Love in the Time of COVID: Thoughts on Sacrifice and Social Interaction, From WWII to the Bar at Whole Foods

It's getting weird out there.

Over the weekend, three friends came over to the house for dinner. One of them works in healthcare. His wife greeted our third friend, who’d recently flown, with a big hug. When I said something about social distancing, the two women said I was overreacting. The healthcare worker, even as he’s taking precautions, said, “You’re going to get it. You might as well come to that realization now. Just plan on getting it.”

No, I won’t. I plan to stay healthy. At the same time, though, I will behave as if I’m already infected. That’s the best way, I figure, to keep those around me healthy. As Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Meet the Press: “[I]f it looks like you’re overreacting, you’re probably doing the right thing.” I’m still venturing out into the wild — yesterday I made a trip to Home Depot, where all the cashiers were wearing gloves — but I’m sure as hell not touching anyone.

I also went to the grocery store over the weekend. I ran into a friend of my son’s, a 21-year-old lad from the neighborhood. In the bread aisle, he stuck out his hand to greet me. I looked down at it and said, “What are you doing? I’m not shaking that.” As we bumped elbows, he said, “You worried about that thing that’s no worse than the common flu?” I told him he needed to do some more reading and moved on.

Navigating these social interactions can be tricky. It feels to me a bit like our current political discourse. People pick their sides and believe what they want to believe. Their social media feeds reinforce those beliefs. It’s an apocalypse. Or it’s no worse than the normal flu. The lines have been drawn. Pick your side.

Until it becomes tiresome, I’m going to share stories about how people are dealing with the virus and how they’re dealing with people who are dealing with the virus. I’m calling the series “Love in the Time of COVID.” If you have a tale to tell, feel free to email me.

First up, I’ll share what my friend Richard Patterson wrote to me over the weekend. Richard is an Englishman and a painter of some note. He has written for the magazine a few times. For your consideration:



Just got back from Whole Foods and Ace Hardware. The halogen bulbs keep blowing. One a month in the dressing room, I’d say. They’re not cheap.

Lakewood Whole Foods was freaky. Much of the vegetables were stripped out. I got the last piece of broccoli. No potatoes or onions, a few sweet potatoes. Much of the green vegetables were gone. The shelves with bags of chips were mostly stripped out, pizzas-be-gone. They’ve limited shoppers to two large packs of toilet rolls per checkout — but these were all gone, as were the cans of beans. Never seen anything like it.

Whole Foods must have taken more money today than on any given day before Thanksgiving. How are bags of chips going to sustain the family during a lockdown?

Hopefully the madness will subside a bit over the coming week, and people will realize they need to pace their stockpiling a bit. Probably it’ll stay like this for a while, though.

U.K. is expected to hit peak in 12 to 14 weeks. That’s the end of June. I’d say Dallas is about two to three weeks behind the U.K. If the weather doesn’t impact the spread, then we could be looking at mayhem until mid-summer before things begin to subside.

The Whole Foods barman is on day five of a seven-day shift. He gets a day off on Tuesday. The poor guy is visibly shattered. He told me last night he felt very stressed. Today I asked how he was doing. “Scary” was his answer. He looked like he couldn’t take much more. All he hears from every customer is coronavirus. And if he’s not talking to them, every conversation at the bar is about it. I sat nearby for a bit on my own and imagined I was him as a trio at the bar — who I social distanced from long before the outbreak in Wuhan — talked endlessly about their sick father, their mother with diabetes, the brother who smoked. I had to move to one of the big tables to get away from it and decided to scroll through my phone, instead worrying about gastro symptoms. I was woken in the night with mild stomach pain. Is it stress? Is it psychosomatic? Am I stricken?

Last night, one or two people were far more drunk than normal. Everyone is very freaked out. I sat in the bar for about 20 minutes at about 6 pm. An artist I know walked by. He has young kids. Last time I saw him there, he was with his son. I gave his son my magic magnetic front-fastening glasses to try. Apparently his son remembers my name and wants to know if I’m in there so he can try out the glasses again. A tiny but tragic story, as his dad, this time sonless, holds up a box of frozen fish. “Not sure what I’m doing with this, to be honest. Bought two boxes of these yesterday, and we’d eaten it all by 8 pm.”

Then he says, “I mean, no one in this store has it yet, right? I think maybe we’re all spooked too early.” And I said, “I think it’s in the store. I really do. I think it’s all around us already.”

The New York Times quoted Dr. Carter Mecher, a senior medical advisor for the VA who used to work on medical preparedness in the White House. “By the time you have a death in the community, you have a lot of cases already,” he said. “It’s giving you insight into where the epidemic was, not where it is, when you have something fast moving. … Think starlight. That light isn’t from now, it’s from however long it took to get here.”

Does the U.S. have enough beds and ventilators? Italy still has more intensive care beds than patients, but they are fast approaching capacity. They’re at the point where the protocol for who to let die is being established. They’re not at this point, but they almost are. Once they reach that point, those 80 and over or approaching 80 with comorbidity will not be given the ventilators, so that younger, healthier people can be saved. It’s the same process as wartime decision-making. U.K. is on an industrial war footing. Rolls Royce and JCB have been asked to retool their production lines to make as many ventilators as possible.

Arguably, the U.S. has the advantage of having a huge landmass with many cities. It’s possible the burden could be spread around the country, with less populous cities relieving higher ones. For some reason, the U.S. is predicting 200,000 to 1.7M deaths — which is relatively low — between 0.06% and 0.5% of the population. To take an average of those figures, the deaths would be 0.28% of the population. We’re talking somewhere between 5.4 to 46 times the amount of deaths that influenza caused last year (37,000 influenza fatalities last year, but up to 61,000 in some years). And according to NY Times’ figures, the scientific modeling shows a range based on how much we can spread the peak. 200,000 deaths is if we’re very proactive RIGHT NOW; 1.7M deaths is if we don’t do anything at all. So NINE times the number of deaths from acting vs not acting, from best case to worst case. Definitely way worse than flu, whichever way you cut it. The issue, of course, as anyone except FOX News viewers know, is that this is incumbent on spreading the curve and preventing needless deaths.

From my observations (e.g., a Dallas friend of mine told me her elderly parents, who only watch FOX News, are still in denial that it could be arriving in their state anytime soon (even though it has)), many people are not taking the social-distancing bit seriously enough yet. It feels awkward at first, but while I think it’s too early to not go to the bar for the occasional drink (because we will be at a point where we can’t fairly soon), just keeping distance is going to help a bit. While people are understandably panic-buying their chips and salsa, they’re not cognizant yet of the need to stand more away from each other. Every little bit everyone can do to slow it all down will help.

After I said to my artist friend, “I think it’s here, in the store,” he said, “Gotta go,” and took off pronto.

It’s hard to temper one’s glass half empty/half fullness by realism in these times. One doesn’t want to incite panic, but there’s been a sense here I think of complacency until the last week or two, a sense that America is the place that sent the man to the moon and invented the idea of the hospital soap opera over 50 years ago. The U.S. (as an American friend of mine now living and working in London has noted) are wanting to medicate and endoscope people at every turn. It thinks it’s on it, even though its mortality rates so far with the virus look far worse than Germany’s — which presumably has top-notch social healthcare, keeps fit, hikes, buries pickles for probiotic purposes, eats muesli, wears Lederhosen, gives their Olympic team non-alcoholic beer made by monks as anti-inflammatories, invented the Bundesliga, Messerschmitt, the VW Beetle, the Porsche 911, Tiger tanks, Beethoven, Rilke, Wagner, yodeling, flugelhorns, beerfests, bratwurst. Germany has 5,620 infections and 11 deaths. U.S. has five times the fatalities and unknown infections. Italy has 7% mortality according to infections vs deaths.

It would be reassuring to hear from the government as to what the potential for providing extra equipment and beds is going to be. It would seem the government is saying (as I feared when I first wrote to you on the subject) that responsibilities fall on individual cities and health authorities. It is of course what most Americans want; they don’t want big government. They want to decide stuff state by state, city by city. I believe there’s an article about this in the NY Times today — about how the U.S.’ lack of federal health policy will be shown to fall short.

This is why, more than ever, one finds oneself writing to the editor of the city magazine, since responsibility suddenly falls closer to the tree than one would have expected. This is also why the U.S.A. chants at matches, and ’Merica-ness feel so hollow to me so much of the time. Americans seem bonded together by their common sense of lack of social contract. Only national calamities like 9-11 remind them they are meant to be a united country. It’s not, though. It’s a fragmented culture for sure. Many small Americas contained within one big America-Shape of land.

It’s a fucking nightmare. I guess almost every generation has to go through one. Our parents lived through World War II. It was only a few months before my mother died that she read me an account of what it was like for her and her brother (who died of polio at the age of 25 when stationed with the British army in Zomba, Nyasaland, Africa, in about 1950) to be evacuated from Newcastle. They were separated and each sent to a different farm in the countryside. She’d never really described it to me, but she’d written an account of it for her grandson so that she could read it out on his vlog thing for a school project. She read it to me. I was amazed she’d never really told me about it properly. She would have been about 7 when she was evacuated as the German bombers flew over the northeast coastline, bombing the Sunderland shipyards and factories.

I always felt strangely lucky not to have been through something major — but at the same time, somehow culturally a bit bereft for having had it all too easy. All the great art movements of the twentieth century — modernism itself, as well as internationalism — were really a reaction to the two wars.

But now — no, I would happily rewind the clock to 2018, when everything felt boringly normal.


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