SOUTH ORANGE, NEW JERSEY—I live each day in a house on a street in suburban New Jersey, about a forty-minute train ride from New York City, the view from the front door changing only by the tiny increments of budding spring (all about a month early owing to another cresting disaster). Aside from weekly trips to the grocery, we’ve hardly left our house in twenty-one days, and there is a sense not only of being shut away from the world but of being out of it altogether—or adjacent to it, somewhere terribly familiar yet not quite the same.
The girls down the street are riding their scooters, and the boys next door are running around and yelling. Here’s a family cycling by, and there’s a runner. Everyone’s doing their usual thing, but they’re not doing it together. They’re modeling life: this is what normality looks like. We’re in the uncanny suburbs of the town on Camazotz, from A Wrinkle in Time: “The children in our section never drop balls! They’re all perfectly trained. We haven’t had an Aberration for three years.”
Over text, my mother has been sharing her memories about the polio epidemic in the 1950s, when she was a child. She spent the summers in the doldrums of reclusion, in Akron, Ohio. It was boring, she told me. Pools were closed, and children were kept home. “As a kid, one doesn’t realize how bad it was, except there was the anxiety of having to be in an iron lung,” she says.
During the same epidemic, my father and his brother were sent to a day camp in upstate New York to get them out of Queens. Their father, a physician, rented a bungalow near the camp, and once, he was called on an emergency to a cabin. He took his medical bag and drove there in the rain with my father, who waited in the car. After a long time, his father returned, looking grim. He had diagnosed a camper my father’s age—eight or nine—with bulbar polio, the most damaging and debilitating form of the virus. Even after the intervening decades, my father can still recall how shaken his father was in that moment, not only by the diagnosis but by the fact that he had been exposed to the virus and so, therefore, had my father.
As the current virus first began to spread around the globe, I thought of “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain,” a story by James Tiptree Jr. from 1969. The biologist Dr. Ain flies around the world, making stops in Chicago, Glasgow, Oslo, Bonn, Moscow, Karachi, Hong Kong, Osaka, and Hawaii, all the while intentionally spreading a deadly virus meant to wipe out the human race. Ain unleashed his virus so that the sickened planet, whom he thinks of as his paramour, might live. “We are all wrong,” he says of humanity. “Now we’re over.” Such certitude, but the great die-out in the story happens off stage, almost banally, with the details left to the reader to imagine.
During this crisis, I’ve donated masks and food and money, I check on neighbors, and check in with friends and family around the country. The irony of this virus is that, for most of us, doing something to help means doing nothing. It requires staying away, staying apart. Simone Weil believed that we should “never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it.” In current parlance: stay home.
My mother suggests that my son, who is thirteen, keep a journal while he’s home and the virus rages. It’s a significant historical moment, she explains, and his daily reflections might be an account he’ll want to remember. But I think it would mostly be a record of his being trapped with his little sister every day and having ham for lunch again.
In the meantime, he is reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus for school, and in our conversation about the comic we’ve observed that death is arbitrary. Even in the case of the Holocaust, an organized mass murder, who lives and who dies on any given day is irrational. The randomness of it may be what is most terrifying.
This is what I think about, too, with regard to the virus: no one has earned living or dying. And sometimes participating in history is really boring, even if the moment in which you’re living is anything but. Sometimes boring is the best you can hope for.
Nicole Rudick is a writer and editor and the former Managing Editor of The Paris Review. (July 2019)
KARACHI, PAKISTAN—For the first time since the Nineties, when there were fewer people and less cars—and larger cumbersome vehicles—I am unable to hear the hum of traffic from my bedroom window. It has been replaced by silence. The curfew is enforced from 5 PM until 8 AM. But during the day, the streets of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, are far from empty.
The older part of town, on M.A. Jinnah Road, is eerily reminiscent of past military clampdowns. Beneath the quiet calm lies a sense that society has been unhinged and that the usual rules no longer apply. Small groups of pedestrians look on from the shadows, like an audience watching a spectacle slowly unfolding. People pause on street corners and in the shade of trees, under the watchful gaze of the paramilitary forces and the police.
Law enforcement authorities occasionally stop commuters to ask where they are going. At various points, the street is divided into two lanes—one designated for regular traffic and the other for “healthcare services.”
As of April 3, there were 2,458 confirmed Covid-19 cases and thirty-five deaths reported across the country. But the official figures provide false comfort: thanks to limited access to health-care facilities, many cases will most likely remain undiagnosed and unrecorded.
Social distancing is a bit of an illusion in a country where there is no sense of personal space. There are exceptions. In a line outside a pharmacy on M.A. Jinnah Road, people are made to maintain a distance of three feet between each other. Others, however, huddle together. A veiled woman, begging for money, leans against the lowered window of my car.
In a supermarket in Clifton, an affluent neighborhood, people jostle each other. The cashier’s latex gloves are yellow at the tips. In an aisle, a salesperson without a mask brushes against me while walking past. Parking lots shared by supermarkets and banks are half-full. Bank employees in my neighborhood take a break outside, none of them wearing masks. In the quiet residential lanes, people emerge from gated compounds and go for walks—something they would never do under normal circumstances.
The domestic staff who work in some of the apartments in my building are on leave. But not everyone can afford to self-isolate. For some, starvation is a more immediate concern than the virus. The young man who sweeps the driveway of my apartment block comes every other day. With buses no longer operational, he commutes on a bike from his nearby home in the Postal and Telegraph Colony, one of the many slums located within the well-heeled neighborhoods.
At ten in the evening, I hear prayers being recited in the mosque and seminary behind my apartment block. The children living in the seminary chant after the prayer leader. Mosques across the country have, of late, initiated special prayers at night for protection against the present pandemic..
In February, before the arrival of the virus, a poisonous gas leak at the port killed fourteen people and led to the hospitalization of many more. The government agencies investigating the incident were unable to provide any explanation, and over time the entire episode faded from public discussion. In the minds of many, Covid-19 is just another life-threatening hazard in a city that stumbles from one crisis to another.
Ali Bhutto is a journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan. His writing has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, and other publications. (April 2020)