On March 5, Emily and I fled New York City for our East Hampton cottage, our car loaded with canned goods, cold remedies, and a few clothes. How long will we stay? We are in a self-quarantine, fleeing the spreading COVID-19, the China-originating coronavirus that threatens humanity across the planet. By March 9, the novel virus had spread to two-thirds of U.S. states, with nearly 600 cases and close to 20 deaths. Frightening accounts of passengers trapped aboard infected cruise ships and of Draconian lock-downs in China and Italy crowd out stories about the Democratic presidential race. Thousands of employees are being told to work from home, schools are shuttered, conferences and mass celebrations (SXSW) have been canceled. The governor of New York has declared a State of Emergency.
In many previous epidemics, worried populations had limited information about the sickness, depending largely upon gossip. Now, we are both connected to the internet and we play an informal game of “top this”: I read her a headline about the latest fatalities in Iran, she counters with a tidbit about Trump-administration ignorance and ineptitude. “Mike Pence presided over an AIDS epidemic in Indiana, where he delayed a needle-exchange program saying he had to pray on the issue before making a decision,” she says.
Attendees at a recent Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference where there was an infected participant are outing each other, compiling McCarthy-like lists. Was Betsy Devos in the same room as Mr. X?
(It will later be revealed that the infected attendee had purchased a $5,750 “gold” package granting him access to backstage reception rooms where members of Congress and other high-profile figures mingled.)
Stock indices are in free fall. Oil prices drop 20% and the Dow by 2,000 points.
Here, Emily and I have very limited physical contact with the outside population. Since the only germs present are germs we brought with us, I’m not sure we must practice the furious hand-washing and avoidance of face-touching that health authorities advocate. How long can the virus linger on tomato sauce cans or containers of Purell? Nine days? Dunno.
Emily reads me a tweet suggesting that they’ve halted trading on the stock market. “I’m not sure that’s true, but that’s what this tweet says,” she adds. In spite of the internet, uncertainty reigns.
Inevitably, that has stoked activity on the part of digital mischief-makers and profiteers. Rumors circulate that COVID-19 was cooked-up in a lab in China with the intent of undermining the government in Taiwan. One “miracle mineral solution” flacked on Facebook and Twitter is “the same as drinking bleach,” according to the Food and Drug Administration.
Like the Trump Administration, officials in previous outbreaks have begun by downplaying the seriousness of the illness. In Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague, the Prefect initially institutes woefully inadequate regulations and posts Panglossian communiques. Even as springtime flowers proliferate, hospital wards fill to overflowing and new facilities are required.
Trump, meanwhile, joins the Internet worrywarts with his own outbursts of disinformation. Apparently, the whole thing is a “hoax.” “Anyone who wants a test can get a test,” he has falsely preached. He has called the World Health Organization’s estimated fatality rate of 3.4% “a false number,” adding that “my hunch” is that it will be under 1%.
And as usual, Trump praises himself: “I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president.”
Only four days into our self-imposed exile, dietary displeasure looms. Last night we split a can of Progresso vegetarian soup, supplemented by small green salads and baked potatoes. The Nido Purificada—condensed milk—seems ok, and I’m prepared to eat boxed Kraft macaroni & cheese. Remember when you had that as a child and actually liked it? But fresh veggies are a problem, and a trip to IGA in Amagansett seems in order to get lettuce, celery, and other produce. (We ended up spending $105.99, thanks to such necessities as Destrooper pure butter almond thins, a tub of sour cream, and one package containing 24 rolls of Cottonelle toilet tissue.)
Dinner: spaghetti & homemade meatballs, salad.
Entertainment: a streaming video of Elaine May’s miserable, frenetic 1976 buddy flick Mikey and Nicky (like watching “Night at the Improv” featuring the pointless antics of two amphetamine-addled yobs) and a pretty good episode of the BBC TV show MI-5.