This article is part of the series

Pandemic Journal #6

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images. A cyclist wearing a mask crossing the Williamsburg Bridge, New York City, March 18, 2020
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images. A cyclist wearing a mask crossing the Williamsburg Bridge, New York City, March 18, 2020

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK—I am a reluctant biker, but on Monday night I rode from downtown Brooklyn, where I live, to upper Manhattan, where my mother claimed to be having trouble downloading Skype. The road was empty. Two finance bros discussed going to “Nick’s aunt’s townhouse in South Beach.” A few joggers retreated into their AirPods. There were no children on the street.

The western length of Manhattan is lined with thousands of apartments worth millions of dollars, most of them built with big glass windows facing the river. I did not see a single face looking outside. At 34th Street, I craned my neck to try to see The Shed, the Michael Bloomberg-backed performing arts space inside a luxury mall. It had occurred to me that it might serve as a good makeshift hospital, with its $27 million skylights letting in the sun. (The next day, Bloomberg pledged $40 million to coronavirus relief efforts.) In the West 60s, a single FedEx truck was driving along the road formerly known as Trump Place.

Since the beginning of the year, I have been editing a site with dispatches from every 2020 election that isn’t the United States’. Over the past few days, a number of my writers have emailed to reluctantly pull out: the elections in their countries have been delayed or postponed, occasionally indefinitely. Coronavirus is the reason given. We see pictures of police across Europe ready to fine citizens for unauthorized walks, while the hospitals complain of a shortage of personnel.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that the federal government, which has done little to implement life-saving tests, is entering talks with the data analytics and intelligence contracting company Palantir about coronavirus-related surveillance. A friend of mine was recently told to go back to China. Should we be surprised if this illness leads to further cruelty? Already, we see it as an excuse for increased authoritarianism around the world. Any historian will tell you: after the plague, the pogrom.

Madeleine Schwartz is a regular contributor to The New York Review. She won the 2019 European Press Prize for opinion writing. (February 2020)

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Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images. A man walking past the closed Air France counters following President Trump’s thirty-day ban on travel from Europe, John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York City, March 12, 2020
Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images. A man walking past the closed Air France counters following President Trump’s thirty-day ban on travel from Europe, John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York City, March 12, 2020

DUBLIN, IRELAND—On March 12, the day Donald Trump addressed the nation about Covid-19, I was in the middle of a book tour (the show must go on!) in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I’d made the decision to travel from Ireland when there were six reported cases of the illness in New York State, and the odds seemed good to me.

The situation changed as I traveled, but not much. I was less than enthusiastic about the man in New Hampshire who attended a “mixer” party after testing positive, and actively disturbed by the news from Dublin, my hometown, that employees of Biogen in Ireland had been urged to empty its office there, after the company’s conference in Boston had been linked to dozens of cases. The morning after Portsmouth I was due to go read in Cambridge, Massachusetts, four miles from their conference hotel, so I had the odd feeling that I was moving in the wrong direction.

After my reading, I went back to the hotel and wasn’t bothered watching Trump, so it was forty long minutes before I realized that he had switched from denial to what seemed, to me, to be an arbitrary act of xenophobia: he had just banned all travel from Europe to the United States. I did not yet know that when he said “Europe,” he did not mean the English-speaking countries of Great Britain and Ireland; perhaps they were not, in his mind, “foreign” enough. I picked up my European passport, went down to the bar and ordered a glass of wine and looked up flights to Ireland on my laptop, with one ear on the TV screen and another on the three people sitting near me on high stools. A local couple and a lone female traveler; they had been brought together by the immediacy of the subject, and they had views. I can’t remember what these views were.

Their conversation now seems to belong not just to another time but to another model of the world—one in which, among other things, people thought their opinions mattered. I deal in words for a living, but I have had difficulty forming them, since that moment, whether to describe or analyze. I don’t really understand them anymore. I understand touch, breath, contact. I understand plane tickets—I booked one as the price rose under me, the morning after Trump’s address. I took a car toward Cambridge and turned left for Logan airport. I understand the word “home.”

I had considered the numbers, as though they were real and meant something—I forgot you have to collect them first. The US was not testing people, because America values private medicine over communal health. That is why the numbers were low, because Trump said, “I like the numbers being where they are.” I don’t even have the wherewithal to feel stupid about all this. I cannot find a tone.

Anne Enright is an Irish writer whose work has appeared in The Irish Times, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The Guardian, among other publications. She has published three short story collections, including, most recently, Yesterday’s Weather (2009), the nonfiction memoir Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood (2004), and more than half a dozen novels, including, most recently, Actress (2020). (March 2020)

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Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images. Hospital president Kim Sang-il outside a Covid-19 testing booth at Yangji hospital, Seoul, March 17, 2020
Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images. Hospital president Kim Sang-il outside a Covid-19 testing booth at Yangji hospital, Seoul, March 17, 2020

BUSAN, SOUTH KOREA—Sometime around the end of the first week in February, I woke up to a familiar sort of buzzing from my cellphone—a distinctive burst of noise and vibration that brought to mind the mobile alerts for an earthquake in Japan, where I worked for several years as a foreign correspondent. In this case, the buzzing signaled a different kind of disaster: new Covid-19 infections.

The first one was distressing, but for days afterward, the slow trickle of alerts that followed it was almost reassuring: stray noises, disconnected from the steady, destructive rhythm of the virus, which had by then infected well over 50,000 people in China. If the buzzing signaled anything, I thought, it was that Covid-19 had found no momentum in South Korea.

Then, on February 18, these intermittent alerts started coming in constant, angry bursts. In Daegu, a city just north of Busan, a member of the Shincheonji Church had tested positive for the virus; the dozens of people she’d infected at her church and at buffet-style restaurants where she dined had subsequently infected hundreds more, who in turn infected thousands of others. In a matter of days, the alerts were coming so frequently that the noise faded into the background of daily life, like the sound of cicadas in the summer.

I soon disabled these emergency notifications, but by then the entire city was a warning. At the grocery store, a sign posted at the entrance warned shoppers that an infected person had been there days earlier, and that anyone who had been in the store on that particular date should be tested. Few people left their homes without wearing a surgical mask, and aside from pharmacies and grocery stores, most businesses were left empty.

When I ventured to a nearby restaurant for takeout, I paid by passing cash through a small hole in a clear plastic sheet that hung from the ceiling to the floor. Afterward, I cleaned my hands using the sanitizer that sat on a table near the entrance, and on my way home cleaned them again using the bottle of sanitizer that had been placed in the elevator of my building.

This upending of normal life happened almost overnight, and with very little prompting from the government. There was no need for curfews or lockdowns, and I had little sense that people were afraid. What was it, if not fear and panic, that had motivated so many people to dramatically alter their daily routines? The answer, I think, is quite simple: information.

South Korea’s government, which learned many hard lessons during the deadly SARS outbreak in 2003, launched a swift investigation into Covid-19’s progress in Daegu. The subsequent flurry of government testing for the virus allowed investigators to quickly identify and quarantine infected people and screen everyone they’d been around. Instead of inducing helplessness and complacency by telling the public what to fear, the government produced a steady stream of data that told them what they could do to protect themselves.

By the time I left for work in Tokyo a few weeks ago, things had improved so dramatically that I felt uneasy about leaving South Korea. But the assignment was important, so I switched the emergency alerts on my phone back on, and boarded my flight. So far, Japan seems to have outrun the virus, but in the absence of widespread testing, it’s hard to say for sure. For now, all I can do is wait for that familiar sound.

Joshua Hunt is a journalist based in Korea and Japan, where he was previously a foreign correspondent for Reuters. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, among other publications. (March 2020)

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