I’m not sure when I first caught the news of the novel coronavirus, now called COVID-19, but it was early. It was a back page kind of story, relegated to science and health column or international news sections. What struck me immediately was the scale. “Wuhan, a city of 11 million…” the articles would flatly state. 11 million. Far bigger than Boston, hell, bigger than Massachusetts. One city.
And then there were the elements that trickled out, each one edging me forward in my seat a bit as read in the night, my pregnant wife tossing and turning next to me. New hospitals being constructed. Quarantine zones. Lockdowns. New cases. New cities. On and on. It was a curious and fascinating story. What was this virus? Where did it come from? SARS part 2. I got the urge to rewatch the old ’90s TV adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand. My mind kept turning over the news in those late third trimester nights.
China exploded, and then the first cases started showing up elsewhere, including one right in my own backyard in Boston. The authorities dismissed it, gave it lip service, another bullet item on their agenda. Every precaution is being taken, everything is fine, etc. etc. etc.
It didn’t jive with what I had been seeing posted online each night. The ease of transmissions, the rapid spread, and the numbers. Even the official numbers from China, most certainly false, painted a startling picture. Our one little case in Boston, a student returning to the city- how did he get home from Logan? Did he take the T? Uber? Where did he live in the city, an apartment block with other university students? The dense, old, and dirty nature of the area made me grit my teeth. This is going to spread.
No one was really taking it seriously yet, not here at least. My friends kindly indulged my spamming of news clippings and updates related to the outbreak. What could we do? The flu, the media said, the president said, everyone said. The flu was so much worse, and we dealt with that every year. Chill out. Calm down. Carry on.
I subscribed to some corona related subreddits, and virus news became part of my daily grind. Each new hotspot brought an ebb and flow of dread and hope. A flare up in South Korea, but low fatalities. And look at the testing! They’ve mobilized in no time. What’s happening in Iran, thought? The health minister himself is sick? Reports of overwhelmed hospitals, mass graves, a bad scene getting worse. But then, numbers down in China. Maybe this would flare out.
But still, the red flags nagged. Things I had never seen before were happening daily. Travel bans put down like a blanket, a month at a time. In all my years in the corporate world, nothing spurned such a response- terror attacks, hurricanes, volcanoes, riots – the machine always found away to keep on chuggin’. To simply shut things down, and in China no less, was a huge deal and would have huge ripple effects. I grit my teeth.
In the middle of this, the birth of our child. A crazy extended labor, 7 days in the hospital, which is far too long. Life changed, forever. A meteor crash obliterating all that came before and reshaping it into something new, an entirely different epoch. He’s happy, healthy, and everything wonderful you’ve heard about babies a million times, by the ways, but damn if I don’t mean it. It’s like being 14 and breaking up with a crush and suddenly understanding every love song every written. All at once, the plunger pushed, the rush of emotion and knowledge grafted onto your soul. The end result: forever changed. A before and an after, and the metamorphosis that designates never going back.
I look at him, my son, the words still surreal, and I feel a singular purpose. It’s all very Lone Wolf and Cub, or Jor-El and the rocket ship. I get it now. I so get it.
And now, the events of the last week. The tide has definitely turned. This is here now, bubbled up from the back pages and weird Internet obsessions of paranoid nerds like me right up into the mainstream, front and center. Italy blows up, and serves as a harbinger for us all. Things are moving fast now, each day bringing a new list of “unprecedented events.” I’ve never seen society shut down like this before. I guess none of us have.
There are befores and afters, and I’ve lived through a few. The 2000 election, 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Anthrax letters, financial crash, Brexit, Trump. Most of that seems smaller now. The kinds of things absolutely to carry on in the face of, to power through with dignity and chin held high.
Viruses don’t care about such notions, obviously. Like a meteor hitting the Earth, it’s just cold, uncaring, and completely indifferent to human affairs. Our culture suddenly seems so trite, like trinkets gathered by a crab skittering away on the ocean floor.
It could all stop tomorrow, and even if it did, this would land in the pile of “big ones”, an event for the record books, a thing to have lived through. I don’t think it’s stopping tomorrow, unfortunately. I’m reminded by so many books and stories from the past, the calamities, plagues, and pandemics of our ancestors always playing the role of a significant supporting cast member. I think we kind of glibly skipped around those parts, our modern brains not quite able to make out exactly what that was all like. Sure, we could visualize sickness, coughs, soiled handkerchiefs and the like, right alongside top hats and petticoats and horse-drawn carriages. But to truly understand the malaise, the inescapable clutch of something like TB, the Spanish Flu, cholera, smallpox, polio- it’s all sepia toned at best, so far removed from our era. The Space Age scientists of the 1950s, in white lab coats with jet-black hair slicked back, extolling the virtues of better living through science, smoking Camels, putting men on the Moon and then creating TV dinners and NyQuil. Whatever the problem, we have a solution on the shelf. Modern deliverance from caveman days only the swipe of a Visa card away.
That’s what makes this one so damned weird for us. This is a sudden pause to Era of Illusion in which we live, and exposing us all as emperors with no clothes. Our entire system, the global ant colony of 21st century humanity, is naked in the sun.
In these first weeks with my newborn son, I’ve constantly been amazed at the level of care and dedication it requires to take care of the child. Feedings every few hours, constant diaper changes. holding, coddling, cooing, singing, soothing. It’s absolutely astounding that 7 billion of us are here, that we all somehow arose from this wobbly-headed state. It’s nothing short of insane. If I was a betting man, I’d have shorted human beings a long time ago. And yet here we are, alive, mobile, writing operas and building robots. It’s so improbable.
Nasty viruses won’t be the end of us, certainly not all of us. Seems to be the story of humanity, with the last 100 years or so being a bit of a fluke. I’m not sounding the full on doom alarm, but I did stock up on fruit cocktail and dried lentils. I’m not going to lie, it does feel as though we’ve entered another one of those strange tunnels, with a “before” behind us and something new ahead. Stay home, stay safe, wash you hands, and see you on the other side.