From the Seattle Times, April 6:
Washington state appears to be flattening its “curve” – the impact on the hospital system at any one time – according to the latest analysis from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IMHE). The IMHE models suggest we hit “peak resource use” on April 2 and project daily COVID-19 deaths will peak today, April 6, before dropping to 18 deaths per day during April 7-9 and declining slowly from there.
Washington will return more than 400 of the 500 ventilators it recently received from the federal government, so they can go to New York and other states harder hit by the coronavirus crisis, Gov. Jay Inslee said Sunday. Vice President Mike Pence commended Inslee for returning the ventilators and said Washington and Oregon are two states “leading by example” in taking steps to slow the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The last few days – I can’t quite put my finger on when – it’s started to feel as though the rhythm is changing, as though we are, or at least I am, starting to settle in for a longer haul. Or at least wanting to, because I can’t keep up the frantic pace of the past month.
For pointy-headed types like me, one sign of a changed rhythm is that the coronavirus crisis has started to appear in the print issues of the literary fortnightlies I subscribe to. As previously with AIDS and 9/11, a kind of dimensional barrier is being crossed, by people and by peoples, after which the horrific new fact of life enters the public bloodstream and begins to be assimilated, becomes part of the organism’s ongoing life and awareness of itself. The convention of dating for such periodicals, and the delay between writing and publication – which before digital media was a factor in all publishing – means there’s always a kind of staggered sense of time that has to be allowed for. In the first issue of the London Review of Books to be edited remotely, understandably a relatively slim one, Thomas Jones, writing from Orvieto, Italy, noted:
This issue of the LRB goes to press on Thursday, 19 March, halfway through Lent. This issue is dated 2 April, two weeks from now. The day after that, in theory, schools in Italy are set to reopen. But everyone knows that won’t happen. The lockdown will be extended, to Easter and beyond. It has to continue for two incubation periods – thirty days – after the last new case tests positive. And then there will be ninety days of the “heightened surveillance” we experienced, briefly, on 9 March, when bars and restaurants were still open but only until six o’clock in the evening. Indefinite Lent.
In the same issue James Meek, whose latest book is a novel set in the plague year 1348, writes:
This dislocation, not from the fabric of reality, but from its representation – the meaningfulness embedded in habits and belief structures and social norms that turns out, when those habits and structures and norms are taken away, not to be so meaningful after all – is where the plague and the virus overlap. … When the plague killed more than half the people in this society, much of the pattern was exposed, at least temporarily, as simply habitual behaviour, as opposed to an expression of some fundamental identity. …
Our practices, lost not as a direct result of epidemic mortality but the frantic effort to prevent it, seemed when we had access to them to be merely things we did, but can now be seen as substitutes for existential meaning: the office, the pub, the restaurant, the foreign holiday, the cruise. … If the Black Death is anything to go by, history will bifurcate: in one version the epidemic will have changed everything – social histories – and in the other it will be an awkward side-note interrupting a narrative of wars, national rivalries, rulers and dynasties.
Writing in The Nation in 2004, Scott Sherman commended how The New York Review of Books rose to the occasion after 9/11 – which I agree it did – but noted, with sympathy, that its default inclination is toward a “gentlemanly pastiche of philosophy, art, classical music, photography, German and Russian history, East European politics, literary fiction.” Such a pastiche is feasible really only when times are less urgent, or (which maybe amounts to the same thing) when we can allow ourselves to ignore or tune out the urgency of the times.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that tuning out the urgency of the times is always a bad idea. My friend Pete Comley helped me adjust amid the avalanche of opinionizing just after Trump’s inauguration. “I’m rationing my op-eds,” he said. Good advice. Op-eds can function as an addictive drug, and I agree with Pete that it’s important to ration one’s exposure to them, especially ones that one agrees with. I’ll think for myself, thanks. But what do I think, anyway? The short answer to that is that the real answer requires time and leisure to arrive at, which requires tuning out the urgency.
Yesterday I got an email from the good people at MoveOn.org. I do believe they’re good people, and broadly I agree with their politics. So why did their email, subject-lined “This is a long email, but we hope you’ll read it,” leave me unmoved? I skimmed it, decided not to read it, then filed it in my “Coronavirus” subfolder. “MoveOn was built to lead in this moment, but we need your help: Can you pitch in $5 a month to help us sustain the fight – for as long as it takes – for masks, ventilators, and cash subsidies, and against the spread of the coronavirus and trillion-dollar corporate power grabs?” Well, no, I really can’t. Why can’t I? Partly because I’m tired and close to broke, with uncertain income potential going forward. And maybe partly because I gave money to MoveOn like three years ago to fight Trump, and right now that doesn’t seem to have been money well spent.
In her long email to me the other day, my cousin-in-law Carolyn wrote:
I’m saddened that this crisis is all so political, but then, what part of our lives isn’t? Just think if that energy could be channeled into more constructive efforts! Maybe I’m not reading the relevant news from other countries, but from what I have read, it doesn’t appear that the crisis is politicized in the same way as in the U.S. I vacillate between ignoring the media and then getting sucked back in for updates.
I know exactly how she feels. I want, to the extent possible, to get on with my own private, non-political life: to work in my garden, now that we’re getting reliably good spring weather; to make progress on my prior and ongoing writing and publishing projects, which have not only lain fallow these recent weeks but have also been brutally recontextualized in ways I’m now going to have to figure out and deal with; to read books set in a time, or on a planet, that has no coronavirus.
Joe Stone lives down near Portland and is one of 18 combat veterans who tell their own stories in the 2017 book What They Signed Up For, edited by my friend Jeb Wyman. Early in the morning of April 5, the following tweet exchange took place:
Joe: I miss watching and reading about sports.
Ethan: Me too. Back in olden times, I could read about last night’s game or the latest trade over coffee, to ease myself into my day. Now it’s all coronavirus, all the time.
Joe: You are so right. While I wasn’t too obsessed over sports, it was a nice break from “hard” news we’ve been inundated with. Every other type of news seems focused on coronavirus as well. There’s no escape.