‘How are you bearing up?’ ‘Is everyone terrified?’ ‘What’s the mood?’ These are the questions concerned family and friends are kindly asking about New York City which, according to my armchair epidemiology, is about ten days behind Italy and ten days ahead of Britain. It would be reckless to describe things as calm, not with a New Yorker dying every seven (?!) minutes, and refrigerated trucks parked ominously outside hospitals. But I sense no mass panic. Life, of a sort, still goes on. People run, dogs are walked, post is delivered, Amazon arrives, and the shelves are stocked with food. The absence of cars without the presence of snow is a novelty, as are the nods of camaraderie. Those who venture out mainly respect the cordon sanitaire — except for joggers; always the joggers — and the pavements are spotted with blue surgical gloves. But the inkblot of infection is spreading here like it’s spreading around the world. Most of my friends are healthy and hunkered; a few are sick; some are in hospital; one has died. So, what does New York feel like? Well, to me it feels like dawn on New Year’s Day — unreal, uncertain, mostly silent (except for the sirens), and above all pensive.
Nearly all of my New York friends with second homes have quit the city. Fair enough. Who wouldn’t want to ride out armageddon on the beach? (Except, perhaps, anyone who’s read Nevil Shute’s On the Beach.) It’s human nature to flee, but flee where? Especially when the virus might be in the car with you, like the strangler in the trunk. And then, when you arrive at your exclusive hideaway… you’re surrounded by hundreds of your New York neighbours. If we believe the New York Post, this exodus of the 1 per cent is causing ‘class warfare’ in the Hamptons, as locals see their food and healthcare resources diluted by blow-ins. Stories abound of Black-Carded Manhattanites plundering local stores before hoarding their booty in newly purchased freezers. The truth is, nowhere is safe. Sure, you can be remote — but would you rather be close to nature with no intensive care, or in a vibrant city with hundreds of doctors and thousands of beds? We’re a fortnight into this scared new world: it remains to be seen if those who have fled New York survive like the Swiss, or if they beetle back to the city when the countryside no longer seems quite so bucolic.
It’s wonderful that, a century after America attempted Prohibition, liquor stores are classified as ‘essential services’. Just as undrinkable bootleg booze catalysed the cocktail craze, we shall see if the ‘Quarantini’ (concocted from whatever bottles are lying about) lingers for long once the bars have roared back to life.
One of the many mesmerising facets of the TV show Chernobyl was its ability to X-ray power — not just the power of nuclear fission and human nature, but the power of the state. The series showed how a Stalinist mindset turned incompetence into disaster, and very nearly catastrophe. To western eyes, the consequences of communism’s dead hand (the lies, the dogma, the deference) were glaring: what kind of a fool takes the party line over the laws of physics? In one stunning scene we discover that the plant’s standard dosimeters could only detect up to 3.6 roentgens per hour (‘3.6? Not great, not terrible’) when, in reality, the reactor core was spewing out 20,000. The moral of this moment was obvious: shabby Soviet equipment was not up to the task. But should we be so smug? Sophisticated free-market economies across the globe are scrambling not only for hi-tech virology tests and ventilators, but also cheap plastic gloves and paper masks. If the corona curves continue to crest, Covid-19 might expose as much about the dead hand of capitalism (the corruption, the hubris, the greed) as Chernobyl ever did about communism.
If it’s too soon to know the meaning of the French Revolution, it’s too soon to know the meaning of Covid-19. But since we still greet sneezes with the 14th-century Black Death prayer ‘Bless you’, it’s possible a few new norms will emerge. Some predict the decline of business travel, others the demise of handshakes. It seems more likely that every household will, from this day hence, maintain a dusty supply of hand sanitiser, paper masks, and emergency loo-rolls. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll remember just how truly essential our essential workers are.