As the world slowly grinds to a halt, it is good to remember that it’s been down this road before—and when it’s done, life goes on. Last week we featured Ben Macintyre’s essay about the deadly influenza pandemic of 1918, which infected almost a third of the world’s population and may have killed 1 in 20 people. This week, the protean historian Max Hastings writes about Samuel Pepys’s eyewitness chronicle of the 1665 bubonic plague, which wiped out nearly a fifth of the population of London.
In times like these, the struggles and lives of others who came before us, if taken in the right way, give us solace and hope. In the absence of leadership—particularly in the U.S., where the administration has failed the American people time and time again over the past few weeks—it is the common man and woman who are picking up the thread.
In Northern Italy, infectious-disease doctors are having to practice triage, deciding who lives and who dies, which hasn’t been widely used in the West for a century. American doctors have been asked to fashion face masks out of bandannas or stripped-off parts of their scrubs when supplies run out. And yet, bright spots come up in the sheer wonderfulness of humanity. In Milan, the opera singer Laura Baldassari cheers her neighbors up by singing arias from her window. In Naples, “Abbracciame” (Hug Me) has become a popular flash-mob song. In Paris, people open their windows at eight p.m. and just clap.
Here in France, President Emmanuel Macron has issued an absolute travel ban. Which means roads are all but empty, as are train stations, airports, and the like. Restaurants are closed, as are hotels. Drones patrol the closed beaches along the coast. Gas stations, pharmacies, and food stores remain open. Blessedly, food shops in France are permitted to carry wine and spirits. We are living not far from where F. Scott Fitzgerald was quarantined during the 1918 flu pandemic. The goal is to not drink as much as he did during his isolation. Some are having more success than others. We’ve been stocking up for weeks, and so we have plentiful supplies of pandemic staples such as gloves, hand sanitizer, alcohol wipes, and such. My family loves to ridicule me over my preparedness instincts, but we now have about as much toilet paper as Amtrak.
In Milan, the opera singer Laura Baldassari cheers her neighbors up by singing arias from her window.
That said, copies of Camus’s 1947 novel, La Peste, about an outbreak in an Algerian town, are flying off the shelves. In London, Milan, and New York, sophisticates are arranging video cocktail parties via Zoom or BlueJeans. Young hipsters are doing it via the Houseparty app. A revision of James Montgomery Flagg’s World War I–era poster of Uncle Sam—the one where he’s pointing at the viewer above the words I Want You—was spotted in Barcelona. In this version, Uncle Sam is wearing one of those light-blue breathing masks and the words under him say I WANT YOU on the first line and TO STAY AT HOME on the second. Even terrorist networks are taking the virus seriously. ISIS advised its supporters to cover their mouths when sneezing, wash their hands regularly—and to avoid travel within Europe.
Many Europeans have been practicing self-isolation for a week or more. Our Paris-based Writer at Large Alexandra Marshall has her own compelling variation. She is in self-quarantine with her ex. Their house in the 20th has been on and off the market for a few months. It’s off now, and so they must share their co-owned quarters. Her account is both moving and funny. And then she got the bad news.
In the category of Panglossian upside, the canals of Venice have once again started to look like actual water since the taxis that ferry people back and forth (and churn up the mud on the canals’ bottoms) have been docked. Somebody spotted a real fish in one of the canals the other day! And overall air quality in China, India, and elsewhere has improved substantially.
In Washington, stupidity never goes out of fashion. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post have detailed the incompetence and infighting in the Trump White House as it struggles to acknowledge, let alone come to grips with, the crisis. In these and other reports, the picture painted is of a gang that not only can’t shoot straight—it doesn’t know where the ammunition is. Perhaps once Washington becomes as serious about the threat of the virus as Europe and Asia are, we will be seeing images of the president tossing rolls of toilet paper out to crowds as he did paper towels to Puerto Ricans following the devastation of Hurricane Maria, two years ago. When the president’s terminally incompetent son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is put in charge of anything—as he has been on containing the virus—be afraid. Be very afraid. His early outreach for advice on how to combat the pandemic? He called Karlie Kloss’s father, his brother’s father-in-law. Granted, he’s a respected doctor. But still.
When the president’s terminally incompetent son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is put in charge of anything, be afraid. Be very afraid.
Trump announced this week (completely erroneously, it goes without saying) that he was making up for failings of past administrations, claiming that “we broke down a system that was broken, very badly broken.” He said he was going to create one “that I think is going to be the talk of the world.” I don’t think he meant it in the way it was being taken by the throngs of passengers lining up for hours cheek by jowl at airports like Chicago O’Hare as they attempted to re-enter the country following Trump’s spur-of-the-moment travel ban. When someone asked him how he’d categorize his handling of the “Chinese virus,” as he calls it, he replied, “I’d rate it at a 10.” Yes, so would we—10 out of 100 million.
The president, who just days ago resisted the mass distribution of testing kits for fears that it would register more people with infection and thereby contradict his assertion that the country would be down to zero cases in no time and that the epidemic would disappear “like a miracle,” delivered a whopper midweek. Before a room of reporters who had thought they had heard everything from this serial liar, he announced (and with a straight face!), “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”
Yes, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—and the actions of the most reckless inhabitant of the White House in history. The feedback loop Trump gets from the talkers on Fox News is not serving him, or the nation, well. A recent poll by Fox host and Trump toady Lou Dobbs asked readers to rate Trump’s performance. There were three choices: “Very good,” “Great,” and “Superb.” Pew Research found that 63 percent of Fox viewers believed that the pandemic posed a minor threat.
Profiteers are already beginning to crawl out of the woodwork. Chief among them is Richard Burr, the Republican senator from North Carolina. He also happens to be chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee—and therefore privy to the early line on the actual dangers of the virus, as opposed to the nonsense the White House was telling the public. In February, he and his wife sold upward of $1.7 million worth of stock in 33 separate transactions. He did this a week before the markets started to crater. If this isn’t a textbook definition of insider trading, I don’t know what is.
Devin Nunes, the California congressman with the surprised, clammy eyes of a man whose boss has just walked in on him masturbating, suggested that it was a good time for young people to “go out to a local restaurant.... Likely you can get in easy.... Go to your local pub.” When he was roundly condemned for these comments, he blamed the media, complaining that reporters didn’t understand that what he really was suggesting was that people should order takeout and go to drive-thru restaurants. That man should be locked up for saying something so incredibly idiotic and irresponsible. The only good news that may come out of Washington is the fact that should Trump and Pence become incapacitated with the virus, according to the Presidential Succession Act, command of the state transfers to the Speaker of the House: Nancy Pelosi.
Asked how he’d categorize his handling of the “Chinese virus,” as he calls it, he replied, “I’d rate it at a 10.” Yes, so would we—10 out of 100 million.
Perhaps it’s time for the governments in America and abroad to truly reach out to industry. At the request of F.D.R., the Ford Motor Company converted its mammoth Willow Run plant to war production. Almost overnight, the company went from producing sedans assembled from about 15,000 individual parts to B-24 Liberator bombers that were each made up of more than a million parts. In time, the plant was churning out a plane every 63 minutes. The federal government could commission tech and manufacturing firms to band together to develop and then manufacture millions of test kits and ventilators.
Don’t tell me James Dyson couldn’t figure this out if called upon. Or Dean Kamen. Or Elon Musk. N.Y.U. business guru Scott Galloway suggested that Amazon throw its might and inventiveness into developing testing kits and then offer them free to all Prime customers. Should testers actually materialize in the numbers they should, family-owned restaurants and small storefront shops, crippled by the shutdown, could be rented by the government and re-purposed as testing centers. Hotels and motels could be converted to hospitals.
A couple of weeks ago, I suggested that Trump should get the Murray Hamilton Award (an accolade of my own conjuring)—named after the mayor in Jaws, who refused to accept evidence of a giant, man-eating shark off the coast, because he didn’t want to close the beaches on the lucrative July Fourth weekend. This week the Murray Hamilton Award should go to British prime minister Boris Johnson, who has so shilly-shallied over what was necessary to contain the coronavirus that he has put his entire nation at risk. And this just in his first months in office.
Unlike Trump, who wouldn’t in a million years get the Murray Hamilton reference, Johnson actually might. Thirteen years ago he told a business group that he thought that Hamilton’s character was the true hero of Jaws. He called the mayor’s actions “laudible.” I assume he was kidding. Still, the lack of action on the part of the Johnson government is only going to prolong the agony for Britain—as AIR MAIL Writer at Large Stuart Heritage points out this week. Even as other countries in Europe were going into serious lockdown with draconian closure policies, Britain was still open to viral transference. Just last weekend, thousands of music fans flocked to Cardiff, in Wales, for a concert by the Stereophonics—creating scenes of youthful obliviousness similar to those along Florida beaches during spring break.
This week the Murray Hamilton Award should go to British prime minister Boris Johnson, who has so shilly-shallied over what was necessary to contain the coronavirus that he has put his entire nation at risk.
In New York, Bill de Blasio, the city’s epically ineffectual and unpopular mayor, sprang into action only when his health officials threatened to quit. The morning after he announced that places of assembly, like restaurants, bars, gyms, and the like, would be closed, he and his motorcade traveled from Manhattan to Brooklyn so he could work out at the Y.M.C.A.
We can reasonably expect seismic societal changes when this is all over. There will be serial memorials for those who have died during the pandemic with nobody to mourn their passing. But with extended periods of isolation will come a flowering of creativity and invention much as what happened during the decade following the end of the First World War. My guess is that China will come out of the gate first. Its draconian measures have flattened the curve—if the government is to be believed. And already it is supplanting the role the U.S. has traditionally played in offering treasure, matériel, and expertise to countries struggling under the strain of the virus. These gestures no doubt spring from public-relations imaging initiatives and visions of empire, rather than all-out altruism.
The Air Mail offices in Greenwich Village are empty. Our platform was designed to be accessed from various locations. So the staff is working remotely—or, as my co-editor, Alessandra Stanley, joked the other day, not remotely working. If this is getting to you on this Saturday morning, somebody did something right.