-Nigerian, messaged me: “When you have people who have grown up [being told] about the inalienable rights of man, how do you tell such people to stay home if infected?”
Who knew a limitless sense of freedom could have any downside?
Tolu Ogunlesi is a special assistant on digital and new media to President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria. Previously, he was the features editor and an editorial board member at NEXT newspaper, West Africa editor for The Africa Report, and a contributor to The New York Times, Financial Times, and The Guardian. (March 2020)
OXFORD, ENGLAND—Living as Americans in England these past two years has prepared us for isolation better than anything else could have. We live in a cottage in the wall of a medieval fortress. My office at Oxford, where I teach, is off a staircase no one seems to climb. The days I would talk to another human being, other than my husband or children, in person were already rare. “Things are different in the north,” said my friend Paula, the only person we spent time with in any regular way before she moved away. We soon resigned ourselves to the fact that we would see no one, and no one would ask to see us.
Our weekday routine in isolation is no different from our typical Saturday. From 9 AM to 1 PM, I go to my office, which is a thirty-second walk through the college grounds, to read and write; from 1 PM to 5 PM, my husband goes to my office to work, while I take care of our boys. They are two and four, both curious, roguish, and inventive, dedicated playmates to each other and to me. With the college now nearly empty, they roam the grounds on treasure hunts, following maps my husband and I draw with them every morning—a new ritual to perform now that we no longer need to pack their bags for school. We stop by the lake and watch its two swans work to build this year’s nest, the male testing the reeds for slack before snapping off weaker ones, the female patting them into place, performing a short, inelegant dance to reposition herself. Last year, the pair had six gray cygnets, and only one was mauled by a fox—a death rate of 16.67 percent, which I fail to stop myself from calculating. My boys snap their own reeds and do battle with trees.
For a long time, our homesickness made us turn on each other; then, we began to turn on others. My husband and I had always joked that England would be a wonderful country without the English. In the first week of our isolation, my husband noted an increase in our quality of life. Since everyone is working from home, I no longer see my colleagues, and since I no longer see my colleagues, I no longer walk into rooms where people fail to look up, to say hello in return, to say they are well, thank you, and how you are doing; sometimes, it seems, as a matter of principle. Since the boys left school, I no longer ride the bus to drop them off in the mornings, and since I no longer ride the bus, I am no longer assailed by pale, choleric, ardently trembling women of indeterminate age, some in pleated slacks, some in leather pants, for jumping a queue that I simply cannot believe exists.
I once asked one such woman what confronting perfect strangers over trivial things did for her. She looked taken aback, as did everyone else who was just then pretending not to listen to us. “It’s about civilization,” she replied. “We are a civilized people.” This was two days before the electorate voted overwhelmingly for a Conservative Party that had spent the last decade reducing public health funding, leaving hospitals and caregivers terribly exposed during a crisis. It was four months before the Conservative government, in its initial, misguided attempt at managing the pandemic, announced that they would build “herd immunity” by putting hundreds of thousands of lives at risk; the lives of people already vulnerable and already isolated by age, illness, and poverty.
That night, I walked the empty aisles of the supermarket—no pasta, no beans, no peanut butter, no paracetamol. I came home and watched a video of an NHS nurse who had worked for forty-eight hours straight crying in her car because she couldn’t find fresh fruit or vegetables after her shift ended. Even so, I knew it was even worse back home, in the United States, under the staggering incompetence and utilitarian cruelty of a leadership that had long denied people health insurance, a universal income, sick pay. Far worse than our initial feeling of homesickness has been feeling that home was not now a place to which we wanted to return.
Initially, once keeping your distance became a government order, once everyone seemed to feel isolated and unhappy, my husband and I felt less isolated and unhappy by comparison; less alone in our loneliness. The self-pity we had nursed since being here was largely converted into an aura of smugness, a sense of mutual congratulation that the two of us had figured out how to make do with only each other back when no one else had to. This was, of course, a defense mechanism, secured with much false bravado and nervous laughter. We tried to convince ourselves that life before and life after we went into isolation were the same; that living far away from the people we love was no different from anticipating that the people we love—my mother is a pulmonologist, my father is a surgeon, my middle sister is the chief resident in an intensive care unit, my husband’s sister is a nurse—would be exposed and might fall ill or die of our reach. Pretending we had already perfected self-sufficiency worked—until it didn’t.
Today, I watch my children fight the trees, and I think about my old isolation; how clear its presence is now and what its sudden absence makes visible, the good here and the bad back there. I realize that antagonism is a form of relation; maybe, for a critic, an especially energizing kind of social entanglement. It brings home not only who you can rail against, but, more important, what you want to change. There are days when I miss those silent men, those pale, choleric women who scolded me. “Bitch,” I think to no one at all. “Come back. Fight me.” I hope—for their sake, and for all of ours—that they stay at home. I hope that when it is finally safe to come out, we can all be better at figuring out how to care for one another.
Merve Emre is Associate Professor of English Literature at Oxford and a Fellow of Worcester College. Her latest book is The Ferrante Letters: An Exercise in Collective Criticism. (March 2020)
CAIRO, EGYPT—Revolution is my immediate reference point. Shops shuttered, businesses closed, desolate streets under 7 PM to 6 AM curfew. Sirens blare insistently in the hours before and after lockdown, those of police cars patrolling streets. As elsewhere, or everywhere, there is no sense of when normality might resume.
The numbers of Covid-19 cases in Egypt are still low—by official figures (as of Friday), five hundred and thirty-six confirmed cases and thirty deaths. But we all know that numbers here are deceptive. Most Egyptians with symptoms are likely going untested. Capacity is limited, and few can afford the implications of what a positive test might mean. Egypt’s economic divide dictates in part how the coronavirus is addressed. The privileged are social-distancing, staying home, stocking up, taking walks in near-desolate residential neighborhoods. My mother has not left her house in some ten days, which itself has been disinfected. Those friends and relatives who can have retreated to beach houses on the Red Sea coast.
People I know have given their salaried house-helps paid leave, but the majority of the country’s blue-collar workers can’t afford time off. At my apartment, which has been under renovation, construction workers insist on coming in, even with the offer to suspend work with daily wages paid two weeks ahead. The calculus for them is straightforward: if they don’t work this week, they will have to work next. “In the end, work leads to more work,” my painter tells me. Plus tips, he notes, “add up.”
This informal Egyptian economy makes up earned income for more than 50 percent of the population, and its line of separation is felt when simply crossing from one part of town to another. In the residential enclave of Zamalek, where I live, the days are quiet and the streets mostly still. I walk my dog with the sense that the city is my own, that everyone is being cautious. But over the bridge on the other side of the Nile, and as I turn onto Ramsis Street in downtown Cairo, pedestrian traffic is many times higher. Mechanics’ workshops are still open, people crowd around small stalls selling wholesale housewares and produce, and the main train station that connects the entire country is teeming. Standing there, I feel suddenly conscious of my facemask and gloves, when only one in every fifty or so people there are wearing them.
The only thing that unites this country of almost 100 million is the curfew, imposed on us with the threat of heavy fines. As I take hours-long walks around the city, I stop at pharmacies and find that rubbing alcohol is now hard to come by. Yet I see litter in the form of hospital masks and plastic gloves everywhere—these seem still available in abundance. As I’ve been following the international news—most closely of New York, where loved ones live—I take this garbage of ours to mean that our turn has not yet come.
Yasmine El Rashidi is the author of The Battle for Egypt: Dispatches from the Revolution and Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt. (June 2019)
GRANVILLE, OHIO—I was at an artist residency outside of Chicago when the country began to shut down. In early March, the twelve other artists and I arrived from across the country in a state of low-level dread, with our tiny bottles of airport hand-sanitizer and sardonic plague quips. We were strangers who talked about our work at communal dinners and hosted post-dinner professional development workshops about Scrivener or the publishing industry.
Within a week, the tone changed, an indelibly swift lurching from dread to panic. The residency’s office staff disappeared. One of the neighboring residents took off for home in the middle of the night, his 2 AM shower startling me awake. Bulk hand-sanitizer and rubber gloves appeared as if delivered by nightmare fairies.
We were never told to leave—we were not told much, which led to jokes about feral writers taking over the property—but, one by one, we departed for places remade by the virus. I missed my family and could not sleep, but my husband and I agreed I should stay to try to finish my book, because it might be the last opportunity to do good work if Ohio schools shut down. Our group dinners became smaller, berserk with laughter.
One day, a red fox paused in front of a window, the elegant fact of his body familiar and reassuring. I listened to a resident named Kevin play “I loves you, Porgy”on the piano in his studio, and I thought about the singing Italians, playing guitar on their rooftops and clarinet from their balconies. I thought of a line from Kaveh Akbar’s poem “The Palace”: “Art is where what we survive survives.”
I cancelled my flight home and rented a car with a resident named Ariel. We decided it would be safer for her to fly home to New York City via the small Columbus airport, rather than facing the chaos of O’Hare. When we walked into the rental place in our rubber gloves, prepared to be thought ridiculous, we were relieved to see the attendant also wore a pair. The three of us laughed ruefully as we wiped down the car’s interior together. The man was conscientious and kind, and before we drove away, we all made little heart shapes with our hands, à la Taylor Swift, told each other Stay healthy, be safe. Once on the road, Ariel and I snacked aggressively and listened to a podcast about Tom Hanks that made us cry.
When we stopped at a small Indiana town close to the Ohio border, we could not find an open restroom. Finally, we located one in a shabby gas station, where the woman working the register was openly hostile, sneering at our rubber gloves. Her expression brought to mind the cannibals in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Maybe that’s unfair, but disaster lands differently with different people. Look at those doctors reportedly now hoarding potential Coronavirus medication for themselves and their families, or Lt. Governor Dan Patrick of Texas telling older people to sacrifice themselves on the altar of the economy.
Once home in Granville, I felt feverish. I took my temperature: 99.1. Shit. I took my temperature fifteen more times that night; it fell to 97.6. Maybe my body was just purging the worry I’d held inside in order to make the journey home.
The next day, a doctor friend who works at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus sent a group text: Does anyone have any masks they can give me? We are already running out. Now, she has partnered with a local fashion designer to start making personal protective equipment for health-care workers in the area.
“Look out the window!” my husband shouted from upstairs the other afternoon. I grabbed my two young sons and we stood on the couch to look. There was a social-distanced dance party happening in a neighbor’s driveway. Quickly, we donned shoes and coats and raced outside. It had been several days since we had seen anyone but ourselves. Someone had parked in the street and was blasting music from the car stereo and dancing with her kids while our neighbor and her daughter jammed along from a balcony.
For a few blessed minutes, I bopped with my three-year-old, and we waved and chatted to our neighbor. When the other woman drove away, she promised to return. She’d honk next time, she said, so we’d know she was there.
Keija Parssinen is the author of the novels The Ruins of Us (2012) and The Unraveling of Mercy Louis (2015). She has contributed to The Washington Post, Slate, Salon, and The Southern Review, among other publications. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Truman Capote fellow, she is an assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at Kenyon College. (January 2020)
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK & TACOMA, WASHINGTON—In late February, I went to Oakland to report on the homelessness crisis for the NYR Daily. From there, I flew to my parents’ house in Tacoma, Washington, to write and rest and eat Korean food.
My parents and I had been tracking the spread of the coronavirus in Korea, but we didn’t expect it to migrate so quickly, and dramatically, to the US. Mom works for the state agency that regulates elder-care facilities, and in early March, Covid-19 was detected in a nursing home just north of her jurisdiction. Our household absorbed the growing panic.
When I boarded my flight back to New York, on March 11, I felt uneasy. Would Mom be all right, continuing to work alongside inspectors? Who would take care of her and Dad if they got sick? Could my brother and I fly out West, last minute, if needed? My mother shared these worries, on top of her usual parental concerns.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve exchanged dozens of emails, text messages, and calls, mostly in Korean. What follows is our correspondence, translated, edited, and condensed.
Tammy: 잘 도착했어요! Landed safely!
Mom: 고맙다! Thanks!
Tammy: 사무실엔 별일 없어요? Everything okay at work?
Mom: 그렇지 뭐. 두 직원 오늘 부터 paperwork는 집에서 하게 돼서 한 시름 좋았지. I guess. I got two of my employees approved to do their paperwork work from home starting today, so one thing down.
Tammy: 수고 Good job. [two gold medal emojis]
Tammy: 미안. 지금 친구 집 Sorry [missed your call]. Friend’s house.
Mom: 끝나는대로 전화해. 한국은 안되 When you’re done, call me. You can’t go to Korea [for reporting].
Tammy: 괜찮은데 But it’s safe.
Mom: 태미야 팽이버섯 먹지 마. 미국에서 4명 죽고 30몇명이 아프데… (Tammy, do not eat enoki mushrooms. Four people died and 30 something people got sick in the US…)
Tammy: 오!! ㅇㅋ Oh!! OK
Dad: See attached file! “미국서 ‘한국산 팽이버섯’ 먹고 4명 사망 … 한국인은 멀쩡, 왜” “In America, 4 die after eating ‘Korean enoki mushrooms’… so why are Koreans okay”
Mom: [article link] “문 대통령, 오늘 대구-경북 특별재난지역 선포” “Today, President Moon declares Daegu-North Gyeongsang a special disaster zone”
Tammy: 이 달 말경 한국을 방문할 계획… 대구 At the end of this month, planning to go to Korea… Daegu.
Mom: 안 갔으면 좋겠는데… I really wish you wouldn’t…
Tammy: 엄마 출근하지 마십시오!!! Mom please don’t commute!!!
Mom: 한국에 갔다가는 돌아오는 비행기 없어 If you go to Korea you won’t be able to catch a flight back.
Tammy: 출근은?? What about your commute??
Mom: ㅌ 식당 어제 밤까지 일했는데 오늘 부터 닫았대. 집에 오라고 그랬는데 모르겠어 Your brother worked at the restaurant until last night, but it’s shut down as of today. I told him to come home but I don’t know if he will.
Tammy: 네. 저한테도 연락이 왔어요. 사무실에 갔어요? Yes. He told me. Did you go to the office?
Mom: 모든 field manager가 다 출근을 하고 있고 그 어느 때보다 책임이 막중한데 나만 집에서 하겠다는 게 좀 그래서 아직 말을 못하고 있어. All the field managers are in the office, and we have more to do right now than usual, so I feel like I can’t ask just for myself.
Tammy: 애고 그래도 Argh, come on.
Mom: 너무 걱정 마. 주말에 7마일씩 걸었어. 건강을 유지하려고 하니까. ㅌ 일도 걱정할 거 없어. Don’t worry so much. We walked 7 miles Saturday and Sunday. We’re taking care of ourselves. Don’t worry about your brother’s situation either.
Tammy: 네. [heart emoji, mask-wearing face emoji] 엄마 근데 나이도 있고 은퇴하신 상태니까 work from home 할 수 있는지 물어봐도 돼요. Sure. But Mom you’re older and you’re technically retired so it’s okay if you ask to work from home.
Tammy: ㅇㅋ?? OK??
Mom: 조금 아까 M한테 내일 부터 집에서 일해도 되냐고 이메일 보냈어. I emailed M a bit ago to ask if I can work from home.
Tammy: 고마! Thx!
Mom: 그렇게 하라고 답장 왔어 [thumbs-up rabbit emoji] Got permission to go ahead.
Tammy: Wow!@! 다행이다. What a relief.
Mom: ㅌ가 집에 안 오는 게 낫겠다고 해. 이제까지 식당에서 expose 됐는데 우리 나이가 많아서 자기가 가면 우리가 위험해질 수 있다고 Your brother thinks it’s better if he doesn’t visit. He said he probably got exposed at the restaurant and because we’re older it could be dangerous.
Mom: [article link] “美 여행금지 경보 전 세계로 확대… ‘어기면 무기한 미국 밖에 머물러야 할 수도’” “Warning not to travel to the US, worldwide spread… ‘if not, you might get stuck outside the US indefinitely’”
Mom: 밖에 나가지 마. 거긴 동네도 사람들 많이 다니잖아 Don’t go outside. So many people on the streets in your neighborhood.
Mom: 별일 없지? 우리도 괜찮아. All good? We’re fine here.
Tammy: 네! Yes!
Mom: [article link] “Why is the New Coronavirus Different?”
Tammy: [alarmed-looking duck emoji]
Mom: [two photos of magnolia trees]
Tammy: Wow!! 그 나무들 Those trees.
Mom: 걷는 길에 목련이 드디어 폈어! The magnolias on our walking route finally bloomed!
Mom: 태미야, 별일 없니? 밖에 나가지 마 Tammy, you doing well? Don’t go outside.
Tammy: 네! 엄마는? Okay! What about you?
Mom: 오늘 6일째 아직 괜찮아. 이달 말까지 별일 없어야 될텐데. 그동안에 노출됐었으니까. It’s day 6, and I’m fine. I just need to stay fine until the end of this month. Since I may have been exposed while at the office.
Tammy: 괜찮으시겠죠. I’m sure you’ll be all right.
Mom: 그럴거야. Yeah.
Mom: 여기 effective immediately stay at home order 나왔어. We got a stay at home order here effective immediately.
Mom: 한국행 비행기는 3배가 올랐고 살 수도 없데. 유학생, 교민들이 가려고 난리라네 Flights to Korea have tripled in price and are basically unavailable. Foreign students, Koreans living abroad are scrambling to get back.
Tammy: 아 그렇군요 Ah, I see.
Mom: 태미야, 수퍼마켙에서 비닐봉지 못사용하게 하다가 다시 한데. 개인 재활용 백은 사용 못한데. 바이러스때문에. Tammy, grocery stores weren’t allowed to give out plastic bags but they can again. People aren’t allowed to reuse bags. Because of the virus.
Tammy: 집에 별일 없어요? 사무실엔 계속 난리? 뉴욕은 난리 Anything new? Is work still chaotic? New York is chaos.
Mom: 별일없어. 거의 모두가 집에서 전화로… infection control 나갈땐 PPE 갖추고 나가고. 시시각각으로 변하니까. Nothing new. Almost everyone is making calls from home… and when staff go out for infection control, they wear personal protective equipment. Things are changing by the minute.
Tammy: ㅇㅋ. 맛있는 것 드시고. 내일 통화해요. [animated smiling-and-waving bear emoji] OK. Be sure to eat something good. Let’s talk tomorrow.
Mom: ㅇㅋ. 잘자 [emoji of same bear, tucked under covers, asleep, and drooling] K. Sleep well.
E. Tammy Kim is a freelance reporter, former attorney, and contributing opinion writer at The New York Times. (March 2019)
TORONTO, CANADA—I go out for what may be my last haircut for some time. The old Italian man I usually see has sensibly shut up shop. Instead of his narrow, sun-faded interior with its few family photos tacked to the wall, landline, and small TV playing sports, I go to the hipster version nearby. This place bristles with manly Canadian bric-a-brac, stuffed fish, mounted deer and moose heads, old advertisements, beer bottles, Playboy centerfolds, painted seascapes. The two barbers are tattooed and bearded and wear leather aprons. All this showy masculinity doesn’t preclude good hygiene, however; they are diligent with their hand-washing and sanitization of equipment. The chair is squirted and carefully swabbed before I sit down. One other customer is here, discussing with his barber prospects for business and the reports of panic-buying in supermarkets. “It’s just selfish, eh? You wouldn’t want to go to war with these people.”
For the first time, I see someone walking past outside wearing a mask.
I attend a Zen meditation via Zoom. Sittings are suspended. The sounds of the wooden mallet and bells are flat, compressed through my laptop speakers. Once the resident monk, or roshi, is seated, he is out of shot and the feed is of a silent and apparently empty meditation hall, the cushions neat and unoccupied in their places along the walls.
The flat blue-gray expanse of Lake Ontario. My gaze races out to an indigo line of horizon at the base of a sky of unbroken pale cloud. Newly arrived wild ducks—buffleheads and hooded mergansers—circle in small groups near the shore. The first signs of spring, though everything is still leafless. Beautiful irrelevance. The virus is a human problem; nature feels more than usually tilted away from us.
Along the boardwalk there are people walking, jogging, walking their dogs, singly or in couples. They are sensibly spaced, intentionally or not. I keep my own distance: all of them are potential carriers. It feels new, this very old way of looking at the world and fearing the unseen, suspecting dybbuks and devils inside people, lurking on door handles, hovering in the air. Only, we know what our devils look like—innumerable translucent orbs surrounded by brush-like protrusions—and we know that they’re real.
Ontario declares a state of emergency. Scrolling for new news, articles, information, clicking through, clicking back. Maybe now, though, after five years of this, I can stop. I have briefly the abstract sensation that our lurid reality has been thickening and thickening and has now solidified into this one thing, this situation, general paralysis, everyone immobilized in their homes.
Also reaching critical mass is a feeling of obsolescence. Writers have been complaining for some time about a reality that’s too rapid and extreme. One of the witnesses to nuclear disaster in Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer comes to mind: “Sometimes I have a blasphemous thought: what if our entire culture is nothing but a chest full of old manuscripts? Everything that I love…”Last week is a long time ago. Italy has shut down the region of Lombardy. Our surprise at that is now quaint.
I wake up from a nightmare in which I arrive at the moment of death. I’ve been having these now and again for some time, since well before the pandemic. The theme of the nightmares is suddenness and implacability. It is always violent death at human hands. Attempts to hide or fight back are useless. There is no time to be ready in any way. I understand that I have to die in the middle of everything, of life, leaving so much unfinished, unrealized, and that this is the nature of death.
Lines outside the supermarkets. At least half the faces masked. Many people wearing surgical gloves. It is frustrating to be in the opening minutes of a disaster movie unable to fast-forward to see what happens, what is coming to London, to New York, to Delhi.
Adam Foulds was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2013. His most recent novel, Dream Sequence, was published in 2019. (March 2020)
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker and Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot have asked the state’s residents to shelter in place, practice social distancing, and do solitary exercise. The reassuring, thoughtful manner of their radio addresses suggest those of FDR and LaGuardia in their reach and gravity and sense of community—they describe both what government is doing for its citizens and what is expected of citizens by government.
I’m grateful I’m still allowed access to my office, where my drawing equipment is. The el trains, the streets, my office building—all are relatively empty. I spend a lot of time checking in with friends and family, writing and receiving messages. Every communication resonates with some degree of anxiety. I realize that people count on me to maintain my sense of humor and good cheer. I worry about my livelihood, about everyone’s livelihoods—not least the artists, musicians, dancers, and others whose ways of securing an income have suddenly been upended with the closure of museums, galleries, and performance spaces.
I’m not surprised that I miss close physical proximity to others. I used to go swing dancing to The Fat Babies at the Green Mill every week. Now I put on Fats Waller and do sit-ups and planks and stretch alone. I think about all the different ways I try to connect with people—through my drawings, through reading, through humor and ideas tossed around with friends. I can feel myself and others trying to hang on to a world we love and recognize, and wonder what it will look like when the pandemic is over.
Tom Bachtell is a self-taught artist, illustrator, and caricaturist. He has been a regular contributor to The New Yorker for some twenty years. (March 2020)
ZAGREB, CROATIA—I woke up with a strange feeling that something was missing, but after a couple of seconds I realized that my breathing was too shallow. I felt as if someone had sat on my chest and wrapped their fingers tightly around my throat. The next thing I remember is the corridor of the Dr. Mladen Stojanović Hospital, and a few nurses wheeling me into the ward. A doctor prepared a large syringe with sedative while two nurses held me down. My resistance slackened as soon as the injection was administered, and the nurses put an oxygen mask on my face.
This scene rushed back into my memory, when I heard about the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in Zagreb on February 25, and I was taken by that same icy fear of death that I experienced as a four-year-old boy, back when I used to get fits of allergic laryngitis, whose occurrence doctors could never predict. Even though I hadn’t had a single episode since the age of seven, I have never forgotten my sense of powerlessness in the hard grip of an illness that almost made me stop breathing.
A month had passed and Zagreb was completely deserted. All unnecessary going-out was banned, as well as any kind of group gathering; everything was shut except for food shops and gas stations. The police patrolled the streets, sending home those who did not obey the rules. People queued outside pharmacies, punctuated by two-meter gaps. We had internalized the problem: we had accepted the rules as the norm and a necessity.
I stood on the balcony of my flat, on the sixteenth floor of a high rise, where we had recently moved, and watched the empty crossroads below and the long avenue that had not a single person on it. I felt my affliction had returned. It would try to sit on my chest and grab me by the throat again. But I couldn’t say anything to my wife and my sons. Would they even understand? No, I couldn’t spread my panic.
So I decided to externalize my problem. I’d keep a diary. The last time I kept a diary was when I was a student. My notes were swallowed into oblivion by my old PC286 and could never be recovered. On the Friday, I agreed with my colleagues that we should work from home, and I felt relieved like one might feel relief before the final battle: I’d stay home, self-isolate, and I’d face my fear—I’d write about it.
I got up energized that Saturday; it was a beautiful, luminous day. I spent the day writing and sending emails to all those whom I’d not been in touch with over the past week, and in the evening I made an omelet with cheese, my sons’ favorite dish. They weren’t too dismayed at school’s being cancelled. We played a board game and watched the news, which informed us that, of all the European countries, Croatia was seeing the slowest spread of the coronavirus. We went to bed almost joyous.
The next morning, I woke up shivering with panic, unable to breathe. I thought that it had come to get me and I was being held in its deadly grip. But then the whole room was shivering. My wife got up and I, paralyzed with fear, watched her standing and swaying together with the furniture in our bedroom. I thought I was dreaming, and concluded that since it could not kill me in my sleep by suffocating me, it had come to kill me by knocking down the entire building. But then the shaking stopped and our high rise, along with the ninety-nine apartments at its core, softly swayed for another ten seconds, like a dandelion in a gentle breeze.
Following the first tremor, we saw dust clouds rising from the nearby collapsed roofs, and we raced down onto the street just before the second, equally powerful quake hit again. In contrast to the previous days, the streets were full of people. They tried not to get too close to each other while keeping away from the tall buildings, which everyone feared could crumble upon them.
A friend from Athens, a poet and nurse who has been working in a hospital ward treating coronavirus patients, sent a message to check how we were, because she had just heard the news about the earthquake in Zagreb. I replied that we were OK, but that everyone was feeling desperate. She responded, saying: “It’s pretty normal for people to be desperate.”
Ivan Sršen is an editor, translator, and writer. He is the author, in Croatian, of a novel, Harmattan, and a collection of short stories, and has translated a range of authors from English to Croatian, including Frank Zappa, Henry Rollins, and Robert Graves. He is the editor of Akashic Books’ Zagreb Noir series, and lives in Zagreb, Croatia. (July 2018)
RIPTON, VERMONT—It’s sugaring season here, and most days someone from our household walks through the woods to our neighbors’ sugarbush to collect sap. We have done this for years, but this spring’s haul had special significance: some of that sap was to be made into maple syrup and given to the guests at our daughter’s wedding. There is no way to know if the wedding, scheduled for August, will have to be canceled—or, if it’s safe to proceed by then, who, among the guests we imagined would be there, will no longer be alive. It’s a grim thought with a certain statistical truth to it. We watch the curve of infections soar upward, we hear doctors from Italy and Spain explain that they have had to triage anyone older than sixty—triage being a cursory way to say “let them die”— and we marvel at our own hubris: Who were we to assume that the world in August 2020 would be a world we knew? In that old, familiar world, it made sense to book a venue more than a year in advance, hire a band, and debate pies versus cake. In that world, which still existed less than three weeks ago, we could spend an hour talking over details that seemed important then and forgettable now. It’s almost embarrassing.
One day last week we roasted a turkey, and from the turkey we made stew and sandwiches and stock. It fed us for days. Afterward, I saved the wishbone and let it dry out until we could do the thing we did as children: make a wish, break the bone, and believe that whoever got the bigger part would have theirs come true. There are so many things to wish for right now: that the curve flattens, that we don’t get sick, that no one we knows gets sick, that no one they know gets sick, that there will be enough ventilators and ICU beds, that a vaccine will be developed, and on and on and on. I offered to break the wishbone with my daughter, but she would not humor me. “There are no bad wishes right now,” I said, though we had just been talking about how Donald Trump was hoping Americans would stop self-isolating and get back to work, public health be damned.
Still, we comfort each other by acknowledging how lucky it is to be in a beautiful place where we can go outside, walk for hours, and not encounter anyone—a place remote enough that it’s not “self-distancing,” it’s just the way it is. We live in the mountains, where we are always prepared for weather that knocks out the power or washes away roads, cutting us off from the larger civilization. (It did not take a pandemic to introduce us to dried beans.) When that happens, neighbors check in on each other, often walking through deep snow or picking their way over blowdown to do so. Something like that is happening now. A Google doc is circulating through our town of 523 people, to identify who needs help and who can give it. It’s a reassuring antidote to those photographs of big cities, where people are lining up to buy guns.
My daughter wants to know if I think the wedding will still happen this summer, and I have to tell her that I have no idea. No one knows what’s coming.
Sue Halpern is a regular contributor to The New York Review and a Scholar-in-Residence at Middlebury. Her latest book is a novel, Summer Hours at the Robbers Library. (December 2019)
MIDDLETOWN, CONNECTICUT—In early March, at a faculty meeting, the coronavirus was third on my list of agenda items, after facilities improvements and fundraising progress. I mentioned a colleague’s suggestion that Wesleyan, where I am president, should cancel the upcoming Spring Break so as to finish the semester early. The room erupted in laughter, and I joined in. Students have their theses, professors their research—ridiculous to contemplate disrupting everyone’s plans.
But within days, I found myself seriously considering suspending classes for the semester. Students caught wind, and I was bombarded with emails and petitions urging me not to panic or cave into a “mob mentality”—my normally leftier-than-thou students sounding almost like Fox News in urging against over-reaction to an illness “quite like the flu.” They mounted a letter campaign urging me to take a “moral stand” against “mass hysteria.” Parents of student athletes angrily protested the prospect of cancelled events. But the threat of an overwhelmed health care system in our small city, the fact that residence halls resembled cruise ships as sites for contagion, kept me up long into the night.
On March 11, we suspended in-person classes. A week and a half later, 90 percent of our students have left campus, the library and classroom buildings are closed, faculty are preparing to teach online, and all but a small number of employees are working from home.
Moving to an online mode addresses only a fraction of a university’s concerns. An undergraduate writes me to say she has a real connection with a psychiatrist in town, is on a new medication—how can I ask her to leave campus? Hundreds of our students have underlying health conditions that put them at risk. About 20 percent of them are from low-income backgrounds, and they depend on the school for housing and food. Many more rely on us for jobs, and now we don’t have nearly as much work on campus to do. We have responded by adding resources to our Emergency Fund to help with travel, housing, and food, but how to respond to every need? A group of students started a GoFundMe page. Lots of fear on top of anger at how inequality intensifies suffering.
Some parents have written to me because they don’t know how to keep their adult children amused. Some students write because they don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
Wesleyan is a residential school, one with a strong sense of engaged and community-based learning. Now, faculty are giving seminars and singing lessons at a distance, but we all know that the fabric of liberal education here comes from mutual entanglement. I wrestle with the fact that our obligation to our students doesn’t go away when we move to online classes, but our ability to take care of them changes. We will face the educational cost of social distance.
This past weekend, students still on campus picked up meals from the dining hall to bring back to their rooms. A undergraduate from China reassured me that he would be okay, while another sent me a message about my health after hearing me briefly cough on a webinar. I crossed paths with some of the last people preparing to leave campus. I met an African-American dad packing up the belongings of his second child at Wesleyan. He said that he had waited eight years to see his youngest walk up at Commencement. We shook our heads.
My own daughter, Sophie, is not so far from college-aged. Last week, my wife, Kari Weil, who also teaches at Wesleyan, picked her and her partner up from Brooklyn, so that they could “isolate” with us on campus. Sophie is a first-year elementary school teacher, accustomed to spending days with sniffly kids. Her immunity, she says protectively, is a lot stronger than that of her sixty-something parents. I haven’t seen much of her, as we live together yet apart, but I can hear her down the hall, chatting online with the children back in Brooklyn. We wash our hands and wait to be together again.
Michael S. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University and the author of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (2014) and, most recently, Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech and Political Correctness on College Campuses (2019). (March 2020)