A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 32

Brits bake off: focaccia anyone?

Thursday, April 9

In Britain flour producers cannot keep up with demand. Grocery sales of flour were up 92% in the four weeks ending March 21, compared with the same period last year. That probably means the long-running TV hit The Great British Bake Off has prompted stuck-at-home and otherwise-idle viewers to think, hey, I can do it too. Let’s make scones with clotted cream!

Meanwhile, if The New York Times is to be believed, Americans are choosing to revert to the processed junk food of their childhoods—SpaghettiOs, Cheetos, and Hamburger Helper.

Emily, who has been managing our food purchasing from Peapod, has an explanation for the American trend. “It’s because that’s what they can get, it’s what the stores have,” she says. “You can get Prego prepared pasta sauce, but the cans of whole tomatoes are always sold out, so you can’t make your own sauce.”

For a while there has been a major division in the U.S. population between those who like cooking ever-more-challenging dishes and those who cannot—or will not—boil an egg. Now, this schism has ended: Both the non-cooks and the pro-cooking crowd are huddled together at home, sharing whatever goods they’ve been able to stockpile. The so-called “fast, casual” takeout joints that line our street near the Union Square subway station–Cava, Pokespot, Dos Toros Taqueria, and more–must depend on orders coming in via phone. Or, for all I know, such places may have all closed down. And how are nearby grocery sellers doing? Does Whole Foods carry SpaghettiOs? We’re eating plenty of processed food ourselves—more than usual.

Tonight’s dinner will be: black beans and rice. But soon enough we’ll be having more Progresso soup or a frozen Amy’s Light & Lean Macaroni & Cheese. It’s what Peapod had on offer.

Entertainment: One episode of The Crown (concluding season three) and two episodes of the mysterious Berlin Babylon.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 31

The front line in the fight against COVID-19?

Wednesday, April 8

“It’s one of civilization’s darkest hours, and all I can do to help is the dishes,” writes MarketWatch’s Jeremy Olshan in a penetrating insight about the lives of the quarantined. Every day the news reports get more terrifying; meanwhile, our existence is marked by mundane chores and a deepening sense of helplessness.

Are we more freaked out thanks to the availability of news stories from around the world? The characters in Camus’ The Plague didn’t seem particularly unnerved—yet there was no escape for them from the death and disease. The fact that ours is a global pandemic, as opposed to Camus’ one-city epidemic, probably helps account for our feelings of desperation. 

Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep: Early each day, truck after truck reverses its way into the driveway next door. Plumbers, electricians, carpenters and more arrive daily, looking to conclude construction on the house that sits next to ours.

News accounts and videos of empty city streets make it seem as though no one is at work now. But one glance next door tells a different story. And that must be the case all over America—not only are delivery, supermarket, and medical workers beavering away, so too are those focused on small construction projects.

It’s almost five weeks since we came out here, fleeing what’s become a disease-ridden city of New York. Yesterday, the U.S. recorded its highest one-day death total, 1,800, with 731 of these coming in New York State. There have now been 13,000 total U.S. deaths. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says the state may be nearing the peak of the pandemic, as hospital and intensive care admissions are down. But then, there can always be a second wave of infections—something no one can predict. CNN says Hong Kong is now experiencing a second wave that’s bigger than its first wave.

Even as Wuhan’s 11-week lockdown ends, Japan is just beginning a month-long state of emergency.

Dr. Michael Ackerman, a genetic cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic, says the Trump-recommended hydroxychloroquine is likely to be safe for 90% of the population, but it could pose serious and potentially lethal risks for some with cardiac issues. Hey, whadda ya got to lose?

If Trump’s government has purchased 29 million hydroxychloroquine pills, where are they? Is Mr. MAGA personally handing them out to the sick in his favored states? Who would be surprised?

Dinner: corkscrew pasta with fresh asparagus and parmesan cheese, lettuce and avocado salad

Entertainment: Two episodes of Berlin Babylon, one episode of The Crown, and one episode of the muddled new Acorn feature Deadwater Fell.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 30

Another obscure object of desire.

Tuesday, April 7

It’s precisely because Trump and his pals have been hyping hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 cure-all that many in the public are inclined to dismiss the drug. It turns out that some doctors in some hospitals have been using it, along with azithromycin, in desperate cases of COVID-19. Their reasoning is pretty unscientific: Try anything.

And then along come the Trump goonies with their Napoleonic bombast and open contempt for appropriate procedure, seemingly intent upon discrediting hydroxychloroquine by associating themselves with it. “One of the things that a good litigator becomes, is you kind of become an instant expert on stuff,” says the dentally-challenged Rudy Giuliani, unintentionally in full Ricky Gervais-like cringe-humor mode. 

There are nutzo coincidences: Turns out, the upstate New York doctor who first plugged the stuff, Dr. Vladimir Zelenko, was born in Ukraine, Rudy’s favorite country. “When I finished Biden, I immediately switched to coronavirus and I have been doing an enormous amount of research on it,” elaborates the quick-study former New York mayor.

And forget Fauci or serious medical researchers. The drug has the backing of Fox News’ Laura Ingraham and of Fox contributor and weight-loss-nostrum champion Dr. Mehmet Oz.

As if to put the cherry on top of the suspicious-looking sundae, the Times reports that Trump himself, one member of his cabinet, and various financial backers all have financial ties to the drug’s manufacturers. Last year, Trump acknowledged that his three family trusts each had investments in a mutual fund whose largest holding was drugmaker Sanofi. Another investor in hydroxychloroquine makers Sanofi and Mylan is Invesco, the fund previously run by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. One of Sanofi’s largest shareholders is the investment company run by Ken Fisher, a major GOP funder.(https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/us/politics/coronavirus-trump-malaria-drug.html)  And, according to The Daily Beast and ProPublica, a business group started by Trump megadonor and Home Depot founder Bernard Marcus has purchased Facebook ads to push for the adoption of the anti-malaria medication.

Another promoter: billlionaire entrepreneur and would-be-spaceman Elon Musk, who has 33 million Twitter followers.

It’s all enough to make a person guzzle aquarium cleaner .

Dinner: Avgolemono soup along with lettuce and cucumber salad.

Entertainment: The penultimate episode of The Crown, half of the unfunny Francis Ha, and one episode of Berlin Babylon.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 29

Delivered food in a 72-hour quarantine.

Monday, April 6

Two new celebrity coronavirus sufferers: British PM Boris Johnson and a tiger at the Bronx Zoo. It seems the tiger had been under the care of an infected human. 

Our Peapod food delivery came bright and early—and it was a major disappointment. Only half of what we ordered arrived, and many of the absent things will be sorely missed. No chicken, eggs, honey, mushrooms, rice, yeast (for use in our bread machine), jam, olive oil, lettuce, walnuts, or lentils. We got lots of cookies, a major supply of ramen, and a little instant oatmeal. Also, plenty of Haagen Dazs ice cream. The missing items are said to be “out of stock.”

What lessons, if any, to draw from this? Those staying at home are said to be doing lots of baking, so that accounts for the yeast shortage. I suppose the absence of rice, lentils and other dried legumes should not come as a surprise. For some reason, many items arrived in smallish packages.

The upside: We can have cookies and ice cream for some dinners.

Key bummer: no onion and sour cream potato chips

In arranging for the delivery, we were following the advice of a YouTube expert:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4A_1h4XpMes

As the doctor in the video recommends, we told Peapod to leave everything on a table outside the door. They say its possible for this virus to survive on plastic packaging and aluminum cans for 72 hours and on cardboard for 24 hours. So, while wearing rubber gloves, we wiped most of the goods off with paper towels soaked in diluted bleach. Fresh veggies got only a rinse with water. Finally, everything is being set aside for a 2-3 day period to allow any possible virus patches to degrade.

A comeuppance for coronavirus questioners? In addition to skeptic Boris Johnson, the BBC notes, a preacher from Virginia, 66-year-old Landon Spradlin, has died of the disease. Spradlin had attended Mardi Gras in New Orleans in order to save souls, and he mingled and partied with the crowd, which apparently included some who were infected. In mid-March, the reverend had gone onto Facebook to denounce the COVID-19 alarm as a politically motivated ploy intended to harm Donald Trump. 

The Donald once again uses his White House pulpit to promote hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus-killer, this time as he stands right next to Dr. Anthony Fauci, whom he prevents from commenting. After a reporter asks Fauci whether he’d recommend the malaria drug, Trump steps toward Fauci’s podium and interjects: “You know how many times he’s answered that question? Maybe 15 times.” Mr. MAGA says the government has purchased and stockpiled 29 million pills of the drug.

In other drama, the Times reports that Oberammergau, the site of perhaps the world’s foremost passion play, has been forced to cancel this year’s event as a result of the coronavirus. The town has offered its cast-of-thousands dramatic reenactment of Christ’s life once every decade since 1633, in exchange for being spared the plague that was sweeping Europe back then. The day-long dramas will return in 2022, said the organizers.

Tonight’s dinner: Progresso vegetable soup, baked potatoes, and salad.

Entertainment: More of The Crown and Berlin Babylon. One episode of Community, which strikes me as formulaic and snooze-worthy.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 28

Parke, Davis Co. production of pertussis vaccine, Detroit, 1943

Sunday, April 5

A lot of Big Pharma involves factory production on assembly lines, capitalist distribution, and of course Madison Avenue marketing, just as if the product were autos or dishwashers.

Back in the 1950s, Jonas Salk utilized large teams of lab workers to turn out his polio vaccine. Then, of course, there was the testing—for which he used the residents of various institutions including orphanages and homes for disabled kids.

Today, rather than focusing on one promising drug at a time, the Gates Foundation is building factories to manufacture seven different anti-COVID remedies, so they can all be tested at the same time. Bill Gates’ rationale is unashamedly economic: It makes sense to spend billions now when trillions are being lost. “Every month counts,” he says. Gates estimates it may take 18 months to develop an effective vaccine.

Meanwhile, drug companies seem to be ramping up production of various stuff to throw at the disease, just in case something works. CNBC pharma reporter Meg Tirrell says drugmaker Gilead will increase its supply of the antiviral Remdesivir, which is currently being administered in some hospitals to severe COVID-19 cases, to 1.5 million doses—but it takes six months to make the stuff.

Then there are other scientific approaches. In Italy, where the incidence of new cases has leveled off, officials imagine a Brave New World future in which citizens are tested to see if they have developed COVID-19 antibodies. If they have done so, they’re allowed to go back to work.

Will science be our savior this time? Really, there can be no other.

Dinner: more grilled pork chops, baked potatoes, okra, and green salad.

Entertainment: Berlin Babylon and The Crown, both from Netflix.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 27

In 1939, Americans mailed millions of dimes to FDR as the March of Dimes war on polio began. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Saturday, April 4

It has been touted as a coronavirus cure-all by a variety of deplorables (see chapter 26) including our president and his running buddies: the drug hydroxychloroquine, marketed under the brand names Plaquenil, Hydroquin, Dolquine, Quensyl, and Quinoric. But does it work?

WebMD (https://www.webmd.com/drugs/2/drug-6986/plaquenil-oral/details) says hydroxychloroquine is effective against malaria and such auto-immune diseases as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Among its makers is New Jersey-based Rising Pharmaceuticals, which in December raised the drug’s price by 98% before cutting that price in half, according to the New York Post. (https://nypost.com/2020/03/24/chloroquine-or-plaquenil-what-is-it-and-can-it-really-treat-coronavirus/

The desire for a quickly produced, readily available miracle cure is understandable. But previous waves of illness suggest that wishful thinking isn’t very effective. It’s hard work and a long slog that achieves what’s needed.

Take a look at PBS’ “American Experience” documentary on the crusade against polio in the U.S. (https://www.pbs.org/video/american-experience-the-polio-crusade/). In 1952 and 1953, the U.S. endured an epidemic of 58,000 and 35,000 polio cases, around double the normal rate. The disease seemed particularly to target children. Subsequently, the FDR-inspired March of Dimes proved a fundraising powerhouse, enlisting millions of adults and children to make 10-cent donations to the fight against the scourge. Much of that private charity’s muscle went to support Dr. Jonas Salk’s effort to discover a polio vaccine made from killed virus cells. The idea was that the human body would respond to an injection of killed virus with a counterattack of antibodies, which would then stand guard in case of a real polio virus attack. Even as Salk pressed ahead with his effort, which produced a vaccine widely administered beginning in 1955, his approach came under fierce assault, especially from Dr. Albert Sabin, whose own, competing oral vaccine became available in 1961. The combined counterattack ultimately did the trick: Polio was officially declared eliminated from the Americas in 1994. 

So, it took decades and a ton of resources to eradicate polio. No matter how eager we—and our politicians—may be to dispense with COVID-19, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the task will be easily completed.

It’s time for a walk. Emily and I saunter down our street to the major crossroads, Springs-Fireplace Rd. Lots of daffodils and forsythia are blooming. About the only humans we encounter are a family of five playing stick hockey in the middle of the street.

Not far away, the town of Shelter Island has posted signs telling “All new arrivals” that they must subject themselves to a 14-day quarantine. Meanwhile, New York State experienced its highest one-day death toll on Friday, 562 people. In total, 102,000 New Yorkers have tested positive, almost as many as in Italy and Spain.

Oregon, whose Governor Kate Brown says her state is now in a better position, announces that it will be sending 140 ventilators to New York. And that’s where we stand: just imagine—140 represents a lot.

Dinner: grilled pork chops, baked potatoes, green salad with cucumber and tomatoes. The last hurrah of food brought from the city prior to our anticipated delivery from Peapod.

Entertainment: Three episodes of Scandinavian thriller Twin, streamed on the service Mhz.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 26

Out of the past, another roadside attraction.

Friday, April 3

Homebound, escapism-seeking Americans have made Netflix’ Tiger King the streaming service’s No. 1 show. It’s a documentary of sorts featuring a country singing zoo owner, Joe Exotic; an animal rights activist who’s also a possible murderer; huge lions and tigers; Joe’s ex-husband; and scenes from inside the prison where homicide-plotting Joe is being held. And that, it seems, is just the beginning.

Do I hear a distant echo? When I was a child, my family drove from our hometown of Memphis down to Miami. It was the 1950s, prior to the completion of the interstate highway system, so the entire trip was on what would now be back roads. The journey through Alabama was pretty boring, with relief coming only in the form of the little staggered roadside Burma-Shave advertising signs. (“Dinah doesn’t//treat him right//but if he’d shave//Dyna-mite!//Burma-Shave”)

Then we got to Florida, which back then was a different, much stranger and less wrinkle-free place. Joe Exotic would have fit right in—or perhaps, he might even have been too slick. I think—although I might have imagined this—that we went to a roadside show where a Seminole Indian wrestled a live alligator. I know we went on a voyage in a glass-bottomed boat, where the tour guide described what we were seeing down below in a Jamaican accent. All of this was pretty Joe Exotic to me, for whom an outing to Topp’s Bar-B-Q was a huge adventure.

Back here and now, U.S. unemployment claims have doubled in one week, up to 6.6 million from 3.3 million. National Public Radio says the jobless rate could hit 15%—and such figures always under-count the true level of unemployment. Around 3.5 million have also lost their health insurance in recent days.

Russia sends a plane with 60 tons of medical supplies to the U.S. Thanks, Vladimir, and forget anything we said about election meddling, OK?

Travel patterns vary widely from region to U.S. region. Data from 15 million cellphone users show that residents in the West, Midwest, and Northeast have largely complied with directives to self-quarantine. But in Florida and elsewhere in the Southeast, where local officials have refrained from issuing stay-at-home orders, people still go out a lot, perhaps triple the amount of locked-down states.

Not long ago, Trump began promoting a COVID-19 “cure” consisting largely of malaria treatment hydroxychloroquine and the antibiotic azithromycin. Trump called the elixir “the biggest game-changer in the history of medicine.” But medical experts have been less sanguine. Turns out, the idea of using the medicinal cocktail is from a family doctor who resides in the Hasidic Jewish settlement of Kiryas Joel in upstate New York. Dr. Vladimir Zelenko has flacked his “cure” on YouTube and Fox News has promoted it over 100 times, but recently Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have expelled endorsements from the likes of Rudi Giuliani and the execrable Bolsonaro. (You have to wonder: Do these guys have personal investments in the hydroxychloroquine manufacturer?) No matter—other miracle cures are sure to pop up.

Two more famous COVID-19 fatalities: Ellis Marsalis, the pianist patriarch of the New Orleans-based family of musicians, and jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli.

In mid-afternoon, I watch a short documentary film, Dieorama, which was scheduled to be shown at the SXSW festival and is now posted online. https://mailchimp.com/presents/sxsw/about/  And, no, it’s not about coronavirus; its subject is a set of small, toy-soldier-size mock-ups of grizzly murders. The artist, who is an investigator in the public defender office in Bellingham, Washington, offers the pieces as commentary on our violent times. We see her walk around, positioning some of her works in public parks and near the seashore, freebies aimed to thrill an unsuspecting public. Like the film, the artworks have also been posted online, where half the viewers admire them and half loathe them. 

Today, the National Rifle Assn. has sued the state of New York over its ruling that gun shops must close during the epidemic. The group has also pushed, successfully, to get the U.S Department of Homeland Security to classify such stores as essential businesses. The pandemic “has brought new people into the gun rights movement,” says a spokesperson for the organization. Apocalypse, now.

Dinner: spaghetti with fried eggs and parmesan again (see recipe above in chapter 20), and more lettuce and tomato salad. Supplies are running pretty low now, and we await the Peapod delivery on Monday with trepidation. 

Evening entertainment: More of The Crown; Berlin Babylon, which is really starting to grow on me; and Detectorists.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 25

Next up: a plague of frogs?

Thursday, April 2

Magical thinking is upon us. Is the current epidemic a sign from above, many are asking? Just look! There’s more than one indication that the final days have arrived: a devastating tornado in Arkansas, vast swarms of locusts in Africa, out-of-control wildfires—and floods—in Australia, an earthquake in Utah. Passover arrives next week, with its reminder of the ten plagues that God sent to beset sinful ancient Egypt. (I for one would welcome a few frogs.) The Pew Research Center says some 40% of U.S. voters believe Jesus is likely to return, as was foretold in the New Testament, by the year 2050. Why not now, I ask, before the election?

“God is Brazilian,” asserts the whacko Bolsonaro, who says the deity, not a quarantine, will protect his country. Anyone who’s afflicted should simply guzzle a certain anti-malaria nostrum, it seems. Bolsonaro has launched an official campaign, #BrazilCannotStop, encouraging people to carry on with life as usual. In contrast, the criminal gang that controls the frightening City of God favela says it will enforce a strict curfew and punish violators. It’s up to such “lawless” elements and certain responsible state governors to bring order out of the madness.

Meanwhile, the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club has canceled the Wimbledon tennis tournament. Heretofore, the midsummer classic was canceled only for the two world wars.

The Democratic National Convention, scheduled for July, has been pushed on to mid-August. But a federal judge has refused to postpone Wisconsin’s presidential primary scheduled for April 7.

And Trump will shortly instruct all Americans that they must wear cloth masks when in public. I’ve got mine on right now.

Dinner: more lentil soup and lettuce salad.

Entertainment: Jeopardy, The Crown, Berlin Babylon, and Detectorists.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 24

Pilgrims in Mecca. Hey, put that cellphone down, dude!

Wednesday, April 1

Saudi Arabia has asked Muslims to delay their bookings for the Hajj pilgrimage this summer, due to the pandemic. Some two million visitors were expected to make the trip to Mecca, which is a mandatory religious obligation for adult Muslims.

And in Wuhan, the subways have reopened after two months of lockdown. That’s good news.

But other news out of China is not so good—in fact, it’s downright distressing. “We’ve estimated in China that between 20% and 40% of transmission events occurred before symptoms appeared,” says one Hong Kong epidemologist. 

This means that you and your pals could be walking around right now, feeling fine for the next many days, and then find out you’ve had it all the time. 

The U.S. Census continues its hopeless quest. After receiving two previous, detailed notes, today I get a postcard warning me in microscopic type that it’s a violation of U.S. law not to respond to the census. Many people have time on their hands, but I bet filling out census forms won’t be their first choice of what to do. Still, the last time I did it, the Bureau asked lots of detailed questions about my earnings, etc., but this morning, as promised, it took only about 10 minutes to complete the questionnaire. 

I’ve just begun reading an e-book about the 1930s and ‘40s, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time by Ira Katznelson. In his introduction, the author quotes a bit from Studs Terkel’s oral history of the Depression years: “Fear unsettled the securities, apparently the false securities, that people had. People haven’t felt unfearful since.” A similar response is doubtless brewing at this very moment. But in future years, exactly what will we fear? That’s something to mull over as I take my one-mile, afternoon walk.

Dinner tonight: lentil soup with hotdogs, corn muffins, green salad.

Evening entertainment: Two episodes of The Crown, including an extraordinary one focusing on a Welsh mine cave-in that killed 150 people, including many children, and the official response to it.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 23

The jackboots arrive.

Tuesday, March 31

What’s that? A mailed fist pounding on the door just before dawn? Uniformed men out front, ready to take us away?

There are now 5,791 cases of the coronavirus in Suffolk County, and there have been 44 deaths.  A drive-through testing site has opened in Riverhead, the first such facility on the East End of Long Island. How did COVID-19 get way out here…from New York City, which is 100 miles away?

When Rhode Island authorities recently announced they would be conducting door-to-door searches for refugees from hot-spot New York City, telling these undesirables to go back to from whence they came, it seemed maybe all of the city’s exiles had become pariahs. Perhaps we would be forced to wear some kind of Gothamist insignia on our garments. Stranger things have happened.

Governments across the globe—from Hungary to Britain, Israel, and Chile—are using the crisis to seize new Big Brother powers: canceling elections, ruling by decree, employing the military against protesters, tracking people via their cellphone data, closing down courts, and even detaining citizens indefinitely. Never waste a good crisis, as Reagan hatchet man David Stockman once instructed.

And in the U.S., three out of every four residents are under some form of lockdown and must expect at least another month of it. The U.S. has surpassed Italy as the country with the highest number of coronavirus cases, more than 163,000. Some 245 million are at their homes, and millions of these have lost their jobs.

With little else occupying one’s mind, paranoia is always lurking. 

The disease itself is frightening enough, and accounts of the hell that health-care workers face daily are grueling just to read. https://nyti.ms/2JqAYr2

But the sun is out, here, for the first time in a while. The saws are busy—I think workers on the still-uncompleted house next door are putting in some bathroom tiles. We go to the town dump to get rid of a week’s refuse, and I’ve never seen it so busy. Then at a small grocery, we are able to get several vitally needed things, including lettuce, garlic, a cucumber, an apple, and dishwasher detergent. What could be better?

Back near our city apartment, the Union Square greenmarket is open, a group called GrowNYC reminds everyone in its blog. https://www.grownyc.org/blog/greenmarkets-are-open  But, the posting says, the following rules will apply: 

• Only Producers and their staff may handle products. Customers must not touch any produce or products until after they have purchased

• Market staff will separate farm stand spaces with at least 2 feet of distance between the tents, more where possible

• There is no sampling of products at markets until further notice

• There is no selling of apple cider by the cup

There is no joy in Mudville, it goes without saying.

Tonight’s dinner: more meatballs and spaghetti, with a salad of lettuce, avocado, and celery.

Tonight’s entertainment: dare I admit it? More of The Crown, then an episode of the new German thriller Berlin Babylon.