Information remains vague and lacking: From one day to the next, we are told the virus is transferred mostly person to person, then suddenly we are cautioned about surface contact — touching the handrails in a train station, for instance. Information changes constantly: It can live for hours (no, wait, days!) on a hard surface. Don’t touch your face, don’t wear a mask (as if you can find one now, anyway). The small organizations we interact with daily — dance schools, gyms, grocery stores — are all faced with deciding to stay open or to close, with little clear guidance from local, state or federal authorities, who, to our collective horror, seem to have been caught off guard by the situation, even though the virus became a serious concern in January.
Some of us are used to making daily calculations about risk. We do, after all, live with the flu, even though many people, young and old, die of it every year. Parents send our children to school despite bullying and “active shooter drills.” We are not weak or withering flowers: We are hardened and used to this. And yet, right now, many of us are paralyzed. We know that, as always, the least risk comes from simply staying at home. But life goes on, and leaving the house sits there, tantalizing, as an option.
For now, many of us focus on daily updates — numbers, counts of people who have tested positive for the virus. Those figures, while growing quickly, are still low enough that we are in a weird state of limbo: Should we go out? Should we “keep living our lives,” as we in the New York City area have mostly been told to do — except those of us in New Rochelle, where the National Guard is delivering food — or should we stay home? Should our children keep going to school until a student or a teacher inevitably tests positive? Or should we take some initiative (which at this stage runs the risk of looking like “panicking”) and keep them home? Can we trust any authority — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state governors, small-town mayors, school districts — to make what are clearly hard and necessary decisions to slow the spread of the disease?
Americans are often optimistic almost to the point of magical thinking, but we’re also starting to realize that mayors want us to keep shopping at least in part because they don’t want our economies to collapse, and they have little to no faith in the federal government to bail everyone out. We are told, by various agencies and officials, to look on the bright side: The young, children and pregnant women seem not to be that badly affected. But a perusal of the CDC’s guidelines on pregnancy and the virus finds that they contain more “we do not have information” references than would allow us to feel truly reassured. Should we go on the subway or the bus? They’re still running, after all. Should we go to the theater? Well, no, that’s no longer allowed. Should we eat out or stay in? The restaurants all say they’re doing more cleaning. We are only beginning to see what some of the likely answers are, and at various points throughout each day, we ask ourselves: Are we overreacting and too afraid? Or are we not doing enough to keep ourselves, and the truly vulnerable, safe and healthy?
Many are beginning to bristle at comparisons to the flu — “this is like a bad flu,” we have heard, and that is probably true in some biological sense. But we also have known and lived with the flu for many decades; it has been studied, there are treatments and vaccines, and those treatments and vaccines came at the cost of millions of people dying before they were available and even moderately effective. How can telling us it’s “like the flu” be reassuring, when the flu, known to us since about 1580, still kills about 650,000 people worldwide each year, according to the World Health Organization?
We wonder at the realities of a virus that none of us has any immunity to, and begin to realize it’s not like the flu at all. At night, these worries are the darkest, the worst — and we’re still just deep enough into our planet-wide period of worrying to measure the anxiety in days, rather than weeks or months.
In the morning, things seem better. We tell ourselves that the world’s scientists and doctors are much more skilled than ever before, that they are working hard and fast to stop, to slow, to understand what we are dealing with. We hope their work on our behalf moves at lightning speed so that life can go on unabated.
We grasp the arguments being made — we see the worst-case scenarios and the best-case scenarios. We say to ourselves, China has been fighting this for months, it has billions of people, and only a few thousand have died. We know this is treatable for most people.
We know that it is stoppable in one, hard way: If we all stay home, starting now, we will slow the virus, starve it of air, prevent it from spreading. This is true of any virus. If we all stayed home, thousands and thousands fewer people would get sick, and fewer would die. And yet, because we have so little real guidance, because no one is forcing us to stay home here as they have in other countries, staying home feels like panicking. It feels like giving up, more than it feels like what it actually is: a way of fighting back.
We live in weird times, and they are getting weirder by the moment. Being informed, knowing the facts, feels both like a kind of armor against gloom — and also completely useless. No matter how many times per day we are updated, the spread will continue. Mathematics is both very grim and very clear.
It is devastating to be caught unawares as the people in the nursing home in Washington state were; we can see that now. But it is also uniquely stressful, uniquely terrifying to feel each day passing like a decade, when so many people still seem totally unbothered and optimistic, and others are panicked and scared for good reason.
In the past few days, I’ve also had to acknowledge something many of us are going to need to grapple with in our homes, in our personal lives, on a national scale: I am very mad at the coronavirus. A stupid sentiment, but I rage at its presence here before it’s even fully felt, because I know it’s going to have repercussions for the next few months that run from mild inconvenience to staggering loss. I am angry that this is happening. I am not scared; I am angry. We can’t believe this is happening, but it is, and that makes us angry. The anger isn’t directed at anyone or any organization, not yet. For now, it is simple, raw rage at the virus.
I spoke with a medical doctor to ask a simple question this past week, knowing I was writing this piece: If you had children, would you send them to school today? We spoke for 26 minutes. The answer, I think, was that there is no simple answer. We’re not sure yet. I wait anxiously for someone to make the decision for me.
For the last few days, my daughter was at school, happily talking about how it’ll get shut down “if just one person” gets the virus. By Monday, I know, this will all have changed.