In Plague Time

Are catastrophes coming thicker in recent years, or does it just feel that way?

In writing this post, I realized that I’ve written my way through 9/11 in my city, New York, and through Hurricane Sandy which left this region drowned and without power for days, and through the theft of our national elections in 2016, and many more, minor but drastic events too numerous to name.

The religious right has called for the end of days while doing everything they can to hasten that. Certainly we do have freakishly strong floods, storms, fires, and seas running red (with algae), even record locust swarms in the Horn of Africa—and if I were given to demonizing I would say that the Antichrist sits in the White House. But these horrors are due to realistic causes and must be addressed realistically. I tell myself, too, that I’ve written my way through moments when the human spirit triumphed: the tearing away of the Berlin wall, students facing down tanks in Tiananmen Square, the fall of apartheid in South Africa, the first African-American president of the United States, and more “first woman to” accomplishments then I have space or time to list.

But now we are in plague time.

The nation is shutting down, suffering not only from the virus but from incompetent, mendacious, and malevolent leadership. This is now a service economy, more than a manufacturing one, and so airlines, hotels, travel agencies, and event companies, as well as restaurants, bakeries, bars, and their supplier and tributary industries are all taking devastating hits. Classic events are vanishing, major sports are cancelling games, or even seasons. You know Americans are scared when Disneyland and Disney World shut down. Here in New York, the city that never sleeps, Broadway is going dark, and concerts, operas, recitals, ballets have been closed down, as have the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan, the Guggenheim, and all art galleries. There’s leaderless panic, evinced in empty grocery store shelves. Limits are put on crowds–at first no more than 500 people at an event, now down to no more than 50. The many hundreds of thousands of people whose jobs depend on these industries have little or no savings, and don’t give a damn about what Trump cares for more than public health: the stock market, which was acting like a roller coaster but now is mostly going down. People are self-quarantining, hunkered down staying at home. Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have projected that in a worst-case situation, 160 million to 214 million people in the U.S. could be infected; this suggests that 2.4 million to 21 million people in the U.S. could require hospitalization—for only about 925,000 staffed hospital beds—in an outbreak that could last months or even over a year.

The whole world is in crisis. People are jammed into airports, desperately trying to get home. Iran is digging vast burial trenches. Meanwhile, with schools in the US and around the globe closed or closing, you just know that mothers across the planet are going insane. Whether they work at home or need help sitting with children while they try to go to jobs, they are dealing with chaos—and if their spouses are working from home or have been laid off, they have her/him at home to deal with as well. Then there are the women whose lives have been drastically affected by the virus, who haven’t even made it into the news. Only two examples out of what are millions: trafficked “brides” stuck in China because of the corona virus: women from East and Southeast Asia who have been hijacked to China with the promise of lucrative jobs, only to be sold as so-called brides while China is trying to deal with a severe gender imbalance due to the former one child per family laws, and to son-preference; these young women, trying to flee, have been aided by various NGOs with rescue operations— but all of this has been frozen since late January because of Covid-19. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, women incarcerated at Lo Woo prison are being forced to work night shifts as well as day because of increased monthly production to meet the surging demand for paper masks they are manufacturing; the women are now working seven days a week, 6 to 10 hours a night, in addition to their day shift.

No one escapes unaffected in plague time.

I’m using the word plague—its root in Greek through Latin to old Irish and middle English as plaga, meaning to strike, to spread, to wound—because it has been used historically for mass infections, epidemics, or pandemics, when people didn’t know enough to name them as bacterial or viral infections on a mass scale.

Humanity has been here before, has suffered, died, grieved, and survived. Humanity has even learned some things. Such as, if you are superstitious and believe women with herbal knowledge are witches and burn them by the millions at the stake, and kill all the cats because cats are witches’ “familiars” incarnating the devil, then there will be no cats left to kill rats—and rats carry bubonic plague. Or such as, once the “Black Death” had wiped out an estimated one third of the population of Europe, its legacy included the downfall of feudalism and the introduction of the theory of contagion. Or, such as the end of chattel slavery in the New World as well as the success of the Haitian rebellion being determined by the yellow fever epidemic in the West Indies: Napoleon’s great armada, sent to restore slavery in Haiti, failed, because the enslaved Africans had immunity that Napoleon’s European army lacked, and this led to Haitian independence.

Our species is slow to learn. But it does learn.

We know today that Covid-19 is a viral and not bacterial infection. Bubonic plague or the black death is a bacteria, while the smallpox plague was caused by a virus, as was the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 that killed 40,000,000 people, and the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic that has killed millions worldwide. Bacteria can reproduce on their own, have existed for about 3.5 billion years, can survive in different environments, and are mostly harmless, with fewer than 1 percent causing diseases in people. Antibiotics have been effective in combating bacteria but many bacteria have become resistant.

Antibiotics are not effective against viruses. Viruses have been around for approximately 1.5 billion years. Unlike bacteria, viruses can’t survive without a host, and can reproduce only by attaching themselves to cells; they parasitize essentially all biomolecular aspects of life. And unlike bacteria, most viruses do cause disease. The word virus has its roots in the Latin word for poison. Since the beginning of the 20th Century, vaccines have drastically reduced the number of new cases of such viral diseases as polio, measles, hepatitis A and B, and HPV. But the treatment of viral infections has proved challenging, not just because of anti-vaxxers but because viruses are infinitely smaller than bacteria; they reproduce inside cells; furthermore, the use of antiviral medications has been associated with the development of drug resistant microbes. You’ll begin to see why Trump’s vapid reassurances that we’ll have a vaccine “very soon” are simultaneously idiotic and murderous.

We know what we know about mass infections or plagues because throughout history there have been writers trying to document them. The plague of Athens, depicted by Thucydides in 430 BCE. Boccaccio describing the 1348 plague in Florence, and Avignon, when the populace was roused to blame Jews for the devastation. The 1665 plague in London and in Marseille in 1720, memorialized by Daniel Defoe in his great Journal of the Plague Year.

We like to tell ourselves these days that in such times people band together and help one another– although the panicked buying and hoarding inflamed by ignorance fostered with conflicting information and government inaction doesn’t bear that out. Historically, afflicted populations have turned against and tried to blame foreigners, the poor, women (those witches and midwives), and in general “the other.” We’ve already endured that virus in this country, with Trump as the infectious agent.

The veneer of civilization is very thin, my friends.

Realizing that, admitting that, longing to do better and acting on that are the first steps toward civilization. This is a moment where we each of us is forced to remember we are joined not just by technology or globalization but by our own fragile, vulnerable, human status on this small planet that hosts so many other forms of life. For many of those lifeforms we humans have ourselves acted as viruses, and for any life to survive here this must stop.

So stop. Sit perfectly still for a moment. Reject both panic and complacency. This is a chance to understand what’s truly necessary in your life—and what isn’t. Trust your common sense. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and to offer it. Phone neighbors and check on them. Share what you have. Reread the book that you’ve loved most, or read the one you always meant to get to. Watch wonderful old movies on TV. Skype and Facetime. Don’t lose your sense of humor or of humanity. See how irrepressible Italians are handling it (in harmony, too!). Connect with those you care about with whom you might not have spoken in a while. Use the grand tool of the Internet–but refuse to be used by it: choose your sources carefully and check them diligently. Did you know that every great museum in the world has virtual online tours? Visit the Louvre, check out Egypt’s antiquities (clear views, no crowds). Rise, as the saying goes, to the occasion.

We are in plague time. What can we learn from this?

This blog will be off next week but will return on March 30.