This running series of brief dispatches by New York Review writers will document the coronavirus outbreak with regular updates from around the world.
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK—“If someone says ‘Love in the Time of Corona’ one more time I am literally going to punch them,” a woman said to her friend as I passed along Eastern Parkway on the course of my daily walk. “Corona and Chill” surfaced in my mind as an arguably tackier alternative, but I didn’t stop, from six feet’s distance, to ask her thoughts.
It’s a strange time for dating. One friend had gone on an especially promising first date just before people across the city were sent home to work remotely. She knows so little about him, she told me, except that she liked him, and he liked her, and they want to see each other again. What they don’t know is when that will be possible. Their second date will be on FaceTime. My friend is planning her outfit (at least from the waist up), hoping for minimal screen freezing. (Meanwhile, dating apps, encouraging “dating from home,” are seeing an increase in users since nationwide stay-at-home mandates.)
A pandemic can prematurely accelerate intimacy—one couple I know, together six months, have basically moved in and are talking about fostering a dog—or it can put a hard pause on romance. The gradations of a new relationship, usually permitted to simmer and bubble without comment, now ask to be defined aloud.
Notions of exclusivity and consent become necessarily explicit. To advise how best to be physical in the age of coronavirus, the NYC Department of Health released a list of “sex guidelines,” which includes the instructive reminder, “You are your safest sex partner. Masturbation will not spread COVID-19.” In addition to vigorous prompting to clean sex toys thoroughly, it advises not to have sexual contact with people outside your household, and if you do, to have as few partners as possible. For those uncommitted but still craving companionship, Covid-19 makes cuffing season a springtime affair.
I am not immune. I had been going on dates when “social distancing” began. One man remained willing to see me in person, and suggested that he wasn’t seeing anyone else. Somewhat turned off by his lack of social responsibility, but also flattered to be chosen as his coronavirus girlfriend—if he was telling the truth—I told him I was taking social distancing seriously, hoped we could see each other again soon, and texted him something tastefully risqué in the meantime. I had, in fact, chosen somebody else, someone I knew and liked better —someone who lives closer; whom I’d seen, and touched, more recently.
But it’s complicated—now more so than ever. The person I chose had made it clear he’s not ready for a relationship, and so, knowing I was developing real feelings, I ended things before social distancing. Friends first, we stayed in touch. Covid-19 has both erected and eroded boundaries (the heart wants…, etc.). I drew up a contract with him—25 percent flirtatious to 75 percent serious—including terms about precautions against both contagion and heartbreak (communication and hand-washing feature prominently). I recognize in myself conflicting impulses—for security, for abandon. My therapist says… well, you can imagine.
Or, panic cutting through the heart’s defenses, are things simpler now? A new couple I know—dating for two weeks before lockdown, friends for months preceding—are also still meeting up, living apart, and being strict about otherwise isolating. (They’d been spending most of their time together, so even if one were an asymptomatic carrier, the other was sure to have caught it already—no point torturously restraining themselves.) But the circumstances force incredibly direct early conversations: Are we comfortable meeting up? Kissing? Who else are you seeing? How’s your anxiety? Your mom? How many verses of Beyoncé do you sing while washing your hands?
Intense sex and deep conversation seem to come easily during isolation. More difficult is creating some semblance of normalcy. It’s strange as you’re getting to know someone to be denied the experience of seeing the person interact with others out in the world. And while stress can inspire closeness, and sometimes a false bond, a budding relationship wants room to breathe. The new couple is trying to make space for the mundane: sitting quietly together, going about their own activities side by side, meeting each other’s friends via happy hours on Zoom. They worry about unique circumstances sabotaging what might have been a real thing.
But no relationship is formed in a vacuum, and these are the current conditions. In many ways, it’s a luxury to expect that a romance be allowed to bloom without constraints. As we encounter one another, we’re also confronting the effects of world events to a degree unfamiliar to many of us. It’s surreal and charged. It’s vulnerable. And, crucially, this is still a moment before some of us and our loved ones will get sick.
These days, in the first apartment I’ve lived in alone, solitude, usually a pleasure to be protected, feels more like an interminable necessity. I find myself daydreaming: if quarantine becomes stricter, or I end my contract in favor of complete isolation, what would it be like not to touch another person for a few weeks, for a month—for two?
Lucy McKeon is on the editorial staff of the New York Review of Books.
PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY—The day after the spring equinox looked dreary and leaden. From my window I couldn’t see many people, but squirrels abounded. I had never thought much of the squirrels until I read Natalia Ginzburg’s epistolary novel The City and the House, in which many letters sent by the main character, from Princeton to Italy, mention the squirrels. Ginzburg’s novel, set after World War II, would be a good one to read while we are all distanced from one another.
How to help oneself and others through this uncertain time? With my friend Brigid Hughes at A Public Space, I started a book club on social media called Tolstoy Together, in which we’ll read War and Peace in short daily installments over the next three months. We began on March 18. I had imagined that five or ten friends would join me, but the project is turning out to be larger. Readers from far and near—Europe, Australia, Africa, Asia, North America, South America—are participating. The youngest reader I know of is a middle school boy in Texas; the oldest are in their eighties. The thought that in physical isolation one can still read with others—especially with the older, more vulnerable population—is a small solace; so are the letters we’ve been receiving from independent book stores, many of which have had to close their physical stores and resort to online transactions, telling us that they have been selling copies of the book.
Why read War and Peace now? I could give many reasons for choosing to, but the essential one is this: twice during the most difficult periods of my life, I could do little but read this particular novel. There were days when I would hand-copy passages from it just to keep my brain and hands in movement. Stefan Zweig says that Tolstoy is “supreme as artist when he is indifferent, dispassionate, unconcerned, incorruptible, neither confused nor led astray by sympathy.” I may choose different adjectives, but what Zweig says of Tolstoy is what draws me to his work: Tolstoy is one of those writers who, for the exact reason of being deeply moved by the world, can appear unmoved. His level-headedness and clearsightedness offer a solidity during a time of duress. I cannot think of a better book to read with others during a period of isolation.
A few nights ago, my Ukrainian masseuse emailed to say that she would be closing until further notice. That made me sad. We often discuss Tolstoy when I go to her studio. I’m envious that she reads the Russian original; she is shocked that I haven’t begun to learn Russian. The day after I received her note, the reading group reached the scene where Pierre goes out to carouse with his friends, and waltzes with a bear when he is drunk. Once I asked my masseuse where the bear came from.
“They must’ve stolen the bear from a circus,” she said.
“Oh, I didn’t think of that,” I said.
“What did you think? That bears walked around in Moscow and they grabbed one off the street?”
I said I thought people would go bear hunting.
“In that case you’d only get a dead bear,” she said. (She must be right. Levin in Anna Karenina hunts bears with a friend. They don’t show up in a carousing scene, but as bear skins.)
I told my husband that I worried about my masseuse. My husband said, “Like us, she has seen worse, so let’s trust that she’ll be okay.”
Perhaps that is a reason to stay uplifted. Just the other day I opened a book of letters from the California Gold Rush. In one of them, from 1851, a woman wrote to her sister back in Boston to describe the gold-mining settlement of Indian Bar: “a place where there are no newspapers, no churches, lectures, concerts, or theaters; no fresh books; no shopping, calling, nor gossiping little tea-drinkings; no parties, no balls, no pictures, no tableaus, no charades no latest fashions, no daily mail (we have an express once a month), no promenades, no rides or drives; no vegetables but potatoes and onions, no milk, no eggs, no nothing? Now, I expect to be very happy here.”
All week I have thought about that woman’s spirit. If we can take our minds off of our anxiety for thirty minutes a day for War and Peace; if we can communicate with a family member, a friend, a stranger who is savoring the same Tolstoy passage; if, in a dire situation, we find any possible way to occupy our mind, eyes, hands— perhaps then we will have the humility and the optimism to say to each other: No concerts, no plays, no parties, no nothing? Now, I expect to be very busy here.
Yiyun Li has published many short stories and novels, including A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2005), which won the PEN/Hemingway Award and Guardian First Book Award, and Where Reasons End (2019), which won the 2020 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award. She is a winner of the 2020 Windham Campbell Prize, and teaches at Princeton University. (March 2020)
BERLIN, GERMANY—On March 11, I was at my co-working space in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood when the office managers called an emergency meeting. One of our members had tested positive for Covid-19; according to the local public health authority, we were all to self-quarantine immediately for twelve days or until a healthcare worker came to our homes to test us.
Although I knew it was likely someone at the bustling, international space would contract coronavirus, the announcement still came as a shock. We all quickly packed our things and headed out into a strangely sunny day. The next evening, an email popped up in my inbox that the public health authority had changed its mind; we were free unless we’d had a fifteen-minute conversation with the infected person (they released the name) or had symptoms.
While our official quarantining lasted only twenty-four hours, the experience proved an augur of things to come. A few days later, the German government’s guidance would finally catch up with what public health experts were advising—and we were headed toward a citywide shutdown.
Berlin has a reputation as a creative, even utopian, capital, unconstrained by social pressures and expectations. But it is also a poor city, with high rates of substance abuse and homelessness, as well as a fiercely individualistic place. There exists a sort of Neverland quality in parts of Berlin where clubs are open 24/7, drugs are plentiful, and groceries are cheap. Over the past few days, as an early spring sent temperatures rising into the high fifties, and blue and purple flowers bloomed along canal banks, Berliners in my area of Neukölln congregated in groups in the parks and on Tempelhof air field, continuing to drink at newly created speakeasies in defiance of government regulations—and in seeming denial that their actions were irrevocably tied to our communal fate.
One night this week, as I was walking my dog on a dimly lit street, I heard a man turn the corner behind me, singing softly. Suddenly, the sound disappeared. I wheeled around and found him inches from my face. “Hey,” I shouted, and he staggered backward, took a sip of the beer he was carrying. He started walking away, muttering “hey” in a drunken drawl. Then he said over his shoulder, “You’re only a woman.”
Standing there in the dark watching him recede, it felt as though something had already irrevocably shifted. He threw his beer bottle against a tree and it burst apart.
Back in my apartment, I opened Instagram to Igor Levit’s livestream. Levit is an acclaimed Berlin-based Russian-German pianist, and since concert halls are closed here, he’s been performing online every night at 7 PM. I don’t know much about classical music, but as I watched his fingers move over the keys to Mendelssohn, I felt a lull. Hundreds of people sent neon-colored heart emoticons in an endless stream. For the next twenty minutes, I did not read the news or scroll Twitter; I just sat there and listened as Levit’s music connected me to people I could not see.
Later that night, as I read on my couch, I heard a yelling and banging on the street below. I opened the window with a feeling of dread, but the sounds were a dozen or so people clapping on their balconies. I leaned out the window and joined them. Midway through, I realized we were applauding the city’s doctors and nurses, and then I started shouting, too.
Caitlin L. Chandler is a Berlin-based journalist who is on the editorial board of the news and opinion site Africa Is a Country. (January 2019)
KERHONKSON, NEW YORK—Many writers must be sitting down right now and opening a new file on their laptops and staring at the blank page they’ve headed “Journal of the Plague Year,” then giving up and closing the window again. It seems impossible to measure the situation, and almost immoral to try to articulate one’s own experience when it’s set—as it must be—against the foil of real suffering.
Now we’re locked in our apartments and mad. If, like me, you have a spouse and kids and a dog, any space or time to think will be hard to come by. Still, we tell ourselves, we are lucky: our suffering so far is limited to arguing with relatives over FaceTime that they really should stay inside.
Last Wednesday night I met my friend Eddy and we sat six feet apart on the bench in the middle of Houston Street—between the two traffic lanes—and drank: him a half-bottle of Woodford Reserve bourbon, and me a children’s thermos filled with Pinot Grigio. A bearded man dressed in rags and trimmed with lit-up Christmas lights wandered the empty sidewalk, shouting at the occasional car passing, “I feel you, I feel you, brother.” An upscale couple in facemasks and leather gloves trailed their prim and glossy dachshund. It felt like bad sci-fi, a melodrama of dystopic inequity, of pre-apocalyptic desolation. Eddy, a builder, is renovating an apartment in Soho and trying to keep his nine employees on the site as long as he can. They have nine families to feed, he says.
I’d found flights to get back to Ireland—I teach at NYU—but couldn’t persuade anyone to keep our dog, an old and rickety pug, so we stayed in our university flat in Greenwich Village until yesterday, when I rented a car and we came upstate to our friends Jay and Jackie’s place. We’re staying in their guesthouse at the minute but will have to head back into the city soon. Upstate is very different. It’s almost possible to pretend things are okay, which is what I’m doing with the kids.
Today, on a walk, I was thinking of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, “Renascence”: “All I could see from where I stood / was three long mountains and a wood.” This afternoon my seven-year-old son and I caught a red-spotted newt in the pond, and then let him crawl—alternating limbs—across my hand, then watched him swim in an old tin bath we’d filled with pondwater. Those limbs, so ungainly on land, turned fleet in the water.
Earlier this morning I went off to forage in the Walmart in Napanoch, where they were already rationing the milk and had run out of eggs. I wore gloves, and a few other customers were wearing masks. I am trying not to touch my face, though my hands—I have noticed—really do enjoy touching my face. I scratch my beard, pick my nose, rub my eyes. My hands are preoccupied with my face. I text my wife that I want to go back to the 1990s, when we met. 2020 is fucking awful. Back in the car I slather my hands with sanitizer and breathe again through my mouth.
My wife is taking it all personally. My daughter is singing even more than usual, every few minutes. My son and I play T-ball in the grass. My daughter shouts at my son, my son shouts at my daughter, and then I shout at both of them. There is a manic quality to the time. It is like being on acid or crazed from lack of sleep. Everything is a frenzy of information. Tamsin’s husband has been taken into hospital with the virus, then released, then taken back in. Nikita’s brother and sister-in-law are recovering from it in London. Helen e-mails to say she has it. John says he has it. Deborah has been in her bedroom for eleven days, self-quarantining from her family. We hear a healthy thirty-nine-year old has died. Fact after fact rolls in, refining specifics of the horror.
Spain, Germany, France, and the US all have more cases than Italy when it ordered the lockdown. The federal government is bidding against Massachusetts state for medical supplies. They are building barricades in front of the posh shops in Soho, Eddy says, to stop the looting.
The prophecies arrive: hundreds of thousands of dead, trillions of dollars spent, millions and millions losing their jobs, their health care, their homes. Soldiers on the streets. Each graph, each blank statistic. Each talking head. Stick a fork in the ass of civilization, it’s done. Don’t be silly, this is a blip. I don’t think so. In the stream of news the poems sit like stones, lambent under the surface. Auden’s “Gare Du Midi,” where the man with his little case alights from the train, and steps out “briskly to infect the city / whose terrible future may have just arrived.”
Nick Laird is a poet, novelist, and former litigator who worked on the Bloody Sunday inquiry. He teaches at NYU and is Professor of Creative Writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre in Belfast. His fourth collection of poetry, Feel Free, was published in the US in July. (January 2020)
BOGOTÁ, COLOMBIA—These are the quietest days anyone can remember in Bogotá, ever. More than Christmas or New Year’s Day, more than Easter week, when the city empties out. No car alarms, no motorcycles, no buses panting and screeching to a halt. The criers are gone, too: the one whom I hear punctually, midmorning and midafternoon, offering very sweet rice pudding, still hot; the one who comes by once or twice a week, announcing through a megaphone that he “buys literature, every type of literature” (which he then sells in the provinces or our outlying poor neighborhoods, where most of the city’s seven million people live.) There’s a weekly ragman who uses a recording to remind us that he will recycle anything and everything—from dead refrigerators to soaked mattresses to spent batteries—that we might care to place in his little beaten-up truck.
Our smart mayor, Claudia López, faced with a sharp escalation of confirmed patients in the city, and a tardy and inadequate reaction to the coronavirus crisis by the country’s president, Iván Duque, announced last Tuesday, March 17, that a four-day trial lockdown would begin on March 20. Access roads to the city have been closed to traffic except for trucks bringing in food and other essential supplies. No one is allowed to leave their apartment or house other than to purchase food or seek medical treatment, and people over seventy are expected to stay indoors until the end of the crisis. Following in her steps, Duque declared a similar nationwide lockdown Friday evening from now through Easter, though who knows what will happen after that, or how that will be implemented in the rural districts. In fact, with the government and the world’s attention focused on stopping the epidemic, paramilitary violence against social activists in the countryside has escalated, The Guardian reported yesterday.
Colombia might not be in such straits if a cruise ship had not been allowed to dock in the seaside tourist trap of Cartagena in late February, which then disembarked its passengers, including one hundred and twenty party-hungry Italians and an unknown, but significant, number of virus-carriers. So far, the chain of contagion has been traceable in all of the country’s two hundred and seventy- seven diagnosed cases, but it’s a question of hours, possibly, before the virus hits its exponential rate of spread. Mayor López may thus have other benefits in mind other than a rehearsal: a four-day lockdown might conceivably act like a wide trench for an out-of-control conflagration.
What with substantial fines for anyone caught outdoors, and the dawning realization in a sizable portion of the population that this danger is for real, Mayor Lopez’s seclusion orders have been obeyed to a remarkable degree, at least in my neighborhood. Last week, though, I went to buy some toothpaste to add to the stock of supplies I’ve been laying in over the last three or four weeks, and stood in line for half an hour, waiting to be admitted to my local supermarket: stores were trying to avoid the overcrowding of the previous day, when the mayor’s announcement of the lockdown rules led to a surge of panic-buying and, quite possibly, contagion. But as far as Colombians were concerned, the lines were just one more opportunity to socialize. Neighbors greeted each other, strangers struck up conversations, while I tried to tell the man in front of me and the young woman behind me talking on her cell phone and all but reclining on my shoulder that it might be better for all of us if they kept at a certain distance. They looked stunned. (The young woman, however, moved back a foot.)
Partly, this cheerful sociability has to do with a great capacity for self-serving denial, perfected over centuries in the face of this country’s unending violence. But partly, there is also a cultural dependence on closeness and communication. I staged a ridiculous dance with a man who lives in my building as we moved around the building’s garage, him stepping closer and me skipping backward as I tried to achieve what was (for both of us) an uncomfortable but now prescribed distance for conversation. “Oh, I see you’re taking this thing seriously,” he said, arching an eyebrow.
In his Saturday speech, Duque did mention the hardship now faced by the nearly half of the population that get by as unregistered domestic workers, self-employed plumbers, carpenters, delivery men, taxi-drivers, or street peddlers like the man who sells rice pudding under my window, and the millions of others who live by their wits. Presumably, this figure does not include the 1.5 million Venezuelans now living here, who are even more cruelly exposed to the economic collapse heading this way. On the block of wall-to-wall fancy restaurants down the street from me, I had become used to threading my way through a nearly solid line of Venezuelan families, with their children, all begging or busking—and I couldn’t help wondering each time, with a pang, whether those playing instruments—often very well—were products of José Antonio Abreu’s Sistema, the revolutionary Venezuela system of musical training for poor children that gave us Gustavo Dudamel. What will become of them now?
One indication of the impact on those living in extreme poverty or confinement came on the weekend, when prisoners in the nighmarish Modelo jail rioted, leaving at least twenty-three dead. In another incident that same day, we saw on the news a security camera video of a group of skinny young men bursting into a supermarket and grabbing what they could off the shelves. (They were Venezuelans, it turned out, who, caught by the neighbors, were subsequently deported.)
Most everything we see on our screens these days is terrifying, excepting the constant stream of the funny memes we’re grateful for. Another source of comfort—and paradoxical disquiet—has been the videos showing shoals of tiny fish repopulating the Venice canals; curious foxes and peccaries trotting through empty streets in unidentified cities, dolphins patroling the docks of an Italian seaside town, trying to understand where all the traffic and people and noise went. It looks good, the world without us!
I live on the edge of a park traversed by a tiny trickle of water that turns into a proper stream when it rains, as it has been doing nearly every day for the past few weeks. Even with the windows shut tightly, I can still make out the sound of rushing water. Today, I turned the radio on—and turned it off again almost immediately, because the sound of water coursing through all that clean silence is more beautiful, even though it bodes disaster.
Alma Guillermoprieto, who writes regularly for The New York Review about Latin America, is the author of Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution, among other books. (June 2019)
NORTHAMPTON, MASSACHUSETTS—At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, undergraduates protested their sudden eviction from the dorms by barricading the infinite corridor, the campus’s main artery, carrying a stand of hand sanitizer aloft like a pagan icon. (Up the road at Harvard, students were getting piercings, and getting drunk.) My science journalism program will continue remotely, though the syllabus has unraveled, and one of my classmates has fled the East Coast for Los Angeles. I ended my shared lease in Cambridge and joined my family in Northampton, contributing two cans of coconut milk, bulk tampons, and a pint of ethyl alcohol to the pantry.
Quarantine suits my father. He wipes down all the doorknobs in the apartment with Lysol. Working from a Japanese template he found online, he has cut up one of his shirts and sits at the kitchen table sewing the scraps into masks. I spent some time last semester hanging around a biophysics lab where sterilization was reflexive, every pipette tip and glove used once and then chucked into a biohazard bin to be incinerated. MIT labs are now turning off their machines, freezing their cultures, and donating protective gear and testing equipment to Mass General.
It does not surprise me that I’ve come down with something, after a week spent sleepless and paralyzed by the Democratic primaries, my half-finished thesis about climate change in the Gulf of Maine (now a comparatively slow-moving crisis, difficult to prioritize), and an hourly-escalating instinct to flee the city. Ensconced in a peaceful corner of the mostly-vacant Smith campus, I keep thinking about the Biogen conference on February 26 that disseminated the virus to seventy people in Boston. Everyone thought a biotech company starting an outbreak was darkly funny.
A symptom of the virus is “general malaise”—easily a psychosomatic condition! My sister is also feeling sick, recently returned from Colorado, where she was visiting her boyfriend. The strategy: act as though you have it, believe deep down that you do not. In any case, there’s no isolating from the parents in a one-bedroom apartment. Mom and sister snuggle and binge-watch terrible Netflix shows.
My partner, studying theoretical ecology at UCLA, stays up until 4 AM obsessively modeling pandemic spread. He says he’s going to drive across the country to retrieve me, less a plan than a scenario. We have a lease on an apartment in Venice Beach that starts in May. I spend a lot of time thinking about the beach and revising the life I’ve been imagining will go with it. I’ve heard the smog over Southern California has cleared up beautifully in the past few days.
Lucy Jakub is a master’s student at the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT. (March 2020)
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK—I woke up on Saturday and realized it was March 21, the first day of spring. It didn’t matter that it was Saturday because I had to work anyway, and it didn’t matter that it was spring because I couldn’t go outside.
I work as a geriatrician and palliative care doctor in the New York City jails, mostly on Rikers Island. Sometime in late February it became clear that Seattle was getting hit hard by Covid-19, and it was around then that I began worrying that we wouldn’t be able to protect our sickest and oldest patients in the jails. A jail, I keep saying, is like the world’s worst cruise ship crossed with the world’s worst nursing home: the ideal set-up for a viral outbreak. I stopped sleeping around March 1, when the first New York case was announced. Several nights in a row I had the strange experience of waking up and talking to my boss, another doctor, on the phone at 4 AM, not really making decisions, just agonizing together. On March 14, my husband escaped upstate with our daughter and his parents, partly to protect them, partly to get space from an encroaching feeling of doom. I was left home alone, just me and my phone and the urgent way it buzzes at me.
My house is very nice, and too big for one person, but as of yesterday morning I hadn’t gone anywhere since Wednesday and I was feeling strange. I was quarantined with a hacking cough and a flushed, woozy feeling I didn’t recognize. Friends had been coming by and leaving me offerings of food outside my door while I pressed myself against the glass and blew kisses. One sweet couple came by with strawberries and chocolate truffles, which made me laugh; provisions to seduce myself, get me in the mood.
I’ve behaved so uncharacteristically this week. I began dispensing unsolicited advice on Instagram, first to my private circle of friends, and then to a wider public audience. I also started tweeting for the first time, and speaking to media about my work, becoming braver and more desperate as the week went on. Strangers began writing me from all over the country, with questions like “can I play basketball?” and “I’m a nanny and the family I work for is going to fire me if I stop coming in; should I just get fired so I don’t die?” I held my phone up to my face and just started talking extemporaneously, in the soothing voice I use when I am building trust with patients but not yet giving them hard truths.
I spent Saturday afternoon reviewing list after list of patients who might be released from the jail in this state of emergency, trying to figure out who is homeless, weighing who seems too fragile to release to the streets against who seems too fragile to keep in custody as the virus spreads. My colleagues and I believe the only thing we can do to mitigate the disaster that has already befallen us is to depopulate the jails. I knew a lot of the names on the lists as I scrolled. I’ve talked to those guys, examined them, counseled them; some I’ve known for years. They sleep about three or four feet apart from one another in dorms of about forty people, and they’re stuck together in these barrack-style rooms all day, each housing area a sub-society with dynamics all its own. The infirmary jail where I most often work can be drafty. It often smells of wet bread. Last week, as I walked from dorm to dorm warning the guys that the virus was coming, asking them to please wash their hands, I thought not for the first time that it would be a terrible place to convalesce.
I joined a planning call with my colleagues about how we would handle the spillover of positive Covid-19 cases once the carefully sealed disease chambers of the infectious disease unit filled up. There are no good options, only ones that are less bad.
Toward the evening, I became very short of breath and scared myself for a while. My friend Justine, also a doctor, went to borrow a pulse oximeter for me from our friend Jon. I lay on my bed, watching my oxygen level and heart rate out of the corner of my eye, trying to catch myself getting sicker. I called my friend Valerie, whom I consider wise, and we decided on what hospital I’d go to if things got bad. We chose Cornell. I felt entirely unsure of my own physical sensations. I’d cough when I thought the word “cough” and struggle for air when I thought the word “breath.” I tried to make myself rest. I focused on the promise that if I was infected, at least super-human immunity might await me on the other side of this illness. My boss texted around 10 PM that my Covid-19 test had come back negative. A strange mixture of emotions washed over me: relief, that things maybe weren’t as bad as I’d imagined, and horror, realizing that the worst was yet to come.
Rachael Bedard is a geriatrics and palliative care doctor working with the oldest and sickest patients in the New York City jail system. (March 2020)