This is the silent spring. The planet has gone quiet, so quiet you can almost hear it whirling around the sun, feel its smallness, picture for once the loneliness and fleetingness of being alive.
This is the spring of fears. A scratchy throat, a sniffle, and the mind races. I see a single rat ambling around at dusk on Front Street in Brooklyn, a garbage bag ripped open by a dog, and experience an apocalyptic vision of vermin and filth.
Scattered masked pedestrians on empty streets look like the survivors of a neutron bomb. A pathogen about one-thousandth the width of a human hair, the spiky-crowned new coronavirus, has upended civilization and unleashed the imagination.
From my window, gazing across the East River, I see a car pass now and then on F.D.R. Drive. The volume of traffic reminds me of standing on the Malecón, the seafront promenade in Havana, a dozen years ago and watching a couple of cars a minute pass. But that was Cuba and those were finned ’50s beauties!
It is time of total reset. In France, there’s a website to indicate to people the one-kilometer radius from their homes in which they are permitted to exercise. That’s one measure of everyone’s shrunken worlds.
Yet, to write, to read, to cook, to reflect in silence, to walk the dog (until it braces its legs against moving because it’s walked too much), to adapt to a single space, to forsake the frenetic, to contemplate a stilled world, may be to open a space for individual growth. Something has shifted. The earth has struck back. Exacting breathlessness, it has asserted its demand to breathe.
From animal to human the virus jumps, as if to demonstrate the indivisibility of life and death on a small planet. The technology perfected for the rich to globalize their advantages has also created the perfect mechanism for globalizing the panic that sends portfolios into a free fall.
Do things differently at the other end of this scourge, some mystic voice murmurs, do them more equitably, more ecologically, with greater respect for the environment, or you will be smitten again. Next time the internet will collapse. The passage from real world to virtual world to no world will then be complete.
It is not easy to resist such thoughts, and perhaps they should not be resisted, for that would be to learn nothing.
Speaking of rats, Camus’s “The Plague” is out of stock on Amazon, as the world awakens to the novel’s eternal reminder “that the plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely, that it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing, that it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and that perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.”
The book was published in 1947, two years after the political plague of Fascism had been vanquished with the loss of tens of millions of lives. Camus’s warning was political. The virus returns as inevitably as the psychotic leader with mesmeric mythmaking talents.
In an election year, it has been impossible to witness the mixture of total incompetence, devouring egotism and eerie inhumanity with which President Trump has responded to the Covid-19 pandemic and not fear some form of corona-coup. Panic and disorientation are precisely the elements on which the would-be dictator feasts. The danger of an American autocratic lurch in 2020 is as great as the virus itself.
This is Trump’s world now: scattered, incoherent, unscientific, nationalist. Not a word of compassion does he have for America’s stricken Italian ally (instead the United States quietly asks Italy for nasal swabs flown into Memphis by the U.S. Air Force). Not a word from a United Nations Security Council bereft of American leadership. Not a word of plain simple decency, the quality Camus most prized. In their place, neediness, pettiness and boastfulness. The only index Trump comprehends is the Dow.
I have experienced physical shock in recent weeks watching leaders like Angela Merkel in Germany, Justin Trudeau in Canada and Emmanuel Macron in France speak about the pandemic. We Americans do not grasp how insidiously Trump has accustomed us to malignancy. A germophobe, he has spread the germ of untruth.
That self-satisfied, nasal and plaintive presidential voice has become a norm. And so merely to hear a sane, caring, scientific response to the virus from other leaders is riveting and reorienting.
The mother of all crises has met the ne plus ultra of presidential ineptitude. “We have it totally under control,” the president says in January. “One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear,” is the refrain in February. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” Trump declares in March. He has a good “feeling” about malaria drugs whose efficacy against the virus is untested. He is all over the place on China. And now, against widespread medical advice, and the protests of desperate governors, he wants the United States “opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” in a couple of weeks.
I don’t blame Trump entirely for America’s unpreparedness. The American health care system has long been a colossal study in waste. But I do blame Trump for wasting a couple of months in denialism that reminded me of Thabo Mbeki and his criminal dismissal of AIDS in South Africa. I blame him for then leaving state and local governments to fend for themselves, mobilizing federal resources belatedly, weakly and inconsistently. And I blame him for the small-minded America First obsession that made it impossible for him to learn from other countries.
I blame Trump for the fact that my son-in-law, a physician on the front line at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, was for weeks unable to test his patients or himself for infection and still faces shortages. I blame him for the disappearance from view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, America’s foremost agency for fighting infectious disease, now forced to kowtow to Trump’s ego. In this president’s view, the limelight exists for him alone.
The lessons are in plain view. The countries that have fared best are those that have been fastest to test, track and isolate areas of infection, giving them a good idea of the size of the outbreak and the best means to flatten the curve of its spread. Look at South Korea or Germany.
Trump’s United States lost a couple of months. It then tried in the absence of any detailed data to quarantine everyone. That works in Wuhan and a surveillance state but not in a nation of individualists wedded to the idea of self-sufficiency. The test-isolate-track moment was lost. The results have been predictably poor. The economy went into a nose-dive that, a $2-trillion stimulus package notwithstanding, could lead to a depression. And many more could die destitute.
Polls say Trump’s popularity has edged up a little since the virus struck. The best way to think of that is he’s still a singularly unpopular wartime president. He is beatable. So is the virus, if America puts its shoulder to the wheel with seriousness of purpose.
In “The Plague,” the doctor at the center of the novel, Bernard Rieux, reacts to the pestilence with active fatalism. He treats everyone, even the dying, with equal attention. He is asked by a journalist to define decency and responds that he cannot in a general sense but knows that for him “it consists of doing my job.”
I have been on leave working on a novel. In these times, one may be tempted to ask, why be a journalist if one merely hurls countless words into a gale of stupidity that sweeps them away? The answer, I think, is that the words are not pointless, even if they may be ineffective in the moment.
They are not pointless any more than Rieux’s efforts are, or the acts of defiance against murderous totalitarianism that lead straight to summary execution for their authors.
“The only way to fight the plague is with decency,” Camus writes. Because decency in the face of pestilence redeems not just the individual acting in this way, but all of humanity. The virus, and it is both pathogenic and political today, requires everyone to defeat it. Without relenting, however hopeless the effort may seem. As Camus writes elsewhere, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
In this silent spring, the forsythia has bloomed and the magnolia buds are bursting. Nature, as Rachel Carson chronicled in her “Silent Spring,” published 58 years ago, is telling us something.