This article is part of the series

Pandemic Journal #20

Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images Members of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club parading down St. Charles Avenue on Fat Tuesday, New Orleans, Louisiana, February 25, 2020
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images. Members of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club parading down St. Charles Avenue on Fat Tuesday, New Orleans, Louisiana, February 25, 2020

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA—The headline the other day on the front page of the Times–Picayune/New Orleans Advocate reads: “Orleans Parish Death Rate Highest in US—By Far.”

What I do with the newspaper: I remove the plastic wrap and place it in the outside trash can, careful to grip the lid of the can with the plastic that I am discarding. I carry the paper into the house and set it beside the stair, to begin its forty-eight-hour self-isolation. I approach the sink with hands raised, as if affirming a field goal, and give my hands the OR treatment. I’ve found it’s healthier—for the mind—and takes less time, to read the newspaper a few days late. In the pantry a row of boxes wait out their periods of self-isolation.

New Orleans has felt less like New Orleans. In disasters here usually the opposite is true: the storms bring people together, encouraging displays of fortitude, madness, resiliency. New Orleanians are trying—they are. There have been two-person second lines; front-porch trombone concerts; coordinated, appropriately distanced street dances. Chefs have converted restaurants to meal delivery services for hospital workers. Local distilleries produce hand-sanitizer. Face masks are being sewn by artists, dressmakers, and just about everyone else (New Orleanians have dedicated costume closets).

And yet… this is a city in which strangers feel like old friends. Now old friends are strangers. People don’t say hello in the street as often; more commonly they avert their eyes. It makes a New Orleanian feel guilty, the physical avoidance, the awkward detours—the performance of a sudden whim to investigate something of great interest across the street—required to avoid sharing a narrow sidewalk. It goes against the city’s nature.

Disasters, however, do not. Yes, New Orleans knows how to endure hurricanes, but it has also suffered a grotesquely disproportionate quantity of catastrophic fires and outbreaks—smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, malaria. In September 1918, a United Fruit Company’s steamer arrived from Colón with eleven soldiers infected with the Spanish Flu aboard. It was allowed to unload its bananas but none of its passengers were permitted to leave, save the sick soldiers, who entered an ambulance. On Tchoupitoulas Street, having just left the wharf, the ambulance crashed into a streetcar, tossing the sick patients onto the sidewalk with various streetcar passengers and passersby. The first New Orleanian died from the flu eight days later, a sixteen-year-old named Morris William Maurier. Two months after that, 350,000 Louisianans had been infected.

This new plague, as always with disasters, has laid bare the city’s monstrous inequalities. The death rate appeared, to a significant extent, to be a reflection of the city’s poor public health system, housing conditions, employment opportunities—or, to put it another way, the generational legacies of crudely institutionalized racism. About 95 percent of the early mortalities had underlying conditions. What percentage of New Orleanians have “underlying conditions”? Many have the foundational one: poverty. On Monday, after increasing pressure from local reporters, the state agreed to release the racial breakdown of deaths. In a state that is about two-thirds white, more than 70 percent of victims have been black.

The city has been united, at least, by outrage at the national perception that New Orleans failed to lock down the city fast enough, permitting Mardi Gras to go on. It’s probable that Mardi Gras doomed us to an early spread. But at the time, there were fifty-three cases in the nation, most traceable to international travel, and none in Louisiana. South Korea hadn’t yet announced its stay-at-home order and no major US events had been cancelled. As Jeff Asher, a local data analyst, pointed out, “There were 189 NBA games played between Feb 9 and Mar 11. At an average attendance of 17,750, that comes to about 3.3 million people going to an NBA game after the governors apparently should’ve known to shut down their economies.” Our governor, John Bel Edwards, and mayor, LaToya Cantrell, took aggressive action early; we are first in the nation in testing. The curve shows signs of flattening.

For three weeks, my wife and I have been preschool teachers. A week into isolation, my three-year-old said, “Dad, my body tells me that I’m sick.” He said his “neck hurt.” Horror bloomed like the jasmines and magnolias that sweeten the streets. My wife and I experienced shortness of breath, extreme fatigue, crushing headaches. A day later, our nine-month-old came down with a fever. He was sick three days. His pediatrician tested him for the virus. We had all felt fine for several days by the time we received a negative result. By then, we were disappointed: no antibodies.

When writing some years ago about a major gas leak in Los Angeles, I learned that psychiatrists who study environmental disasters have retired the terms “hysteria” and “psychosomatic.” They prefer “somatization” to describe the phenomenon by which people who falsely believe themselves to have been exposed suffer the same symptoms as those infected. Fear makes you sick.

We have little time to ourselves: it took me nearly three weeks to write these sentences. We fear for our isolated parents. We’ve washed our knuckles bloody. Just last week, our city led the nation in death. And we’re the lucky ones.

Nathaniel Rich’s latest book, Losing Earth: A Recent History, a finalist for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award, was published in paperback in March.
 (April 2020)

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Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images A young bull moose
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images. A young bull moose

AMHERST, MASSACHUSETTS—Two SUVs, dark green like the surrounding pines, were parked by the trailhead in the morning fog, marked “Massachusetts Environmental Police.” Two men in uniform, one of them wearing a protective mask, stood by the road talking. “Everything okay?” I asked. “A moose,” the taller man said. “Just hauled the carcass away. Your dog will smell it in a minute.” The shorter one said, through his mask, “Guess it didn’t get the memo on social distancing.”

The previous day, our governor, Charlie Baker, had issued the order to shelter in place. Had the moose felt safe on the suddenly quiet road, on the eastern edge of Amherst? Allie, our Australian Shepherd, indeed picked up the scent, just at the moment that I saw the thick red swoosh of blood crossing the no-passing line and extending thirty feet or more.

I felt some ritual was in order, some way to acknowledge the terrible thing that had happened here. I’d been reading the historian Bernard Bailyn’s The Barbarous Years, with its vivid chapters on the European invasion of New England during the seventeenth century. “Respectful of animals’ spirits, Penobscot hunters would not eat the first deer or moose they killed each season,” I read, while the Micmacs of Nova Scotia “refused to eat the embryos of moose for fear of their mothers’ retribution.”

The enterprising English colonists, by contrast, thought moose might make good draft animals, like oxen. Hitch a pair of them up to a plow, or drag some felled logs to the sawmill.

Instead of moose-powered, our own marauding vehicles run on fossil fuel, mercilessly laying waste our animals and our future. In Elizabeth Bishop’s great poem “The Moose,” a bus traveling south from the Maritimes to Boston encounters a moose, “grand, otherworldly,” in the road. The moose “approaches; it sniffs at the bus’s hot hood.” After this peaceful encounter “on the moonlit macadam,” the bus moves on, leaving behind “a dim / smell of moose, an acrid / smell of gasoline.” That’s our choice for the planet’s future: life for moose and other animals, like us, or death by gasoline.

“A Wounded deer leaps highest,” Emily Dickinson wrote. What about a wounded moose? This from the Encyclopedia Britannica: “In Siberia, hunters armed with muzzle-loading guns feared wounded moose far more than they feared the large brown bear. Due to the thick skin on its head and neck and its dense skull, an attacking moose could not be readily stopped with a small, round rifle ball of soft lead.” It could be readily stopped by a speeding car, though.

Dickinson lived two miles north of where the moose was killed. She must still hold the Amherst record for sheltering in place. “I must omit Boston” was a characteristic RSVP from the “Queen Recluse,” as a friend called her. “I do not cross my father’s ground to any house for town,” she explained.

Later in the poem about the wounded deer, Dickinson writes, “A cheek is always redder / Just where the hectic stings!” The hectic is tuberculosis, a disease greatly feared by the Dickinson family, who believed it was inherited. Her anxious father was convinced she had “consumption” as a baby, and yanked her out of Mount Holyoke for a month when she developed lung congestion and a bad cough. (Amid the global spread of similar symptoms, students were ordered to leave Mount Holyoke, where I teach, in March.) Doctors were consulted and medications prescribed. “Father is quite a hand to give medicine,” she wrote, “especially if it is not desirable to the patient.”

Dickinson thought that a different kind of infection was spread by slapdash writing. (A congressman’s daughter, what would she have made of our mendacious presidential briefings?) “A Word dropped careless on a Page / May stimulate an eye,” she wrote, but over the years, she believed, it could do lasting harm.

Infection in the sentence breeds
We may inhale Despair

At distances of Centuries
From the Malaria—

What other poet would risk rhyming despair with malaria? And are we not living in a time, right now, when we are in daily danger of inhaling despair along with mala aria—the bad air?

On our way back home, Allie and I passed the place where the moose was killed. The fog had lifted. The pine-green SUVs were gone. The scarlet blood remained until the next day, when it was washed away by a heavy rain. A rescue dog from Alabama, Allie is standoffish with other dogs. My wife and I joke that she has been practicing social distancing for a very long time. Emily Dickinson had a beloved dog, too, a Newfoundland named Carlo, whom she referred to as her “shaggy ally.” When Dickinson was asked why she avoided men and women, she replied, “they talk of Hallowed things, aloud—and embarrass my Dog.”

Christopher Benfey

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Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images Medical staff bringing a Covid-19 patient into a high-speed train at Paris’s Gare d’Austerlitz station, heading for a hospital in Brittany, where cases of the pandemic have so far been limited, France, April 1, 2020
Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images. Medical staff bringing a Covid-19 patient into a high-speed train at Paris’s Gare d’Austerlitz station, heading for a hospital in Brittany, where cases of the pandemic have so far been limited, France, April 1, 2020

VIDELLES, FRANCE—It’s been three weeks since I’ve seen my husband. It will be at least another week, more probably a month or more, before I see him again—if I ever do. A doctor working in Paris, he stubbornly continues to make house calls to elderly patients who depend on him, waiting an hour and a half in one man’s home for a special Covid-19 ambulance team to take him away. The man died a few days later.

The other day, my husband announced he’d volunteered to be on-call at three Paris hospitals treating coronavirus patients. “It’s my job, my vocation, and my duty,” he told me. That’s the kind of man I married. Damn.

Should he, a sixty-four-year-old heart patient himself,  get the virus and require hospitalization, I would not be able to visit him. The thought of his dying alone and my never seeing him again haunts me day and night, even as I tell myself: No way could Covid-19 take him from me, he of the crinkly-eyed laughter and amorous hands, a side sleeper like myself, so French in his passion for soccer and good wine. No way.

Because of his job, we decided to stay apart when President Macron announced a national quarantine on March 16. His ninety-three-year-old mother lives alone in Paris and is entirely dependent on us. Should he get sick, we figured I could take over. So I collected my daughter and her boyfriend, temporarily cohabiting in her tiny, fifth-floor walkup studio, and drove us down to a house we bought last year in a village of six hundred people an hour south of Paris. My husband would join us on weekends. By the end of the first week, we understood that would not be possible.

At least I have my daughter with me. The rest of my family are scattered all over the world. There is no fleeing one blighted place for another, safer one, as my family did during World War II, leaving Burma for India. My father, an Indian immigrant to the United States, worked in aerospace. International jet travel was our way of commuting, and our standby escape plan.

Last week, for the first time since it opened in 1918, Orly Airport outside Paris closed. I worry about my son and his fiancée in Manhattan. I worry about my ex-husband, my children’s father, diagnosed with probable Covid-19 in Brooklyn. I worry about my elderly parents in Oregon and California. I worry about friends and family in India. Borders are closed, flights grounded. I am stuck here, they are stuck there.

There are no businesses in tiny Videlles. The post office, the elementary school, and the town hall are closed for the duration. Yet the roosters crow, the church bell sounds the hour, a dog barks somewhere, spring birds twitter in song. I cannot imagine empty streets and subway cars in Manhattan, where I lived for so many years. I cannot imagine Paris, the city that invented the restaurant, with its sidewalk cafes closed, rattan chairs stacked up, steel security curtains slammed shut. But here we are, quarantined in a little village in France without the French husband who is the reason I live here, in my adopted country.

The virus has thrown into stark relief the inequalities in France that sparked the recent Yellow Vest protests and the injustices long suffered in France’s poor, immigrant banlieues. In Pantin, the Paris banlieue where I usually live, many families are confined to small apartments. They cannot go out to a garden, as I do here, ripping out weeds until I am so tired that none of the worry can keep me tossing awake at night, and planting seeds to grow in a post-coronavirus world none of us can yet imagine.

Mira Kamdar, a former Paris-based editorial board member of The New York Times, is the author of the memoir Motiba’s Tattoos: A Granddaughter’s Journey from America into her Indian Family’s Past (2000) and the nonfiction book Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the World’s Largest Democracy and the Future of our World (2008). Her new book, India in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, has just been published. (April 2018)

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