“It is the most hateful thing,” wrote Herodotus, in the ninth volume of his Histories, “for a person to have much knowledge and no power.”
Herodotus was quoting a Persian on the eve of the Battle of Palatea, in the summer of 479 BC. The man, gathered at a banquet, knew the impending battle would leave his people’s army decimated, but could not stop it. “In a little while,” said the nameless Persian to his host, “you shall see but a small remnant left alive of all these.” And he wept bitterly, “for even truth sometimes finds no one to believe it.”
Last night, I learned that my hometown—Teaneck, New Jersey–is locked down in its entirety, with residents urged to self-quarantine and only go out for essential food and medicine. With 18 confirmed coronavirus cases, it is “ground zero” for the pandemic in New Jersey, mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin said. The leafy streets, familiar mica-flecked sidewalks and playgrounds I remember so vividly will be empty, the restaurants shuttered, all 41,000 residents urged to stay behind closed doors, so that they do not infect one another. “If we're complacent and don't do really aggressive containment and mitigation, the number [of coronavirus cases in the U.S.] could go way up and be involved in many, many millions,” director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease Dr. Anthony Fauci told Congress last week.
As vivid and shocking as the image of my hometown’s streets deserted is, it’s infinitely preferable to other scenes around the country as coronavirus spreads unseen: packed bars, crowded restaurants, and pub-crawlers dressed all in green for St. Patrick’s Day, filling themselves with beer and disease, in Boston, Chicago, DC, and New York City, where there are now 269 confirmed cases (though the number is likely much higher due to the severe lack of tests). The erratic seesawing of narratives from our government’s executive branch—with the president claiming the virus was an overblown hoax for precious weeks, and only late and poorly seeming to grasp any notion of this situation’s seriousness—has made it exponentially harder to marshal any sense of civic duty, or even collective narrative, to combat the virus. It’s easy to imagine an effective story that could be told by our federal government: any competent propagandist could put together a tale of the need for stoicism, about how preparedness and hunkering down are patriotism in this moment, about responsibility, about sacrifice for the sake of collective survival.
In that absence, an uneven patchwork of epidemiologists, health officials, and officers of local government are issuing dire warnings to stay home and limit contact with others; some schools are shut down and pro basketball courts are empty. Reports from hospitals in Italy, hard-pressed by the virus, indicate that the situation for health-care workers is similar to wartime triage, a series of ghastly decisions about who to fight for, and who to allow to die. Meanwhile, at bars, clubs, restaurants, and parks, the party goes on, defiant and filled with swagger and bravado, and somewhere invisible and silent the germ that steals your breath away enters through a mouth open in drunken song.
Some of us are staying home to slow the spread and buy our hospitals time, in our private fear, our chambers of anxiety. For our pains to protect others and ourselves, we are told we are “panicking,” or weak, or easily led. And outside our windows we hear the noise of rejoicing—there is nothing we can do with all our knowledge, which amounts to so little power.
I’m an anxious person at the best of times, and I have hoarded knowledge in lieu of toilet paper: I’ve learned about the need to avoid large gatherings in order to reduce the likelihood of so many people getting the disease at once that the healthcare system finds itself completely overwhelmed. I’ve learned about the severely limited numbers of hospital beds per capita in the United States, the even more severely limited numbers of ventilators. I’ve read about ground-glass opacities, hazy spots that appear in the lungs and are often a marker of the disease; I’ve read about how severe cases feel like drowning on dry land, gasping for breaths that won’t come. I’ve read about the number of cases in the United States—just shy of 3,000—and about how the egregious lack of reliable and widespread testing in this country means that that number is likely a fraction of the true number of cases in our states and cities. And most of all, I’ve read about how social-isolation measures, rapidly and broadly implemented, can prevent the complete breakdown of healthcare systems.
These measures could keep young and healthy people, who are also susceptible to getting seriously ill and subject to the effects of an overburdened health system, from contracting the disease and spreading it to the people in their lives who are neither young nor healthy. While many cases in ICUs around the world are people under 50, it is their parents and grandparents, as well as people with asthma, diabetes, compromised immune systems and lung or heart ailments who are far likelier to succumb. For those people, the virus will be an unbearable stress on fragile bodies, and will cause them to die.
It’s a curious time: the silence before the thunder, before the trumpets and the timpani. A brief pause while the conductor wipes his specs, before the cases climb into the tens of thousands, before ICUs and cemeteries fill and burst. The virus incubates for days before showing symptoms; in many cases those symptoms mimic those of flu, or cold, or even seasonal allergies. After all, the sun is coming out after a long winter, the pollen is falling like a yellow rain. Each day is followed by a morning, still. It feels heavy, itchy, terrible to know—and not to doubt—that we are most likely to wind up like Italy, a country on lockdown and with tens of thousands of cases and more than a thousand deaths. To know that something big and heavy is falling out of the sky, that its shadow is on our faces as it hurtles down towards us. It is hard to stomach knowing that there are those who will continue life as usual until they cannot; harder to know that they might die, or kill others, without ever having felt a severe symptom.
Those who continue to hold and to attend large social gatherings–from churches to weddings to big sweaty dance parties—are hard to fault entirely. Humans are social, restive creatures; the cruelty of isolation is largely because we are hard-wired to receive comfort from one another. Solitary confinement is torturous for a reason. For some, the most fitting response to collective fear is bravado: a “we must continue to live in the face of terror” attitude, as though coronavirus were the Germans of World War I or hijackers of 9/11, and defiance was on order, and joy noble and courageous and best performed in crowds. Or a “carpe diem” attitude –let’s live and be sexy and daring before we all die!—as if the virus were a hurricane or an inevitable flood that would swallow each of us. But it is not war or a storm: it is already here and it is in our lungs and it is growing, and its principal burden will not be borne by the young and healthy, those who want to howl at the night that they are still alive (although they too will suffer). It will be borne by those who had less breath to howl in the first place.
Those who can help us have done little, or nothing at all; those we cannot help are myriad. This is the terrible quiet before the storm breaks over us. There is only the piteous sound of a truth that so many refuse to hear, and the other truth that dawn will come and brush its fingers against our drawn blinds come morning. The crocuses are out already, opening their purple mouths to breathe in the terrible spring.
Talia Lavin is a writer based in Brooklyn. Her first book, Culture Warlords, is forthcoming in 2020 from Hachette Books.
“If I lose the tours, I probably will lose my home.”
Originally Appeared on GQ