Notes from a Time of Pestilence

Featured Image: St. Roch asking the Virgin Mary to heal victims of the plague, Jacques-Louis David (1780)

Like 9/11, COVID-19 has been a high interest/low information event from the onset.  Chinese officials have long been notorious for understating death tolls and covering up embarrassing scandals.  The figures coming out of Wuhan were unreliable from the beginning. But because China is the world’s second largest economy — and has the world’s largest military — global bureaucrats and government officials largely deferred to their façade.  Those less beholden to Chinese interests were forced to speculate as to what horror had been unleashed in Wuhan and when it might arrive in their neighborhood.  As the bodies began piling up that speculation grew increasingly frantic.

China’s efforts to control the COVID-19 narrative have been particularly noteworthy.  The Chinese government has ruthlessly suppressed citizens sharing alternative accounts or unflattering footage. Coronavirus discussion groups on social media regularly receive visits from posters paid to spread flattering information about China whilst attacking its critics as ignorant bigots. Even before Wuhan the Chinese were spending vast sums on campaigns to influence Western media coverage of China.  And of course the Baizuo (White Left) played right into Chinese efforts to minimize COVID-19’s dangers.

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Mark Levine, Chair of New York City Council Health Committee, February 9, 2020

While Chinese authorities sought to silence their people, American authorities concentrated at first on placating them.  On February 2 Donald Trump reassured Americans that we had shut down the coronavirus threat.  A week later he told a governor’s meeting “We’re in great shape, though. We have 12 cases, 11 cases, and many of them are in good shape now”and “[A] lot of people think [the virus] goes away in April, with the heat”  On February 25 National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said “We have contained this. I won’t say [it’s] airtight, but it’s pretty close to airtight,” adding that the outbreak would be a “human tragedy,” but not an “economic tragedy.”

To quell hysteria, the World Health Organization worked with major social networks like Google, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and TikTok  (and Chinese digital companies such as Baidu, Tencent and Weibo) to “limit the spread of harmful rumors.”  On March 6 Facebook began removing “known harmful misinformation” from Instagram and banned advertisements for face masks.  That same day Google announced:

Our Trust and Safety team has been working around the clock and across the globe to safeguard our users from phishing, conspiracy theories, malware and misinformation, and we are constantly on the lookout for new threats.  On YouTube, we are working to quickly remove any content that claims to prevent the coronavirus in place of seeking medical treatment. On Google Ads we are blocking all ads capitalizing on the coronavirus, and we’ve blocked tens of thousands of ads over the last six weeks. We are also helping WHO and government organizations run PSA ads.

On March 12 the Archdiocese of Newark closed my daughter’s school, and every Catholic school and church in northern New Jersey.  That same day televangelist Jim Bakker was sued by the State of Missouri for selling a “Silver Solution” coronavirus cure: the New York Attorney General sent a cease-and-desist to Alex Jones over his silver-infused toothpaste which Jones claimed “kills the whole SARS-corona family at point-blank range.”   New Jersey medical workers reported “shocking concerns” about shortages of masks and protective gear at hospitals and health care facilities.

New York and Newark cancelled their St. Patrick’s Day celebrations on the 17th: New Orleans did not.   Mark Levine, who earlier promoted Chinatown’s Lunar New Year Parade, lambasted the “dangerously irresponsible” citizens who held an impromptu St. Paddy’s Day march through pre-dawn New York.  Donald Trump ruffled feathers by referring to COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus”.  America reported 6,129 active coronavirus cases and 110 deaths: New Jersey reported its third.

On the 21st there were 23,870 active cases and 301 dead Americans, 16 from the Garden State.  New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy closed all non-essential businesses and issued a stay-at-home order.   A Pew Research poll found that 62% of Americans felt that the media had exaggerated the risks of coronavirus, though 63% felt the CDC had gotten it right.  NBC News reported that 80 million Americans were now under lockdown.  Within a few days most of America would join us in limbo.


In our second month of quarantine we have grown accustomed to all the accoutrements of plague. We pick up our Amazon orders in the foyer and tip the pizza guy on our card so no money need exchange hands.  If we time our excursions right we can avoid the socially distanced lines outside the grocery store and get a good 75% of our shopping list.   New Jersey has lost over 4,500 to COVID-19:  across the Hudson New York’s death toll is near 19,000.  The NYC metro area has already sustained 8 Bin Ladens of carnage and more jets are circling our towers.

Here in Newark, a hotspot within the greater NYC Metro hotspot, we know very well what this disease can do.  Epidemics have always struck cities first and hardest.  Out in the countryside they mostly know COVID-19 through media reports.  And in the age of “fake news” and “crisis actors” it’s easy to dismiss scary news as clickbait and fear-mongering.  But where Flat Earthers are generally harmless, anti-quarantine protestors are putting real lives at risk.

This is not to dismiss the many valid objections.  There is real reason to fear measures like phone tracking and enforced quarantines can and will be abused by power-hungry politicians in the future.  (PATRIOT Act, anyone?)  But social distancing, voluntary or otherwise, has helped to slow the spread of a fast-moving and potentially lethal disease.  The 1918-19 Spanish Flu (H1N1 virus) killed around 675,000 Americans, or 0.5% of the population.  At that time clinical oxygen therapy was in its infancy: COVID-19 patients who survived on ventilators would have died a century earlier.  Right now, with some of the strictest social distancing measures in America and some of the country’s best hospitals, 0.1% of the populations of Newark and New York City have died of coronavirus.  That is likely to hit 0.2% or 0.3%, maybe higher, before it abates.

9/11 was a moment of blinding panic: COVID-19 has been endless hours of boredom.  The world’s leading economy has been put in time out.   A generation of wage slaves have now been involuntarily emancipated.  A nation that used hookups in place of intimacy must find new ways to stave off loneliness — or to tolerate it.  It is not surprising that many are chafing at the bit to return to normalcy as soon as possible.  But normalcy was the plague’s first victim.  It lies alongside the dead we have buried and will bury in the waves to come, alongside the banks and rulers doomed to fall, alongside the shuttered industries that will never reopen.  Most of us will avoid the virus.  Most who are infected will recover.  None of us will get through this unscarred.

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