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Pandemic Journal #22

Adam Bettcher/Getty Images Pastor Troy Dobbs speaking to empty pews after Grace Church Eden Prairie moved to online services, Eden Prairie, Minnesota, March 15, 2020
Adam Bettcher/Getty Images. Pastor Troy Dobbs speaking to empty pews after Grace Church Eden Prairie moved to online services, Eden Prairie, Minnesota, March 15, 2020

MINNEAPOLIS–ST. PAUL—One evening in late March, the state of Minnesota lurched briefly into the national consciousness: as Rachel Maddow described in her opening monologue on MSNBC, the governor, Tim Walz, had gone into self-quarantine. That same day, the state’s senior senator, former presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar, had disclosed that her husband was battling the virus, while the lieutenant governor’s brother, a “tough-as-nails” former marine, had succumbed to it. The number of infections was doubling every seventy-two hours.

“Just… one day in one US state,” Maddow intoned, with the deadpan astonishment she reserves for particularly alarming news.

In St. Paul, the state capital, however, it was hard to detect much disquiet. People were out in force with their dogs, kids, and friends; after a long winter, spring had finally arrived. In any case, the governor wasn’t asking anyone else to stay at home yet. (That recommendation would be made, very gently, four days later, but with few restrictions on activity in the out-of-doors.)

Situated in what Klobuchar likes to call “the heartland,” Minnesota has, in its own way, been at the heart of the American pandemic. In the suburbs of Minneapolis, across the river from St. Paul, several of the world’s leading suppliers of medical equipment, including 3M and Medtronic, are cranking out N95 masks and ventilators at a furious rate. In nearby Rochester, scientists at the Mayo Clinic, the state’s largest employer, are in a race to find a vaccine and to develop more efficient virus-testing technology. Yet few locals have started wearing masks and, throughout the state, testing for the virus has been notably limited. Days before his self-quarantine, the governor was still giving in-person briefings with the press.

Since the first cases here were diagnosed nearly five weeks ago, an obstinate equanimity has prevailed. Schools, universities, and most businesses have closed, lending to the recreation-obsessed metro area an air of perpetual Sunday. And so few seem to be staying home during what has been a particularly beautiful month. While wild turkeys, pileated woodpeckers, and even the occasional northern Goshawk have invaded the urban space, greenways and public parks have been teeming with people. Biking through town this week, I counted two different large groups playing volleyball; there was a sizable line at a popular ice-cream stand. This past weekend, as the number of verified Covid-19 cases in the state rapidly approached a thousand, friends of mine went kayaking.

Minnesotans—at least the ones I have met—tend to be a tough, outdoorsy, dog-owning, all-weather crowd, and the threat of a deadly virus has done little to change that. With offices shut, some city residents have escaped to lake cabins in the north, a favorite local tradition; others are taking advantage of the home-time to do lawn and garden work, causing unusual traffic jams at the neighborhood yard waste depot. (Nurseries and garden centers were added to the list of “essential” businesses this week.)

The governor, while expressing mild concern at the throngs that have been turning out along the Minneapolis lakes, has recently closed several city streets to traffic to serve the high demand from bikers and runners.

To almost any recent arrival, the Scandinavian sensibility is unmistakable: a can-do calmness; an aversion to controversy; a certain social reserve; an obsession with seasons and love of nature. But while the rugged individualism may have more in common with Norway than Sweden, the state’s unperturbed approach to the pandemic has sometimes felt closer to Stockholm than Oslo: if not quite to the degree of their controversial Swedish counterparts, Minnesota’s leaders seem to feel that people are intelligent enough to act responsibly, without the total lockdowns that have been imposed in Norway and elsewhere.

“We already self-isolate for four months of the year, so we know what to do,” a neighbor remarked this week, from a safe distance across the street. Despite evidence that the virus is spreading far more widely than official numbers suggest, and current projections showing a peak that is still weeks away, officials have already announced plans to allow some businesses to resume “normal operations” in the coming days.

But there is another similarity to Sweden, as well: social problems, such as they are, tend to get obscured. There have already been large-scale corporate furloughs and pay cuts, including for 20,000 employees at Mayo itself.

In vulnerable neighborhoods, auto thefts and robberies have spiked; on the depleted shelves of a discount supermarket this month, there was evidence of shoplifting for basic goods. Gun purchases have broken records.

Although St. Paul recently became a majority-minority city, there has also been little discussion about how the crisis is affecting the Twin Cities’ economically fragile communities of Hmong, Somali, Vietnamese, and other groups—including Native Americans, who make up a disproportionate share of Minneapolis’s large homeless population. And as in other parts of the country, members of the Asian-American community have reported rising hostility and racist attacks.

If the governor’s wager is correct, Minnesotans may yet emerge from the crisis in full vigor. Or we may find that our lakes, woods, parks, and river walks have become, through a kind of Bergman-esque transformation, as dangerous as the schools and offices we abandoned them for.

Hugh Eakin is the Gilder Lehrman Fellow in American History at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. (November 2017)

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Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images A girl in a facemask offering a small bouquet of flowers to thank a member of the Palestinian Authority security forces at a checkpoint, Ramallah, West Bank, April 8, 2020
Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images. A girl in a facemask offering a small bouquet of flowers to thank a member of the Palestinian Authority security forces at a checkpoint, Ramallah, West Bank, April 8, 2020

AMMAN, JORDAN—It was late February when things seemed to change. I was going across the Allenby Bridge from Jordan to the West Bank, and as soon as I reached the Israeli side of the crossing, I noticed workers were wearing surgical masks. Passport control officers were asking visitors if they’d recently visited China. Everyone seemed on edge.

How on earth would this novel virus reach the West Bank, I thought. We were already living under Israeli military rule: under lock and key, surely we didn’t need to worry.

And we didn’t, at first. I saw friends, and we embraced with the kiss-on-each-cheek routine as usual. Ramallah was vibrant and alive. We ate and drank at busy restaurants late into the night. Every café and bar was bustling with people.

Even when, a few weeks later, seven Palestinians were diagnosed with Covid-19 after interacting with a group of tourists in Bethlehem, I didn’t think much of it. But within days, the seven became nineteen, Bethlehem was locked down, and a curfew was imposed throughout the area.

At the best of times, the West Bank is notorious for its creaking health infrastructure; preventive care is virtually unheard of. As a result, the ratio of providers and hospital beds to patients is inadequate. Many established physicians eventually emigrate, looking for a place to practice that’s not under military occupation; those who remain behind are often less experienced, or simply less competent. My own father was misdiagnosed by a Palestinian doctor two years ago. It was prostate cancer, but the doctor kept treating him for UTIs. By the time we took him to Amman, Jordan, and started chemo- and radiotherapy, it was too late. My dad passed away last July.

In March, as the number of those infected with Covid-19 in the West Bank grew, so did the rumors and conspiracy theories: the coronavirus was concocted by the Americans to bring China to its knees; the virus can somehow be fought by gargling water and salt ; and of course—because many people here are devoted to astrology—things should resolve after March 10 when the Mercury retrograde astrological cycle ends.

Not far away, Palestinians in the West Bank village of Taybeh—known for its brewery—were said to be spraying themselves with their local version of arak, the popular aniseed-flavored Middle Eastern alcoholic spirit, using the 104º-proof liquor as sanitizer.

Even at the height of the second Intifada, in 2002, Ramallah managed to keep some of its restaurants and cafés open. A friend and I would wait for the Israeli-imposed curfew to lift, a humanitarian window of sorts allowing us to go and replenish our grocery supplies, so we could make our way to a place called Sangria, our favorite watering hole. Then the owner would close the shutters and dim the lights, and under the glow of many candles, wine glasses in hand, we would toast each other as Israeli jeeps roared past outside, with soldiers yelling in Hebrew-accented Arabic “Mamnou’a altajawol!” or “curfew imposed!”

But today, Ramallah is a ghost town. The Palestinian Authority, which manages the West Bank, announced a month-long state of emergency, closing schools, nurseries, and universities. Public gatherings and protests were banned. Directives went out to PA employees to use email instead of paper for correspondence. Gyms and wedding halls were closed. Banks were instructed to operate for shorter hours; cemeteries even can operate only under new restrictions.

As Christian, Muslim, and Jewish holidays approached, Palestinians and Israelis alike mulled the celebration of Eid, Easter, or Passover, respectively, as indoor events, with only immediate family members. I also learned that the Hajj pilgrimage may be canceled this year; the last time this happened was two centuries ago. Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, too, closed its doors (for the first time since 2002); eventually, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher followed suit. If God had had to close his houses of worship, what hope did the rest of us have, I thought.

I left the West Bank for work before the border crossings closed, so now I am stuck in Amman, while my sixty-eight-year-old mother is left to fend for herself in Ramallah. The other day, she called me on Facebook Messenger, as she does every morning. I saw she had a bandage above her eyebrow: she’d fallen as she was vacuuming her bedroom, landing flat on her face.

A neighbor had helped clean up the cut; another was buying her groceries; a third paid her electric bill. It was a blessing that people were out to help each other. But that did not diminish the guilt I felt for leaving behind my mother at the height of a pandemic.

Dalia Hatuqa is a journalist based in the West Bank and Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and The Atlantic. Her radio stories and commentary have aired on NPR, PRI’s The World, and the BBC. (April 2020)

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