The following is the text of an email from me this morning to my friend Clare Bruyère, an emeritus professor of American literature who lives in Paris. I feel that it is not too personal for me to post it.
I have gotten hardly any feedback or compliments on my family separation posts. …
NYC and Manhattan are depressing — not the same city.
I hate “social distancing” — though I am not in a position to say what must be done, and realize it is necessary, but, I feel that — as a few, very few, commentators have pointed out — people need closeness to people just as they do sunlight and oxygen.
Many commentators are extolling, and advising us upon, the glories of things such as virtual gatherings and parties; interacting remotely; working with colleagues and attending concerts and cultural events from home; and abolishing “old fashioned,” retrograde things such as the handshake.
These moribund social engineers and would be “reformers” have no conception of what makes us human, and what is required for maintaining a feeling of wellbeing.
The black plague devastated the City of London during the earlier years of the reign of Charles II. The toll of victims cannot be established with any certainty, but it probably exceeded a hundred and fifty thousand. Of this horrible slaughter Defoe [in his A Journal of the Plague Year] provides an account which is all the more terrifying for its sobriety and gloominess. The doors of the infected households were marked with a red cross over which was written: Lord, have mercy on us! Grass was growing in the streets. A dismal, putrid silence overhung the devastated city like a pall. Funeral wagons passed through the streets by night, driven by veiled carters who kept their mouths covered with disinfected cloths. A crier walked before them ringing a bell intermittently and calling out into the night, Bring out your dead! Behind the church in Aldgate an enormous pit was dug. Here the drivers unloaded their carts and threw merciful lime over the blackened corpses. The desperate and the criminal revelled day and night in the taverns. The mortally ill ran to throw themselves in with the dead. Pregnant women cried for help. Large smoky fires were forever burning on the street corners and in the squares. Religious insanity reached its peak. A madman with a brazier of burning coals on his head used to walk stark naked through the streets shouting that he was a prophet and repeating by way of an antiphony: 0 the great and dreadful God!
— James Joyce, “Daniel Defoe” (lecture delivered at the Univerità Populare, Trieste, 1912)
And make certain not to practice your righteousness before men, in order to be watched by them. …
The New Testament: A Translation, by David Bentley Hart
In an email to readers yesterday, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote:
Hospitals have been very reluctant to allow journalists in to report, in part because of genuine concerns about infection risk and HIPAA privacy rules. But this pandemic is a story that is best covered not from White House press briefings but from the front lines in the hospitals. I asked many hospitals for permission, and two did agree to let me and a video journalist inside. My column today … shares what we found. [italics added]
The visit left me deeply impressed by the doctors, nurses, technicians, respiratory therapists and cleaners who risk their lives by working each day in the “hot zone” where contagion spreads. Many confided their fears of getting sick and dying, or their worries about getting loved ones sick, and some spoke of their nightmares and panic attacks. Yet they soldier on with tremendous compassion. …
I recommend Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed:
Life and Death in the ‘Hot Zone’
“If people saw this, they would stay home.” What the war against the coronavirus looks like inside two Bronx hospitals.
By Nicholas Kristof
The New York Times
April 11, 2020
It’s an incredibly courageous — and in itself incredible — and also harrowing piece of reporting.
The true heroes of this crisis, this pandemic, are indeed the doctors, nurses, and other hospital workers; and the EMS workers, medics, and ambulance drivers.
If I may add one further observation that I have been making in the past two weeks. As usual, it seems that, while some of the rich are fleeing New York City, it is ordinary people often who are the salt of the earth — the humble people who can’t leave. I have observed this several times.
About a week ago, I was on a bus in Queens that was more crowded than one would expect. Everyone seems uptight now about sitting or getting too close, and yet a woman was struggling to get on with an overloaded shopping cart — she must have been Jewish and shopping for Passover, judging by some of the items in her cart. The woman was from Manhattan, and getting back to Manhattan from Queens involved taking three or four buses. It was apparent that she wasn’t going to take the subway. The passengers on the bus, as I am finding with the transit riding public in the past couple of weeks, appeared to be mostly minority and not well heeled. When he observed the woman struggling, a black guy on the street who was not boarding the bus interrupted his walk to wherever he was headed to help her get the cart on. Then, a woman on the bus who appeared to be Hispanic spent ten minutes or so going over possible bus routes with the woman and inquiring from other passengers, all of whom pitched in with advice, the best route for the woman to take.
The bus emptied out, and the woman reached a point near the bridge where she had to get off and transfer for another bus to Manhattan. Passengers, myself included, made it a point to help her get her cart off, find the right place to catch the next bus, and help her get across Queens Boulevard with her cart to the right place.
This past week, I was on a bus headed uptown on Second Avenue. A woman was getting off in Midtown. She looked like she could afford to live there. She had a couple of shopping bags. There was another woman wearing a mask seated across from me near the exit door. The bus goes all the way to East Harlem; this woman, from her dress, did not look rich. I felt she could have been a day care worker or some such type of work.
“Lady,” she said to the woman getting off, “you left your pocket book on the seat.” The woman was very thankful. The bus driver held up the bus so she could go back and get it.
I got off the bus a couple of stops later. “God bless you,” I said to the “day care worker.” “You did a good deed. You saved the woman’s day.” I was thinking how I would feel if I got home and realized my wallet, money, and credit cards were all gone.
I would like to make a few remarks along these lines.
Last night, I saw a video clip on MSNBC of the governor of some state telling citizens to stay indoors during the Coronavirus epidemic.
She said that people should stay inside and only go out if they had to — for food shopping or to a gas station, say; or a medical appointment.
By coincidence, my wife had an appointment yesterday with a local doctor, Urszula Pustelak, MD, an internal medicine specialist, whom we both like and respect.
Dr. Pustelak practices holistic medicine. She follows her own advice in her daily life. She told my wife that she has been trying to walk as much as she can during the Coronavirus epidemic. She said she thinks that it is ridiculous for people to be confined indoors. She said that people need fresh air and sunshine to stay healthy and that germ or disease transmission is not likely in the open air. (I was not there and am reporting the conversation second hand. I believe my wife said that the doctor made it clear that what she meant was: in the open air, assuming that one keeps a distance from others while walking.)
I have been walking quite a bit during the past couple of weeks — during the period when the Coronavirus epidemic became an emergency — and have been in some respects leading a more healthy life.
On Thursday last week, April 2, I walked for around five hours, probably twelve miles, or more.
Yesterday, Monday, April 6, I woke up not feeling well. I had felt the same on Sunday. It felt like I had the flu. I had a slight cough, was sweating and felt slightly feverish, felt achy, and so on. I Googled Coronavirus symptoms and I didn’t seem to have them (e.g., shortness of breath). Still, I couldn’t help worrying, am I infected? After all, I have been going out fairly often; and I took the subway a couple of times last week.
It was a beautiful spring day. I decided I had to get out for some fresh air. And SUNSHINE. But people have been warning me to be careful: Don’t take the bus or subway. And, I take a bus to Brooklyn, to a point from which it is easy for me to walk to Manhattan.
Why not walk closer to home? Because I wanted to go to one of my favorite places in the City, Battery Park, and to be able to walk along the river, inhaling the fresh air and breezes; and enjoying the sunshine.
I walked for around four and a half hours, twelve or more miles.
When I got home, I drank a lot of water, took a nap which was extremely refreshing, and woke up feeling wonderful. All of my symptoms from the morning had disappeared. No aches; no feeling hot or sweaty. I felt a sensation of wellbeing, of my blood tingling. I felt vigorous and energetic, whereas for the past two days I had felt the opposite.
On my Manhattan walks, I am finding that the City is almost deserted; there are very few people in Midtown or Downtown. I try not to get close to anyone, but of course, one does pass a pedestrian now and then on the sidewalk or on a walkway or path. I try to keep a distance. I do not (unlike most people) wear a mask.
In other words, I am trying to be somewhat careful. But, it has occurred to me, what is the risk that I am going to spread the disease (or catch it) in the open air without being part of a group? — I feel that it is very low.
I don’t go into take out places, say, to get a snack. I don’t eat during my walk. I will stop in a deli to get a bottled water or soft drink.
I am not an epidemiologist or an expert on medicine or health. However, I feel that it is common sense that staying indoors all the time is not healthy under any circumstances — including the present public health crisis.
And that fresh air and sunshine (as well as exercise) are a good prescription for keeping disease at bay — any disease — as well as for physical and mental health.
Mayor Bill de Blasio warned at a news conference on Friday that officials would decide this weekend whether to impose a $500 fine on those flouting social-distancing rules during the coronavirus outbreak by gathering in large groups at parks and ignoring police orders to disperse.
The vast majority of New Yorkers have been respecting the rules, the mayor said, but officials have observed some violations.
Mr. de Blasio also said that a small number of houses of worship were continuing to hold religious services and that they risked fines or having their buildings permanently closed if the police caught them in congregations this weekend.
— “N.Y.P.D. may impose fines on people at parks and houses of worship.; As the weather gets warmer, New Yorkers may be itching to hang out together in New York City’s parks.” The New York Times, May 28 2020
But those were trifling things to what followed immediately after; for now the weather set in hot, and from the first week in June the infection spread in a dreadful manner, and the bills rose high; the articles of the fever, spotted-fever, and teeth began to swell; for all that could conceal their distempers did it, to prevent their neighbours shunning and refusing to converse with them, and also to prevent authority shutting up their houses; which, though it was not yet practised, yet was threatened, and people were extremely terrified at the thoughts of it. …
I now began to consider seriously with myself concerning my own case, and how I should dispose of myself; that is to say, whether I should resolve to stay in London or shut up my house and flee, as many of my neighbours did. … I had two important things before me: the one was the carrying on my business and shop, which was considerable, and in which was embarked all my effects in the world; and the other was the preservation of my life in so dismal a calamity as I saw apparently was coming upon the whole city, and which, however great it was, my fears perhaps, as well as other people’s, represented to be much greater than it could be. …
… the very Court, which was then gay and luxurious, put on a face of just concern for the public danger. All the plays and interludes which … had been set up, and began to increase among us, were forbid to act; the gaming-tables, public dancing-rooms, and music-houses, which multiplied and began to debauch the manners of the people, were shut up and suppressed; and the jack-puddings, merry-andrews, puppet-shows, rope-dancers, and such-like doings, which had bewitched the poor common people, shut up their shops, finding indeed no trade; for the minds of the people were agitated with other things, and a kind of sadness and horror at these things sat upon the countenances even of the common people. Death was before their eyes, and everybody began to think of their graves, not of mirth and diversions.
About June the Lord Mayor of London and the Court of Aldermen, as I have said, began more particularly to concern themselves for the regulation of the city.
The justices of Peace for Middlesex, by direction of the Secretary of State, had begun to shut up houses in the parishes of St Giles-in-the-Fields, St Martin, St Clement Danes, &c., and it was with good success; for in several streets where the plague broke out, upon strict guarding the houses that were infected, and taking care to bury those that died immediately after they were known to be dead, the plague ceased in those streets. …
— Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)