www.nybooks.com /daily/2020/03/18/pandemic-journal/

Pandemic Journal

Anastasia Edel
15-19 minutes

Jack Guez/AFP via Getty ImagesAn empty Tel Aviv beach after Israel barred residents from leaving home for “non-essential” reasons, to combat the spread of Covid-19, March 18, 2020

This running series of brief dispatches by New York Review writers will document the coronavirus outbreak with regular updates from around the world.

—The Editors

Anastasia EdelEduardo HalfonTim ParksMiguel-Anxo MuradoRuth Margalit  


Ruth Margalit
March 18, 2020

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL—On Monday, the second day of a countrywide closure in Israel, I took my children to the Tel Aviv beach, thinking: “There. Not so bad.” As I opened my laptop to write this, I was even a little smug, noticing the empty roads, the Yom Kippur–like stillness. Maybe it will teach us to slow down.

Then, moments ago, the Israeli Health Ministry released urgent new orders. Public parks are from now on forbidden. So are beaches and nature reserves—forget about museums or cafés, which have been closed for several days. Walks are to be limited to ten minutes at a time: one parent and one child only. There are to be no playdates. No congregations of more than ten people. No medical services except for emergencies. A world the size of our living room.

“Is there kindergarten today?” my son asked this morning, bleary-eyed, at 6:10. I told him there wasn’t. “Oh.” He thought for a moment. “We’re changing prime ministers today?” Call it the result of three election cycles in a year, tossed in with a global pandemic. What do you tell a boy who is beginning to grasp that his life is dictated by colossal failures outside of his control?

His sister, at eighteen months, has taken to scolding me (“nu, nu, nu!”) whenever I touch my face—which, I’ve come to realize, I do obscenely often. Where did she pick that up? What else is taking shape in their young consciousness? Will they forever resent washing their hands? Being in enclosed spaces? Will they be the “corona generation,” much as those who came of age during the Great Depression still stuff bills under the mattress?

News broadcasts here are filled with the schedules of people who have tested positive for the virus. It’s a surreal sight: doomsday anchors reading out the trivialities of a person’s day. 

8:30 AM: ATM on Yehuda Maccabi Street.
9:50 AM: Shufersal (a popular supermarket chain) in Yahud.
12:30 PM: Zion falafel joint.

“Live your life as if each day will be plastered on social media,” a joke circulated on WhatsApp the other day. Other bleak jokes have been circulating, too. “On Saturday, weather permitting, we’ll tour in the footsteps of Patients 37 and 148.” “People are advised not to hug or kiss. Ashkenazim carry on as usual.” “If you feel feverish, lightheaded, sweaty—You’ve just realized you’re stuck home with the children.”

You get it.

The pandemic feels both futuristic and biblical, eschatological and utterly banal. Some friends are using the time to potty-train their kid or go through the entire Netflix documentary catalog. Another suggests that you “move through your home with mindfulness.” Tell that to my son who figured out that our bookshelves, once emptied, can make a great ladder for moving his sister.

I saw a picture from a NASA satellite the other day. It showed an aerial view of China, without its cauliflower of pollution. The skies were blue again. Now there’s something to look forward to. ■


Mariscal Pool/Getty ImagesValentina, who works as an usher in Congress, disinfecting the lectern during a debate on the measures to alleviate the consequences of the Covid-19, Madrid, Spain, March 18, 2020

Miguel-Anxo Murado
March 18, 2020

MADRID, SPAIN—We’re now on the fifth day of our confinement. This is a watershed: five days is the average for symptoms of coronavirus to appear after an infection. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s a reassurance in an almost superstitious way, one you can cling to. Since the Spanish government ordered the whole country to lock ourselves up in our homes for—in principle—two weeks, this has been in the back of many minds, and certainly mine: What if we are already infected? 

The stern robotic voice on the radio announcement constantly repeats that, in that case, we shouldn’t go to a hospital. Hospitals are at breaking point. Many doctors and nurses are infected. There are not enough intensive care units, not enough beds, not enough face masks even. Every evening, at eight o’clock, everybody—the whole country—reaches for the windows to give a resounding ovation to the healthcare workers. We want to cheer them up and show them we know they’re risking their lives for us.

But in the hospital, doctors have to decide which patients get to intensive care and which are left to die. It is as simple as that, there’s no way to gloss it over. If you fall ill at home, you have to call a phone number and, you hope, they will come and test you, and then monitor you from the hospital. But testing kits are running out, and the phone, they say, is overwhelmed and busy at all times. So we know we can’t expect much help. 

Not far from here, at least twenty old people have died in just one nursing home before anyone could give them any assistance. Yesterday, across Spain, almost two hundred people died. Today, at least another hundred will do so. We are to expect worse in the days to come.

Our family is three at home: my wife, my four-year-old Martín, and me. We have enough food to go for two weeks. We’re okay. We’re lucky, since me and my wife can both work from home. Entertaining a kid for so many hours a day is tougher than I thought, but it’s nothing compared with the hardships I imagine all around us, perhaps in this same block of flats.

I’ve been a war reporter, so I’m no stranger to curfews or dangers. But I had never experienced anything like this: a simultaneous curfew of a whole country—perhaps, soon the whole planet—and a danger that is minute and invisible. In war, fear is noisy. Here, it takes the shape of an eery silence.

I’m concerned, not scared, and yet I’m being pedantically strict with my precautions for fear of being guilty of causing someone else’s infection. Epidemics are also special in this: they threaten not only your life but your conscience, too. That’s why I venture outside only to throw out the garbage. 

Yesterday, on my way out, I stumbled upon a neighbor, a girl I don’t know. We both stopped at a distance to figure out how to pass each other while keeping the recommended six-foot distance, but we did it so clumsily that we actually touched one another. Would that be the contact to do it? Nonsense, I told myself later in bed, trying to sleep. I touched my wife’s body under the blanket and it felt warm. Too warm? Then I fell asleep. ■


A Milan supermarket amid the coronavirus outbreak
Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty ImagesPeople lining up to shop at a supermarket during quarantine in Milan, Italy, March 11, 2020

Tim Parks
March 18, 2020

MILAN, ITALY—March 8. We started with the best intentions. We had gotten over the irritation of seeing all the things that enrich life in Milan closed down. The restaurants, concert halls, theaters, cafés. My gym. Her yoga. We rather appreciated a new feeling of community on the streets, here on the edge of town. A new awareness, in particular among the various ethnic groups. It boded well. We knew that the special problem with this illness is that some 5 to 10 percent of those with symptoms will need an extended stay in intensive care, and that places are scarce. It was our duty not to fall ill and be a burden.  

We hunkered down.

After all, how different was this from our normal day? Sitting home writing, translating. 

We smiled when the media told us about people singing on balconies. There was no singing around us.

It did seem a little excessive to be asked to download and print a form to fill in and sign every time we went out of the house to do some shopping. Couldn’t they trust us to be responsible? But so be it. 

More understandable was being asked to line up outside the supermarket, yards apart, so that only ten would enter at once. The man behind us shifted his mask occasionally to take a drag on his cigarette. My partner whiled away the time checking smoking-related fatalities in Italy: 80,000 a year.

We have been unable to find masks. Anywhere.

We decided to take advantage of the extra time at home to play the piano, to read, to watch movies. Ten days on, it hasn’t happened. We had reckoned without the pull of the media. The relentless narrative of rising levels of contagion, the daily body count, stories of coffins stacked in churches, dwindling places in intensive care. This reinforced, as it was no doubt intended to, our resolve to stay indoors. 

The pleasant new community spirit that so impressed me in the early days began to morph into a more energetic patriotism. Public radio played the national anthem and invited us to open our windows and sing. Italy is a model for the world to follow, our prime minister says. Much talk of being at war.

Meantime, I study the figures from the Istituto Superiore di Sanità. As of March 13, 1,266 deaths. (633,000 people die each year in Italy, an average of around 1,700 a day.) March 17, 2503. Average age of death: eighty-plus. “Two victims without serious preexisting pathologies.” Most with two or three. 

“But do you want to be the one who’s ill when they run out of beds,” my partner asked. “After all, you’re sixty-five.” She is from Taranto, in the far south of Italy, home of ILVA, Europe’s biggest steelworks—notorious for its unacceptable levels of pollution. She showed me a study calculating that in an eight-year period this had led to just short of 12,000 deaths. But ILVA is too important to close.

Until coronavirus came along. On March 16, they decided to close down half of it, reducing personnel from 8,000 to 3,800. 

There are seventeen cases of coronavirus in the entire province of Taranto.

I contemplate another day indoors, filling out forms to line up outside the supermarket. The weather is beautiful in this country I love where I’m presently writing a book in honor of Garibaldi and the Risorgimento movement. But yesterday, the newspaper La Repubblica tells me, the police charged almost 8,000 people for being “away from their homes without good reason.” In forty years here, I’ve never seen the like. The economy is shot. The social repercussions will be enormous.

I’m not sure all this adds up. ■


Paris under Covid-19 lockdown
Stephane Cardinale/Corbis via Getty ImagesPolice checking members of the public after a strict lockdown prohibiting all but essential outings to stop the spread of Covid-19, Paris, March 17, 2020

Eduardo Halfon
March 17, 2020

PARIS, FRANCE—Today was the first day of the lockdown in Paris, or as the French call it, le confinement. From my window, as I write this, I can see a completely empty rue de Fleurus (where almost a century ago, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas received so many artists and writers). There are no pedestrians. All shop windows are dark, all restaurants and cafés now closed, their tables and chairs neatly stacked inside. 

From today on, and until further notice, anyone outside must carry with them an official document called Attestation de Déplacement Dérogatoire, duly filled out and signed, asserting the explicit reason for any excursion. Only five possibilities: movement between home and place of work; movement to buy things of première nécessité (such as food) in authorized establishments; movement due to medical reason; movement due to a pressing family situation, assistance to vulnerable persons, or childcare; and movement linked to limited individual physical activity, and the needs of pets.

One must not, we were warned, go outside for any other reason, nor leave the house without this document. In other words, a safe conduct, like in a war zone.

The lockdown was to start at noon, and so, with a few minutes to spare, I decided to hurry out to the boulangerie across the street, one last time.

The glass door was now kept open. There were big blue crosses on the floor—made with duct tape—leading up to the counter. I walked in and stepped on my blue cross and thought that the bakery itself was a kind of theater stage, and we clients, well-distanced from each other, were the actors hitting our marks. I slowly made my way up to the counter, in front of which they’d placed a long series of tables, to keep the gloved and masked employees at a safe distance from us.

I ordered a baguette and a pain au chocolat for my son and said to the lady that I’d miss coming there every morning for the duration of the lockdown. She scoffed loudly and said that of course they would remain open throughout, and at regular hours. More than baffled, she seemed insulted. And so I apologized and just handed her some coins.

As I was walking out, taking care not to accidentally touch anybody still standing on their blue cross, I realized that all else in Paris could fail, all else could collapse and close, all pharmacies could run out of hand-sanitizers and masks and even medicines—but there would always be a baker making bread at four in the morning, and there would still be Parisians walking around with a fresh baguette tucked under their arm, the end chewed off, a safe conduct in their pocket. ■


Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty ImagesThe Grand Princess cruise ship passing under the Golden Gate Bridge as it heads to shore, San Francisco, California, March 9, 2020

Anastasia Edel
March 17, 2020

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA—By Thursday afternoon, downtown San Francisco, already void of tourists, had turned ghostlier still. On street corners, people who, less than a month ago, had been lining up to spot Keanu Reeves shooting his new Matrix movie were now loading computer towers and monitors into their Uber and Lyft rides; they’d been told to work remotely.

From behind the glass door of a shuttered Illy café on Battery Street, the Italian manager waved at me, his hand in a blue disposable glove, with an apologetic smile. For days, his parents, quarantined in Florence over coronavirus epidemic, had been imploring him to stay away from people. It seemed as if they got their wish granted.

Boarding a bus east in the eerily empty Salesforce Transbay Terminal, a couple of hand-sanitizers as a parting gift from my colleagues at the bank where I work—or worked?—as a contract writer, I took the first row of seats, to the right of the driver. I didn’t know when I’d be riding home from work again, and I wanted to get an unobstructed view of San Francisco Bay, obliviously magnificent on this spring day.

The bridge traffic was light. It took us less than ten minutes to get down to the lower span, from where I could see the white cruise ship docked at an Oakland pier, a lonely helicopter hovering above it. “Princess death,” the driver muttered as we pulled off the bridge and began weaving our way toward the Oakland maze. My neighbor’s parents had been on that ship; they were now at Travis military base, awaiting the results of their testing.

A pink piggy on an empty Walgreens shelf
Anastasia EdelAn almost empty Walgreens shelf, Oakland, March 14, 2020

I spent the weekend oscillating between “this can’t be real” and asking myself myriad odd questions, such as whether to explain to the kids, at least to the sixteen-year-old one, how to claim our life insurance. I raided the rapidly depleting grocery aisles, picking up things I never thought I’d need, like pinto beans or soap in a twelve pack, all the while feeling the futility of the effort. If growing up in the shortage-ridden Soviet economy taught me anything, it’s that you can’t outsmart malfunctioning lines of supply and demand: you never knew what would disappear next, and even with things you guessed right, you’d eke out your supply as you might, but eventually run out.

The one thing that’s worth stockpiling is decency, that silver lining of our lives back in the USSR, with its near-permanent state of national emergency. Today, in America, where decency has taken a beating over the past four years, it might mean something as straightforward as not buying both of the last two loaves of bread, not forwarding that doomsday chain email, and not going out even if you are healthy.

Tomorrow, our challenges might not be so simple. Since I started writing this, a shelter-in-place order for six Bay Area counties, including mine, has been issued. Decency won’t save us, but it will make our altered lives more tolerable, come what may. ■