Magazine April 6, 2020, Issue

March Sadness

Cameron Shaver and Callie Johnson practice social distancing to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Annapolis, Md., March 18, 2020. (Mary F. Calvert/Reuters)

Much like Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain, who was surprised to discover he had been speaking prose for 40 years, I find that I am a longtime practitioner of “social distancing.” I exaggerate only slightly when I say I have not left this sofa in the three years I have been employed by National Review. So I like my chances when it comes to the Wuhan virus. Also, my wife says I have the strongest immune system of any human being who has ever existed in the history of the world. I hereby authorize you to chuckle heartily if I am dead by the time you read these words, a few days from now. I live in Manhattan. At the moment it feels like a tea kettle in which the water is starting to make rumbly noises.

“What did you do in the Plague, Daddy?” Well, I bought a nice case of Bordeaux from my online wine club. Then I bought another case, a just-in-case case. Fortified by the bounty of Saint-Émilion, I checked in with my gossipy friend the Internet to see how others were coping. The news was a mixture of the alarming and the strange. On March 12 the New York Post ran a picture of a Brooklyn Costco shopper whose cart was an Alp of toilet tissue and paper towels. She had several mega-jumbo 30-roll packages of each, underneath which was a base of six gallons of Clorox. What does one do with six gallons of Clorox? Was this person in charge of disinfecting Madison Square Garden? As for the toilet preppers — are they reading different news sites than I am? Is some medical “authority” out there in Alex Jonesland advising folks that symptoms of COVID-19 include “fever, coughs, breathing problems, and projectile diarrhea”? My wife, planning more rationally, went to CVS and got some NyQuil, DayQuil, and acetaminophen. There were no fistfights over Robitussin. 

People seem to be doing things there is no need to do, and also things there is an urgent need not to do. A Twitter user posted a picture of young people partying shoulder to shoulder in a honky-tonk under the remark “Downtown Nashville is undefeated.” Yay? Is “undefeated” the correct term for providing a virus with hundreds of young and healthy potential hosts able to carry and transmit it? It was like watching trees in California dousing themselves with kerosene to prove they weren’t afraid of wildfire. It was like a country-western “Masque of the Red Death.” COVID-19 isn’t al-Qaeda. It isn’t going to be irked to see us enjoying ourselves. You can’t say, “In your face, hater!” to a microbe. 

If the first casualty of war is truth, maybe the second is seriousness. The opening days of March looked like the new Phoney War, a.k.a. the “Bore War,” a.k.a. “Drôle de guerre,” the period in late 1939 and early 1940 when the wits of Britain and France had a good laugh about how quiet things were on the Western Front, the Wehrmacht being busy destroying Poland at that time. We’re at war with Germany? Fake news! The theory was, I guess, that if the Panzers didn’t arrive right away, they wouldn’t arrive at all. A certain frivolousness was in the air. It’s hard to worry about an abstraction. As I walked home on upper Broadway the afternoon of March 13, I passed bar after restaurant after bar packed with chatty young revelers. The Upper West Side must be one of the most highly educated enclaves in the entire world, and these holders of advanced degrees and highly technical jobs were doing the exact opposite of what they had been repeatedly advised to do. Buy toilet paper to prepare for respiratory illness, then go congregate in crowded places among persons of unknown viral status? This is the best the smart people can do?

But we’ve all been a bit frivolous, from Nancy Pelosi trying to sneak federal abortion funding into an emergency stimulus bill, to Congresswoman Donna Shalala blasting “Fight Song” on her phone during a House Rules Committee meeting, to Jerry Falwell Jr. suggesting COVID-19 was a Nork bioweapon. A British wag once defined California as “America, only more so.” Well, coronavirus is going to make us more extremely us, isn’t it? I’m feeling a bit more Bordeaux-y. A Twitter user relates that in Wisconsin, the big-box stores have plenty of toilet paper but are completely sold out of beer. The subtext of every CNN story these days is “Millions May Die, But It’s Kinda Worth It If It Hurts Trump.” New York City mayor Bill de Blasio said, “This is a case for a nationalization of crucial factories and industries.” Sure. Why let an opportunity to go full socialist go to waste? The climate catastrophists put out a press release reading, “Breaking News: Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity to Modernize and Decarbonize Our Region’s Transportation System.” 

My inbox tells me the American Family Association wants a national day of prayer, Hunger Free America wants more food, and The Atlantic is worried about “the dangerous misnaming of the coronavirus.” “Dangerous” here does not mean dangerous in the sense of “can kill you,” like the Wuhan virus. “Dangerous” means dangerous in the sense that “it could be harmful to the feelings of the woke Left to continue to name viruses after the places where they originated.” Personally, when every hour brings fresh news about widespread sickness and death and economic calamity, I’m less worried than usual about the sensitivities of the woke Left, which means less than zero. I guess we’ll know we’re being serious when we focus on the actual virus instead of toilet paper, climate change, and dangerous misnaming.

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