Viral Thinking: Dispatches from the Quarantine

Authors' thoughts/experiences/reactions during this very strange time.


I am struggling to find the silver lining behind covid-19. As an emergency room physician and bioethicist, I have already witnessed the horrors of the disease—and I am regrettably confident that matters will grow far worse before they get any better, that whatever humor morons might find in videotaping themselves licking subway poles or coughing on fruit will rapidly dissipate. Don’t get me wrong: to survive a day in the hospital, one needs a bit of dark humor. I make a point of reminding people that optimism saved General Custer and I wander the wards pitching my new mutual fund that will invest only in casket manufacturers, online pornography services and looting equipment. Yet on a more serious note, I remain hopeful that once this calamity is behind us—and we will get through it, somehow—we have the potential to learn three valuable lessons….

My first thought is the most concrete. Following the terrorist attacks of 2001, the 9/11 Commission Report identified one of the causes of the calamity as a failure of imagination. Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan more recently described our inability to anticipate and to prevent the current pandemic in the same light—arguably a series of such failures that might embrace everything from the sinking of the Titanic to Pearl Harbor. So I am hopeful we will imagine harder in the future. A solar storm in 1859, known as the Carrington Event, severely damaged the American telegraph system; a similar assault today, a genuine possibility, might melt the electrical grid and fry us back into the Stone Age. Rising antibiotic resistance could turn minor cuts into life-threatening wounds and make routine surgeries impracticable. Covd-21 or covid-23 might prove far more insidious than even covid-19. So let us hope that we learn the lessons of this nightmare and stave off the next one.

Second, I am optimistic that the results of weeks or months of quarantine may lead to increased social cohesion. “Living” online may remind us of the joys of connecting in person with our friends and colleagues, may make school children tire of video games and appreciate a fishing trip or a day in the park. At the moment, we are all checking in with old friends and former colleagues and distant family members; when this is over, let’s keep checking in. In about nine months, I suspect both the birth rate and the divorce rate will skyrocket. Lockdown does that. But let’s hope that the friendship rate and the phone call rate and the join-a-book-club-rate and the visit-Cousin-Alma-in-the-nursing-home rate also skyrocket. To paraphrase the title of Robert Putnam’s book on the decline of social capital, let’s stop bowling alone.

Finally, I am hopeful that we will appreciate death more. Until the second half of the twentieth century, the Grim Reaper was an active participant in American life. (That remains the case today in much of the developing world.) History tells us of the great epidemics that killed thousands: yellow fever in New Orleans, cholera in New York, waves of polio that terrorized the parents of Baby Boomers. But there was also the chronic threat of illness and injury—Beth succumbing to scarlet fever in Little Women, Zora Neale Hurston’s Tea Cake being bitten by a rabid dog, the middle-class male’s expectation of succumbing to cancer or heart disease by sixty-five. Only now, or at least until covid struck, people feel cheated if they don’t survive to eighty. So I am hopeful this sudden wave of death will help us to appreciate life more, both its precariousness and its wonder. Like the Myna birds warn in Huxley’s Island, “Pay attention”; maybe we will…..

Whitman wrote in the Song of the Open Road:

“The earth never tires,

The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first, Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first,

Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well envelop’d,

I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.”

We shall triumph over this tragedy. And we shall once again have a opportunity to cherish those beautiful things. I am optimistic that we will see them in a novel and deeper way.